The journey into the forest for the youngest prince is a series of kind acts without hesitation or request for reward—actions from his heart’s natural care for others. Although we are familiar with the actions of heroes and heroines that later result in them receiving help when needed, we are not informed that this will be of benefit in the future. A fish once lying on the ground out from water, near to death, is returned to the water and informs us more fully about the prince’s kindness, and also points us again to how out of balance the natural world has become. This section of the story is preparation for a deeper journey, and also the beginning of repair.
It is this section of the story where the hero is called on to respond from his empathetic heart; and the listeners are called on to respond as well. What he or we may not recognize at that moment is that by placing the fish back in the water, he has helped himself and us as well. In our tale, this second act of generosity occurred when the prince stopped to drink from a stream and heard the pitiful voice of a fish calling out, “Please, put me back in the water.” Regardless of his own thirst he tended to the fish first. Even writing these words, I feel a heart-stirring pull resonating in my voice as I see and feel the fish on the ground barely able to breathe begging to be saved.
If we set off on a trip we not only buy tickets, get a map, and pack, but there is a kind of internal preparation, particularly for a journey that is some kind of pilgrimage. We are leaving our home and familiar situation and seeking another place. This interlude of responsiveness is the prince’s and our becoming ready by having our heart’s open with sympathy.
How often have I felt like that fish? Thrust out of my comfort, or in a circumstance that is desperate, frightening, or life threatening. And what part of myself have I had to call on to bring me back to sanity or hope or acceptance. What is the water of my natural state of mind?
The youngest prince was thirsty and stopped to drink at a stream. He heard the desperate voice of a fish calling out, “Please put me back in the water.” Without a thought, the prince placed the fish back in the water and watched it swim away, revived.
What comes to mind is being in an airplane on the way back from Haiti over a year ago. We left Port au Prince en route to Miami. Less than an hour into the trip there was a rumbling noise and then a bump that felt like the usual bad weather moment.
But our flight seemed to turn abruptly at the same time. For a long time there was no announcement from the pilot. Then, he told us there was a problem and we would have to land in Santa Domingo airport. No further explanation. At first, this felt annoying and typical and we all returned to our movies, books or naps. After all, we were near that airport and would land quickly. But the graphic map of our journey on the screen intermittently revealed that we were circling around as we moved way out to sea. An hour passed with no word and not much distance flown. People began questioning the stewardesses, who kindly but mysteriously said very little except that we had to wait for other flights to land before us. A creeping sense of apprehension began to ripple through the plane.
Then, an announcement: we would be making an emergency landing.
With a surreal cheerfulness, meant to keep us calm, we received instructions of how we should land with heads on our knees and hands over our heads; and how to jump onto the emergency slides either into the water or onto land with shoes, bags, or cell phones. Someone whispered to me that the circling flight was to enable us to rid the plane of as much gasoline as possible so we would not blow up and if we did, so to do least damage on the runway.
I felt panic and helplessness. I had not prepared to think about dying and had in fact created a will and left it on my computer that I had with me. But the growing fear became almost debilitating until I felt my neighbor tremble. She took out a rosary and began to pray. I asked if she had been in the earthquake and she nodded yes. I moved closer to her and she leaned against my arm as she continued her prayers. I could see that my mind could give way any moment to a devastating terror filled with fear, regret and desire to escape the inescapable. Then, I remembered my own meditation practice and thought about being present for others on the flight who might need help, and about the ephemeral nature of this life at any rate. I urged myself to rest my mind and open into a sense of equanimity that was there like an underground river within. I felt my fear like a friend, a companion, and actually cheered up in a very fundamental way—not necessarily happy but without the horror of my own thoughts stealing away my presence. I, in essence, put myself back in the water.
When I tell this small moment of the story where the prince, without hesitation, puts the fish back in the water and watches it streak away like lightening revived, I feel an inner contentment. And I watch my audiences—unaware that he has actually saved his own life—lean forward ever so much in collaboration with this natural act of compassion.
These instances in the story, an intermediary journey within the journey, are the hero or heroine’s heart opening preparation to leave behind an old vehicle for living and go deeper into becoming a whole human being no longer limited by interpreting imagination, compassion, and encounters with the magic of the world as fantasy.
As we began our descent into Santo Domingo an hour and a half after receiving our instructions, it was obvious that the runway had been evacuated. Emergency lights from ambulances and fire trucks surrounded the runway. The plane had become uncannily silent in the expectation of disaster, particularly moving because so many of the people on the plane had been in the earthquake. I looked up and saw the stewardess crying, holding her iPhone with a photo in front of her. I put my head down, and my neighbor touched my arm. I looked up at her and we smiled. She returned to her prayers, still trembling. Contemplations on generating compassion for others rose to my mind and I too prayed for us all, for those I knew, for my son and family, for our deeply aching world. I closed my eyes calmly and waited. What else was there to do? The moment was choiceless. Then we touched the ground. I had no experience of what it would be like blowing up and hoped it would be immediate, but the plane bounced like a light ball and then stopped. The silence was palpable. Even deeper quiet. We slowly opened our eyes from a dream. And the Haitians began to sing a song so beautiful that I felt, and I think we all felt, an immense peace.
And what happened as we deplaned? The world of complaint and bitterness, self-preoccupied worry gathered like storm clouds as we walked into the airport. Each time I felt annoyance and impatience, I remembered to pause and breathe and stop my mind from throwing me out of the water again.
When I finally got home, nearly 24 hours and two flights later, I told the story to several friends. Telling the story brings some kind of meaning, not interpretation but meaning to the lived experience. And, I recognized that it had softened me, opened me, to have made the choice to align myself with open hearted unconditional mind rather than panic (which I felt throughout but without the devastating mental terror).
The story provides us a means of reconnecting through experience with our capacity for open heart. And, just as the youngest prince feeds and heals a raven, he has now returned a fish out of water to its natural dwelling place and can continue on his journey, more prepared for what will come.