The sorrow of violence seems always to exist side by side with the tenderness of care and generosity. It is as if the harsh sudden reality of atrocity breaks open our innate compassion that gets lost in the habitual concerns of our daily lives. Both have marked the last days since the bombing in Boston. Again, we are all looking for an answer, an antidote, a solution that will quell the anguish that haunts us about ourselves and the world we are living in. The question we ask is what compels human beings to cause harm to each other? And, how can we calm our hearts in the face of increasing tragedy and impending fears that it will only grow worse?
When I was first telling stories, an older Irish woman was part of a workshop I gave in Colorado. She had been a nurse in Belfast. She came because she had told tales in hospitals – not as a planned activity, but out of desperation. She talked about the inadequate number of doctors and nurses in emergency rooms during violent times. How when patients were waiting, bleeding and terrified, not knowing who were the perpetrators or the victims, she began to tell them the stories she had learned as a child. “They were waiting for too long and I did not know what do” she explained. “Often their unfocused eyes grew relaxed as they listened to my stories. Sometimes the blood stopped flowing. the pain even subsided. I took them with me to mountains and villages, to the caves where fairies dwelt and didn’t stop telling stories until a doctor could see them.” That is why she came to the workshop. That is how I began to seek out a deeper understanding of what took place while listening.
We have a kind of bias against the great fairy tales and myths of the world, as if they are less than real. As if the cultures that produced these retold symbolic stories were less intelligent and progressive than our contemporary sophisticated society. They are more than real. And, some of the root causes of the violence that infects us may be from the denial of the penetrating experience and wisdom of these stories discarded; or worse, remade as foolish romances or sensational films. The images and events may not be specific to our ordinary lives, but they bring us into contact with the psychology and energy of how things happen. Like a waking dream, we can feel into the resonance and complexity of events that are limited by our usual logical renditions of events. We can see our lives reflected in these diamond like journeys as we reconnect with a sense of belonging to a world of cause and effect. Tragedy and redemption coexist and transform each other. There is magic and spirit. As we listen we rest our minds from the weariness of constant distraction and concerns that consume us. We are able to comprehend beneath understanding the complex of events and their connection to our lives and the natural world. We in essence become present to reality in a direct way.
I vision a storyteller in every school and organization. She is there at moments when solace, generative distraction, kindness and wisdom are needed. It is another kind of distraction into the present moment so we can relook at events without falling in despair or apathy or reactivity. The storyteller, trained and prepared for deeper understanding, brings healing to our ordinary selves in difficult times.
There is a very profound tale that was told by the Rabbi Nachman of Braslav centuries ago that I recently heard again from Donna Sifes Jacobs ( a stoyteller peacemaker in Australia). A conversation took place on a storytelling listserv about this tale. A King had a son who believed he was a rooster. The prince hopped around the palace and spent hours under the table pecking for crumbs. He was naked and wild. No doctors seemed to be able to cure the boy and bring him back to sanity. Finally, a great sage arrived who offered to see the Prince. The man took off his clothes and crawled under the table with the boy. He too pecked and hopped, scratched and called out for the sun to set and the sun to rise.
Days passed. The boy was happy to have another rooster companion. then one day the sage put on a shirt. The boy spoke for the first time, “A rooster does not wear human clothing.” The sage said, “That is true usually. But I am cold and I am still a rooster whether I wear a shirt or not.” So the boy also put on a shirt. Day by day the sage walked more and more upright. The boy seemed horrified. “I thought you were a rooster and now you are walking like a man.” The sage whispered to him, “I am still a rooster, but I am pretending to be a man. A rooster is prey to hunters and those who are hungry.” the sage dressed and began to sit at the table. Finally, the prince dressed and sat down beside him.
The King was pleased. And the sage said to the boy, “Even when you pretend that are a King you should never forget that you are a rooster.” And that is what happened.
I have paraphrased this story. However, it is evident that there is a profound meaning beneath the content of the tale. When I first took meditation instruction, more thanthirty -five years ago, I remember my Tibetan teacher explaining that we were to sit upright pretending at first to the be the Buddha. We took the seat of the Buddha. this idea of pretending was intriguing to me. My teacher’s compassion was impeccable (no pun for roosters and a pun for roosters). He was telling us that we were crazy on one hand, and on the other hand that inherently we had Buddha mind or basic goodness. This sense of imagining ourselves as the Buddha was tricky. How easy it would be to become inflated, arrogant, and stuck in believing we were enlightened if we acted and dressed in a certain way. But the relationship to the teachings, and the process of self inquiry and discovery kept undermining (hopefully) our grasping onto a new identity. The sense of play and imagination, a flexibility of mind and a continuous longing for learning kept sanity part of the journey. It was only someone who fully had experienced this path of loosening our grip on fixation of identity and belief that could climb under the table and slowly move us toward a place at the table with others. And could remind us over and over to have compassion and pride in resilience and kindness, never forgetting the actual nature of mind that is make-believe rather than just solid believe. The solid believe is the justification for wars and genocide, or self-hatred. Rooster or King is better than the other or others that are something else, another category like fish or Muslim, Jew or christian, buddhist or female etc..
There is usually a problem at the start of a story that is not actually defined or spoken. Perhaps in this tale the problem is that the King believes that to be a rooster is insane and that it must be changed instantly to a human. The King has forgotten that to be human may be to be more tender, complex, flexible, and making choices that allow us to live with each other and ourselves more fully without rejecting our natural mind that could become anything. My son Ishmael Beah once said that he realized at some point that we hate the perpetrator, not seeing that we could become a perpetrator or the victim. This is not idiotic dream talk. This is seeing beneath the surface of our systems of denial into a greater compassion. The Dalai Lama in a conference on Values in Monterrey said that we do not justify the perpetrator, but we can have compassion for them. It is time to stretch our capacity to imagine a world that we can all live in. We are ignoring the root root causes of violence and despair in our panic to restore what we believe is order. A secret weapon of disarming potency is keeping alive the power of imagination (not fantasy) so we can put ourselves in others’ shoes. We do not condone violence, but we recognize our own tendencies to replicate violence to put a stop to our own discomfort and fear. It is time to keep our intelligent hearts open and not forget that we are also roosters.
one of the beauties is being engaged, if not the most elegant and powerful aspect, is that while we are listening we are become the King, the Sage and the Rooster Prince while sitting there all ears and open screen of visceral creative imagination.