CURIOSITY IS THE ANSWER TO FEAR - A Conversation with Brian Andreas & Fia Skye
Brian Andreas and Fia Skye work together weaving stories and images that heal the soul, expand the mind, and invite community. They’re good friends of The Porch, and when they talked with us Gareth Higgins began by asking them about the earliest stories they remember:
Brian Andreas: I grew up in an environment of storytelling, so it wasn’t until I was probably in my twenties where I recognized stories as a discrete thing. So when you say what’s the first story I remember… it’s like breathing, what’s the first breath I remember taking? You breathe, you breathe, you breathe and all of a sudden you go, “Wow, I’m actually breathing.” So, I don’t really have an answer for that, yeah, I can’t remember the first one.
Fia Skye: I remember the books on my shelf…Winnie the Pooh was a very big thing, you know, The Night before Christmas, but we didn’t have that atmosphere growing up so it wasn’t until I started doing theater that I started to think of stories as breathing livable things.
Gareth Higgins: So when you look back on your childhood from this perspective, can you observe the outlines of the contours of the story that your family believed about the world?
FS: My dad worked for Caterpillar and we had a lot of issues with the unions in a lot of family stories, you know. My dad had this idea of the story of how he was supposed to put his children through college. It’s like you inherit these stories and then you say, I like it, I don’t like it, I’m going to fix this because this is wrong with my generation or my dad said it was wrong and so on. I remember the story we got around the dinner table was of course that my dad was helping save the company [from the unions]. And there were a lot of stories in my family about what a man is, what a woman is. My dad doesn’t do the laundry, still doesn’t do laundry, only cooks because he has to survive.
There were no global stories except for Russia the Cold War during that time period, but I would say that in the Midwest it was very isolated stories, before computers and before cell phones.
GH: This is probably a fairly common story, we grew up with the notion that there were good guys and bad guys…and we knew that we were on the good guys’ side.
GH: So, I’m assuming you no longer think that unions are bad and that a woman’s place is in the home, that kind of stuff [laughs]. When did those stories start changing?
FS: I have been so fortunate to have some incredible teachers. I remember working at Sam Shepard’s play True West, and it was a game changer for me and I just saw how this teacher’s voice in conflict changed everything. I had never seen a woman with such strength and beauty and ferociousness. In theatre when you step in and you have to give voice to somebody else, you have to speak somebody else’s truth with conviction to a room full of strangers, you have to go off your centre.
You had to look at the whole story then you have to look at all of the different players and all the different pieces and you understand that I’m playing this character. You begin to understand how people are incredibly human and how they begin to believe stories that other people tell them if they offer something that they want to believe is true.
BA: It’s interesting because I came out of a story telling environment in my [extended family]. In childhood you [pick up that] there [is] some vague bit of shame around this particular person but your experience of them is, they’re really great and they always bring you baked goods!
The big story that comes to mind is my great aunt Anna. I spent a lot of time with her in college because she lived in the same town. My family were bakers in a small town in Iowa, and during World War Two one day she was the front of house and at the bakery and her father came in and said, “Anne, we’re all out of flour, write President Roosevelt and tell him that we need things too just like the boys on the front.” So I heard stories of independent thinking of people willing to follow their own vision; their willingness to tackle things that just felt was were worth tackling. That particular ego was built into my family: that we were leaders.
I think that one of the things that I have seen over the trajectory of me being a story teller is that we have been isolated and decoupled from the truth of it, that storytelling has been turned into a thing that’s “for children”. Where people still see storytelling as powerful is in advertising. But the stories are [far more important than that] - they were actually the thing that set the tone for how we live our lives, guidance for how we get up in the morning, the real heartbeat of our psyche.
“What is this thing called water? I mean I’ve been hearing a lot about water and it’s like it’s the entirety of everything you swim in and we… it’s the entirety of your life.” So until you actually come into consciousness about that, story is entirely fluent knowledge.
FS: Politicians want great stories behind them to justify what they’re doing and that’s different than the kind of true stories that we’re telling ourselves, and it creates this idea that we’re not all story tellers. People are more willing to accept the stories that they’re told because they don’t believe that they have any power over because these people that are seeking power are cherry picking stories and massaging stories for their endgame.
BA: They’ve done enough studies about how when you retrieve a memory of your own story it really matters the point where you start. So if you ask, “Talk to me about the time you were most terrified about someone of another skin color,” you’re retrieving the memory already hinted by that question.
The work that I do with stories is giving a different starting point for the retrieval of the memory. So if you say, “Here is a memory of that time when you recognized that life was sweet,” you’re going to come at the very same memory of running across somebody of a different skin color from a different point of view and you will retrieve it differently.
FS: I think there is a misnomer, this idea that “we” are right, “we” are in consciousness and “they” are not.
BA: That’s one of the things that we will bring up is that the pleasure centers in the brain line up when you’re giving advice and the pain centers line up when you’re hearing advice.
FS: But if we create this third space together, ultimately we might actually come up with something possible in that “my” idea was only going to be an ingredient into the greater thing. The third space is where we actually need each other, we need all of the different opinions and the diversity to come up with all the different possible solutions and I better be more curious about what we’re going to do together than about getting my idea forward.
BA: Yeah, and I would add onto that there are techniques for accessing the third space as well … even now we could close our eyes and feel into the energy of the other people in this conversation there. We could say, “Okay, now let me ask the question out of that connection to each other rather than out of my own concerns and only what I know or think I know.” It gets beyond your own knowing and into an experience of the knowing of the four of us right now. So instead of four individuals, we actually are a single entity that has different yet connected views.
FS: That’s Ubuntu, I am because you are.
