Last week I celebrated my 59th birthday. And, as I do each year, I spent part of the week in retreat and meditation, time in silence with the Sacred, with my soul, and with my own heart. And with my body, without whom there would be no “me” to celebrate.

Our bodies offer us the astonishing miracle of experience. Without my body, this sunny fall afternoon, this soft September air scented with woodsmoke, this brilliant stippling of green and gold leaves trembling on the sturdy branches of trees that reach out to touch scudding white clouds racing across a pale blue sky–none of this beauty and richness would exist for me. Through my body, I breathe in this afternoon. It becomes part of me. And my love and appreciation become part of it. Such glory! Such miraculous, breathtaking, fall-down-on-my-knees-in-gratitude-and-astonishment beauty!

Every experience we have leaves its imprint in our bodies. And because we are not only our unique and particular selves, but also a dancing fractal of an infinite and multi-faceted whole, every experience that anyone has ever had is also accessible to us through our bodies. Every story that was ever lived, imagined, or told, lives within us.

So, as my birthday gift to you, here’s an exercise to begin to explore those stories that live within you. Within your body.

Since these stories are infinite in number, you’ll want to listen first to the ones that have the most urgency, the strongest, clearest voice, in you. And you’ll want to write them down. So find a sturdy notebook and your favourite pen, and set it beside you where you can reach it easily. Curl up in your favourite chair. Or under a tree, or on a log on the beach–someplace where you feel at home, happy to just be, for a while. To be and to explore and to listen for the stories that whisper and shout in your inner ear.

Ready? This is going to take a while, so make sure you have enough time so that you can fully sink into it, without feeling rushed or distracted.

You may want to read the next bit, and then follow along after reading it through. Or have someone you love read it out loud to you. (I’ll use he or she interchangeably–if there were a gender-neutral pronoun, I’d use that instead.)

Close your eyes, and take a moment to tune into your world. To the sounds you hear, inside you and around you. The soft hiss of your in-breath. The whoosh of your blood in your ears. The chirreee of a bird. The sigh of the wind.

Smell the fragrance of the air around you–feel its coolness at the tip of your nostrils, on your cheeks, on the backs of your hands.

Feel the ground, solid and firm beneath your feet. The touch of your clothing on your skin. Your eyelids resting on your eyes.

Taste the inside of your mouth . . . feel your tongue resting on the floor of your mouth.

Now gently open your left hand and place it on the middle of your chest. Feel your heartbeat under your hand.

Place your right hand on your diaphragm, just below your breast-bone. Feel your diaphragm rise and fall, as you breathe in, as you breathe out.

Breathe in through your heart. . . Let the in-breath flow all the way down to your feet. Let the out-breath flow back up, and out your diaphragm.

Inhale through your heart . . . taking the breath down to your feet . . . following it back up your body and out your diaphragm.

Keep this cycle of breath flowing throughout the rest of this exercise.

Let your breath carry you deeper and deeper into your body. Float your awareness from the surface into the depths . . . into stillness. Into deep listening.

Now scan your body from the top of your head right down to your feet. From the inside to the outside and back again.

Stop at the place in your body that has the most energetic charge–the most urgency–right now. Float it out in front of your heart, and ask it to tell you its story.

Whose story is it? Who is the main character in this story? Is it a man, a woman, a child? How old? What does he or she smell like? How does he look? What is he wearing?

How does she sound? Reach out and touch her. What does her skin feel like?

How does he move? What does he smell like? How does she hold her head? Her hands?

Ask this character to tell you his name. What does he want more than anything else in the world?

Is that really what he wants, or is there something deeper?

Ask questions. Explore. Discover what it is that your character is truly committed to.

Without losing your connection with this character, open your eyes and take a moment or two to jot down a few quick notes-just reminders, to help you write the story later.

Then back to your cycle of breath. Breathe in through your heart. Down to your feet. Back up and out through your diaphragm. Once you’ve settled into a deeper rhythm of breath and silence, connect with your character again.

What does your character believe about her relationship to what she truly wants? If she was offered it right now, could she say a whole-hearted “yes” to it?

If not, then ask her to tell you what within her says “no” to what she wants. What are her inner obstacles to receiving it?

Again, open your eyes without losing your connection with your character, and jot down a couple of notes.

Then back to your cycle of breath.

And back to your character. Ask: what situations, experiences, people, or circumstances in her life block her path to what she wants? How are her inner obstacles reflected in her outer world?

Breathe . . .

What resources does he have, to help him overcome these obstacles? What inner resources? Outer ones? Who are his allies?

Make a few notes. Then back to your breath and to your character.

Now ask your character to tell you about a choice she is facing that involves a risk, and that makes her feel vulnerable.

Then pick up your pen, and write a monologue in the character’s own voice. At this moment of risk. Of vulnerability.

Read the monologue out loud. In your character’s voice.

Then, if you wish, go back to your notes and write your character’s story, hearing his voice, listening to her tale. Add sketches, if you like, or musical notes . . . let the story lead you.

That’s it. That’s the exercise.

The characters you encounter may surprise you, or they may feel utterly familiar. In exploring their stories, you explore your own. And you also explore the relationship between you.

The stories that you weave in your daily life — the ways in which you think and feel about yourself; your relationships with the people around you; your relationship to your work, your creativity, your heart — all of these are based on the stories you carry within your own body. As you listen deeply to the stories that are held there — as you honor them, release them, reshape them into the stories you want to bring to life — your world will transform around you. That’s the magic of story.

I wish you all the blessings of a rich and bountiful harvest of stories.