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Storytelling resources Wisdom Story Read an Article by Elisa

Feeding the Spirit: How Wisdom Tales Become Our Teachers

Closely adapted from an article by Elisa published in the March 2000 issue of the Museletter and in the Sept/Oct. issue of Storytelling Magazine. All rights reserved.

The author and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello tells of a master who always gave his teachings in parables and stories, much to the frustration of his disciples who wanted straightforward answers to their questions. To their objections the master would answer, “You have yet to understand my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” So let us begin with a Jataka tale.

Once upon a time, a flock of quail was feeding in the grass at the edge of a meadow, scratching, and pecking for survival. A Hunter came. With one swift move of his net the hunter trapped the quail. Behind hunter's house was a cage, for the hunter was also a merchant. He put the quail into the cage. They tried to fly, but hit the ceiling. They tried to peck, finding only hard wood. They lowered their heads and walked around the cage in a circle, crying; All but one bird who stood in a corner, her eyes fixed on a piece of sky.

The Merchant came and stuck his arm down into the cage and felt the quail. “Too thin,” he frowned, and threw seeds and grain down. The quail crowded, furiously pecking, pushing, each desperate to get their share. All but the one bird, which seemed to live on sky and sunlight.

Every day the merchant would come and reach his arm into the cage, frown, and throw more seeds down. Until one day the Hunter said, “Ah ready for market.” But then he spied the Blue Sky Bird. “What is this? All bones!” He reached for Blue Sky bird, and pulled her out, opening his hand to examine her. Seizing the moment, Blue Sky bird flew to the safety of a nearby branch, just out of reach.

The other quail looked up at her and cooed softly, “How?”

Blue Sky bird cooed sadly back, “You ate your captor’s food, and now you will die. I refused my captors food, and now I am free.” And away she flew.

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Most of us can relate to the predicaments and reactions of the flock of birds in the story: Feeling caught unawares and caged by the social forces of our culture. Worrying about day-to-day survival and yearning for material goods and socially sanctioned success, above spiritual/creative/social fulfillment. And yet we also feel as if something in us has died when we do not follow our hearts. But we are just as much like the Blue Sky Bird; we know there is something better than can feed our souls, our creativity, our longing for freedom and connection to what is meaningful and mysterious. Keeping our sights on this higher prize and feeding ourselves on that vision, we can get free.

World wisdom tales can remind us of those higher goals, and provide the inspiration to practice what we know on a daily basis. Spiritual and cultural traditions the world round have provided these shortest gems; the teaching tales of how others have danced and stumbled along life's path, for this very purpose. Stories offer us doorways into new ways of seeing and being in the world. The secret is that the story door opens inward. When we draw the stories deeply into our imaginations, and make connections from them to our own lives, they become a part of us, like a wise advisor ready to remind us of another way of seeing and responding to life. The shortest tales are especially good for this purpose as they are easily learned and shared spontaneously. Let me provide another example also from the Buddhist tradition:

Once, a monk and his student sat at the edge of a river in silence. As they sat a scorpion ambled along the bank and fell into the river. The monk retrieved it, and was stung on the hand as he set it on the bank. A short while later, the same scorpion came along the same path and fell in again. The monk retrieved it with the same results. A third time this happened, but this time the student could not restrain himself. “Master”, He said, “Why do you keep trying to save that beast, don't you know that it is just going to sting you?” “Yes, I know it is going to sting me,” answered the monk. “It is the dharma (roughly -the nature) of a scorpion to sting. But it is my dharma to save.”

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A little tale like this can inspire and support us in following our dreams despite our fears, or conversely as one woman said upon hearing this tale, to get out of situations in which there are just too many scorpions!

Author, and storyteller Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, described the phenomenon of story living in our psyches as “medicine” that serves us when we need it. This can happen just by hearing a tale. But for a story to be readily available to us, we often must help it to sink in, so that its imagery makes connections in our hearts, memories and imaginations, allowing new learning to arise.

Anthony de Mello suggests in the introduction to his collection One-Minute Wisdom, that we, “Take one story at a time.” This writer suggests that we take his advice one step further and read one story per week. Our hunger for the good story, and for spiritual inspiration, often drives us to plow through story collections like children in a candy store. We read one after the other, tasting the unique flavor of each, enough to say, “Mmm, I like that one, or so-so,” often bypassing altogether those that have already been tried. This way of tasting stories is like reading a description of the story on its door, rather than opening the door to be deeply touched by it. This is the way of our consumerist culture, but stories call us to be with them in a more time honored way.

There is a place in all of our lives for the shortest story gems simply told. We cannot always take the time, (or we may yet not have the confidence), to spin out an elaborate yarn to make a point, or a decision. We are often called to offer stories in nonperformance settings, responding to an immediate issue, with friends, or family around the dinner table, in the boardroom, during a therapy session, or in the classroom. We also desire story images to help us face and work through the challenges in our own lives, like spiritual guideposts. It is also wise for storytellers to have a number of one to three minute tales in their repertoire.

Why work with tales that are already familiar? Ask yourself what it means when you say that you “know” a story. If it means that the story is sufficiently embedded in your imagination, heart and mind to be available to you when situations arise that relate to its wisdom, then yes, you know it. Too often however, we are quick to be bored by stories already heard, or we pass over them in a collection, and their wisdom is not available to us when we need it. Before the advent of the printed page and the television, stories had to be heard many times to be learned, so that they would not be forgotten and lost forever. Now that we can rely on methods of preservation outside of ourselves, we see repetition as only for children. What have we lost by not knowing the stories, “by heart”, as they say? One example of a widely known wisdom tale is this Zen story:

Once a traveling monk agreed to carry a woman across a rushing river despite his vows not to look at or touch women. He set her down on the far side and continued along the road with his fellow monk. After a good distance his companion could no longer contain his anger, “How could you break our vows and carry that woman?” He asked. The monk replied, “I put her down way back there, but I see that you are still carrying her.”

Many of us have heard that story before. Does it serve as our teacher? The reader may take any number of insights from it: One of them being, a helpful metaphor for looking at how we manage stress in our lives. What if we could remember that story when we are feeling particularly overwhelmed or discouraged with ourselves? We could call into question the “vows,” or rules that have been given to us, and by which we judge ourselves, and be more forgiving. Then hopefully, like the monk, having done his best in the situation, we could leave our worries and shortcomings, “at the river.”

As Thomas Moore author of Care of the Soul (N.Y: HarperCollins l992) wrote, “Our lives rest on a cushion of stories.” Why not build up your cushion, take the time to get to know wisdom stories, the familiar and new, so that they may be there for you, tapping on your shoulder like the Blue Sky Bird, saying, “There's another way to experience this. Remember the story about…?…”