Touched By The World

A great sage studied alchemy for thirty years. He learned chemistry and magic, studied texts and meditated for months, acquired mantras and secret herbs. But he was unable to transform his metal begging bowl to gold. One day a woman coming from the market carrying a basket of spices, singing, walked by and bumped into the sage. Her spices fell into his begging bowl. Instantly it turned to gold. (India)

Such is the art of the right story at the right time….

1. to brighten with light
2. to intellectually and spiritually enlighten
3. to emblaze, illumine, radiate, highlight, glisten, ennoble, enrich, ensoul, uplift, regenerate, renew, and transform

My intention is to share what I have learned and love about the unique event of storytelling through descriptions of my work and reflections on stories; to open the treasure house of what takes place in order to illuminate rather than illustrate or explain. I am interested in how the traditional symbolic tales, often misunderstood as cultural artifact or less than real, are the means that reaches beyond habitual story to connect us to reality. In my work, I am moved by how storytelling alleviates suffering, and uncovers inherent joy, regardless of circumstance. To know our own story, to live in the present and imagine our future, is to be released from the stories that cause conflict, fixation and unnecessary hatred. Each post will be an essay with a story; and additional material and or recordings will be included.

Click here to play the Meditation in the City Podcast! “Touched By The World” with Laura Simms Episode #29: featured on

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 1.50.56 PM“Laura Simms reminds us that when life becomes demanding and difficult, we don’t have to cave in. Through recognizing the space of our minds, meditation opens us up to a world of possibility.” -Shambhala, NYC

Meditation In The City is the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York’s very own podcast!
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RECIPE to increase the HUNGER of the Heart

“There are two kinds of hunger. The hunger of the belly and the hunger of the heart. The hunger of the heart is more important.” Xsan

The son of a King desired to build a banquet hall from the oldest oak trees in the forest. The King told him that those trees were sacred to the Mother Goddess. Her priestesses dwelled there. He, the King, had agreed, as his ancestors had agreed, to protect it. With disregard for the knowledge of the interconnectedness of the world and Her domain, he went to the grove with an axe. The Great Goddess, Demeter, entered the body of the Priestess to offer him words of warning: “If you cut down these trees you will be cursed with ceaseless hunger.” Outraged, the Prince killed the priestess and cut down the trees.

He built a grand banquet hall. He invited guests for feasts. With time, his hunger disgusted his guests, his father, even those who served. He could not stop eating. He was thrust out of the Kingdom. His hunger drove him to wander like a beggar outside the walls of his father’s realm and eat trash from mounds of garbage left for beasts. This behaviour was repellent. He was chased into the depths of the forest. Hounded by constant hunger he devoured his own limbs.

How do we awaken the hunger in our hearts before we destroy our selves and our world? We are living in a mythic time, foretold, where the battles described in images in old stories are taking place: a twim called bad mind relegated to a cave with monsters he created roams our roads – endless wars between demons and gods begin again – greed, isolating brothers and sisters from one another locks up children in cages – dwarves in the depths of the earth given the useful task of fertilizing the soil, rise up in jealous greed to rule the upper world that they know nothing about.

Genuine transformation may be an act of unobstructed imagination. Reaching into ourselves to revitalize our nearly forgotten knowledge of being of the world – of using words and true speech – compassionate intention to overcome the demons. Even, breaking open their hearts with the truth of death and suffering, where it is possible.

It is time to tell stories from the caverns of our being. Let sound reach out beyond our craft of words and content. Our communication must become a penetrating cry, a chant that breaks open the dams of delusion. It is time to remember the magic that human beings once knew, learned from animals and plants and spirits. Our minds, even our narratives and desires, are shaped in the systematic belief of “I” as more important than “we.” Our kindest solutions repeat the same errors and leave us temporarily satisfied rather than blazing further in the cool furnace of compassion.

A Rabbi asked his students: How do you know when the sun has risen and the night ends? One after another, the learned students responded: When one can see the difference between a dog and a wolf; When one can discern between a tree and a bush in the distance. And on and on. At last they asked their teacher. He said, “When we each see one another as our brothers and sisters then we know the light has returned.”

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The uncanny technology of a Living Story

(published in Storytelling Magazine as part of a conversation about digital storytelling.)  

by Laura Simms

Storytelling has become a word used to refer to or describe   different kinds of narratives or artworks that are more personal.   The storytelling that I practice is more akin to traditional myth-telling where language is alive with meaning in direct response to a live audience. My personal study has emphasized developing a sensitivity to the dynamic qualities of spoken story and engagement as an embodied and relational event.   Meaning for me in performance arises not only from content but more fully from the energized space and visualization existing between the audience and the teller. Many levels are felt at once; conceptual, imaginative, intangible.

In 2010, I created a mentor program that could occur via long-distance. This program facilitated in-depth preparation of a story for performance. I encouraged a tremendous amount of research, conversations and personal journaling as part of a step by step process of entering the heart of a text and finding deep personal associations to a story.   Through various methods of communication, including one-on-one and group audio- and video calls, I helped people shape the story they wanted to tell.  My students became attuned to landscapes, patterns of events, structure of the story, the process of engagement, and symbols and metaphors. They immersed themselves in the exploration of how structure, images, meaning, historical context, and place in stories manifest. I appreciated the teleconference encounters. I could speak with students across the world. Many participants could share their perceptions.   And, the exploration offered new possibilities.