GH: These days we hear a lot about fear and the illusion of security, so let’s lean into this question.
FS: Yeah, but here’s the thing about fear. Fear is about the past or the future, it’s never about the present unless you’re actually in the experience of being violated in that moment. Fear is the imagination or the possibility of whether something has happened that it might happen again. It’s one of those things where our culture is stockpiling it up in the future. You know we pay social security, we have to have insurance for everything, you have to make sure your savings account has x amount of dollars for the future. People wait to do anything until the weekend, or they wait till they have vacation, they wait till they have retirement. But meanwhile all of life is these tiny, tiny individual choices that make up a relationship, that make up a community, and communities make up states, and all the countries in the world. If I go to what I’m I grateful for right now, and I think, “Okay, I am so grateful that I have time to walk my dog every day,” or I am on a walk with my dog or I feel the breeze or I see a green church, and it can be the simplest things…there are flowers everywhere if you choose to see them.
As soon as I get to the point where I actually am, there is always something that’s going right, always, always, always. At least, “Oh wow, thanks for the clarity in that relationship, thanks for I know where I stand, I didn’t know that it was important to me before.” I [can even] be grateful for conflicts because it gives me information, or an opportunity that will add an edge and an opportunity to go somewhere new.
BA: Curiosity is the antidote for fear, because when you become curious about something it doesn’t necessarily change, [but you do]. The classic story is the Buddhist monk being out on a mountain side and suddenly there’s a tiger that’s coming towards him and he’s right at cliff edge and he goes over the cliff and he’s hanging onto the root of a single pine tree. Above him is the tiger pacing back and forth and he stops and sees a single blossom that has just a single wild flower right there in the roots of the tree and he stops and picks that right then and there. It doesn’t change anything else but your ability to actually be there with something that completely dissolves fear. There’s a really useful technique out of gestalt therapy which is paying attention to the actual sounds in the room, identify them, so [you might] get a little bit of traffic in the background and you hear the clinking of pots. Once you are using that portion of your physiology, when you are listening, you can only be in the now, it’s only that’s all listening ears you can only be there.
GH: How does all of this relate to people who are targeted by social structures and injustice, and for whom it might be reasonable to say, “Yes, that’s easy for you to say.”
BA: Here’s how I would approach it. Often people who go through Mumbai, India, for instance, are coming from all kinds of so called, first world privileges where you’ve got everything, you’ve got electricity, running water, health care and all the food that you need. They visit Mumbai and say, “Why is everybody who has nothing so happy, how can they do that, I mean, I've got all this stuff and I’m not happy, how can they be happy and they’ve got nothing?” That is a typical response of people who visit Mumbai.
I think where I come at the question is, “What is our personal responsibility at our individual level to take care of the garden that we’ve got?” You have a choice. Yes, we have all these privileges for which we’re grateful, and we [also] have the [problems] that we’re dealing with. I can sit around and whine endlessly about those [problems], or I can stop and go toward the things I love, the things I cherish, and that gives me a rich life and a core from which my story springs. When you talk about somebody who is [targeted] in a harsh environment of racism and sexism and where there is physical violence involved, yes, there are the actualities of that and yet there is also, “How do I make choices every day to move forward into the life I want to be, into the human being I want to be?”
That’s one aspect of it. Then there’s the academic aspect where people are privileged need to fucking get a clue and stand up for the things that aren’t right, that you will not go quietly into that dark night. No, it’s more than what these individual do. Every day I choose to look at things from the perspective of how is it going to expand me, how is it going to expand the people around me, how am I going to come from love? In everything I do because that’s what I get, I get the moment of this life.
What’s my responsibility? It’s not like, “Here’s what you can do.” It’s like, “Here’s what I can do, right now.” This moment demands our best, our best selves, our most skillful use of the tools that we have. So if we’re story tellers then fucking tell good stories.
GH: I think we could all list a litany of everything that is wrong with the American story. So I won’t do that. But what is the light in the American story? What is already great about America that needs to be called to a consciousness right now?
FS: I think we’re writing the best story right now because they are out in the open now. The seams are showing and we have a chance to…
BA: I think more people understand the systematic problem of the country and there’s no hiding, there’s no going back from this, and so I hesitate to say this is the best part of the American story because if anything, I think, what we’re coming to contact with is the entirety of humanity. And so the fact that we are speaking up in ways that we haven’t spoken up, and the way that we are actively taking part in ways we haven’t taken part before. It’s one thing to send $10 to a starving child in a village in Botswana, never seeing them, never knowing anything about them, it’s another thing to be people standing up in New York, in Charlotte, in Houston, in Dallas, in LA, Seattle, Portland, the people who stood up there and lost their lives in the process. I think it’s a larger space of where we’re in the country right now, there’s an anguish that we are tired of being quiet about it.
FS: Amazing things are happening every day in response to people realizing where they stand.
BA: Yes, and now there’s more, “What do we want, really what do we envision?”
GH: I live in the place of being deeply theoretically committed to wonder and being invited into what a teacher of mine said to me the other day is, he calls his spiritual practice “daily manual labor”. This is not theoretical for him. He said to me, “If I don’t do my spiritual practice if I go two days without doing my spiritual practice, I’m as scared as everybody else. But if I do it, I learn to live above it and above is not the same as aloof.”
FS: I listen to as much to the sound of your voice as to the shapes that become language, and for me actually it’s that it’s a very moving to me that you have people from very different backgrounds who care deeply about the same thing, and I think that’s extraordinary, how we stumbled into each other’s lives and said, “Yes, and all of a sudden something awakens in all of us and it changes our day because we’re empowered to.” So, I’m blown away by simple magic like this.