The uses I have made of audio- and videoconferencing in this process have been limited to discussion and dialogue about story. I have not invited students to tell stories via teleconference. For coaching of performance, I prefer to rely on the energy and insight generated by visceral presence between people. In my experience, the storytelling manifests in the context of the collusion and reciprocity with other and the environment in which the relationship occurs. It is in basic presence that I can best invest in sensing what is needed. For example, gestures can either obscure or enhance connection. Since for me each teller is very unique, it is the way I can help someone understand the sense of gesture by being with them.

Recently, working with a woman in my kitchen, I realized that how she used her hands while speaking closed off the space between herself and the listener. It was not a matter of where she placed her hands, but of how she accessed and embodied the energy of language and feeling of that energy moving between herself and others. She got it when I had her speak from different parts of her body and finally extend her hands outward letting aliveness move from her fingertips toward me. She I felt it. I felt it.   Suddenly, the natural resonance of of her story between us was powerful enough to make my body tremble.

Sounds of words suffused by feeling also travel in space between teller and listeners. When a teller speaks from their body, alive with a sense of place and intention, something remarkable takes place. .   A word   instantly transforms into experience imagined like a waking dream.   I am more able to listen into the sound when present with someone because I can see their breathing and feel them. When in reciprocity, and shared presence , the breath, sound, word and sudden poetic language can be vital and subtle. A memorised, repeated, and rehearsed narration in which the primary meaning is in the known words or message produces a different relationship. That kind of presentation can be entertaining and meaningful. It can be brilliantly wrought.   The quality of involvement in live storytelling however, that is imagined and felt is mysterious. It is always in response.   There is an almost sensory excitement and undercurrent of timeless calm aroused in this on the spot connectivity.

Audio- and videoconferencing have been brilliant for me.   Technology is incredibly useful.   However, we need both wings of the bird in contemporary society: a knowledge of technology, and a renewed commitment to our capacity for authentic presence and shared space. For me, the communication via teleconference can reveal many things about storytelling. It can relate text and content.   But it is not live storytelling. It is time to become bi-cultural; to avoid an over reliance on digital communication and reinvest ourselves in the potent spontaneous presence of wisdom producing shared story and listening as well.



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A SECRET ISLAND OF SURPRISE inside the inner story

(this is based on an excerpt from my new book – in process -    GIRL IN THE SKY -             to be published by Sentient Books)



I was telling stories to a group of children in a private school in Harlem, yesterday.  They were breathing in a fairytale retelling of a Yugoslav version of  THE PIGEON’S BRIDE.  It is one of the stories I am including in a new book.  GIRL IN THE SKY  is a guide to telling stories for young women who have been abused or demeaned.

The children at the school are are great listeners. Most of them  bundle under small rugs to listen; while a few  stand  -  moving, arms waving or leaning in with intelligent engrossment able to leap or turn at will.   In the middle of the story  an image appears that is totally unexpected  beyond the usual turn of events of a story unfolding.

In the story of The Pigeon’s Bride a young woman refuses conventional marriage. She wants to embroider. Her father and mother, King and Queen, attempt to dissuade her, but she insists and begins a kind of intense artist retreat in a tower.   She observes and draws, sews with many colors and creates landscapes with needle and thread.  Until, one day a pigeon flies into the room. It  reveals that he is actually an enchanted man.  The story is replete with transformations and magic.  My listeners easily accepted the plight of the bird;  the love between the man and the woman;  and,  the secret that she must keep so that he can continue to return to her room during the day as a man, and fly away as a bird when the sun goes down.  Of course,  a secret in a story is always a warning to listeners and characters in the tale that inevitably it will be spoken. We find out the consequences.  The loss  results and the hero or heroine has an opportunity to become more conscious and compassionate.  That happened to us.   The girl  told her mother the secret under pressure and threats.  Our princess left  home with two pairs of iron shoes. She crossed the world to find her beloved.  On return. she surrendered to her parents wishes.  But, just as she was  about to choose a suitor,  she thought of another (last) plan:  “Build me a bathhouse. I will sit on the threshold.  I ask if anyone has the most unusual story to tell. If it is completely rare and strange and marvelous, I will reward them. Give me three more days.”       She listened to interesting stories, but nothing that truly interested the seeking princess.  When a  poor girl told her a story  it finally  awakened her true interest.
We had been  coursing through the normal delight of a fairy tale with all of its shape  Child Audience-shifting and longings, when suddenly we were taken by total surprise.  The story that the girl told began with her seeing a rooster with wooden shoes carrying a bucket at a well.

The surprise appearance of the rooster brought great excitement.  We had moved from the imaginable to the inconceivable.  Yet, our minds, pliant and accustomed to making gossamer pictures in space between,  brought into being  for each of us the oddity of the rooster.  This harbinger of morning wearing shoes and carrying a bucket was peculiar.  That moment took us further than expected expanding our  capacity to become alive with becoming. We crossed a line into a more timeless vivid zone with  no lines. Everyone paused for an instant as we savored our sense of mischief.   Then we plunged back into the story.  We wanted to know that the princess would (hopefully)  find her pigeon beloved.  Everything that happened for the rest of the story was unusual.  It was a pleasure to stay with  the deep sense of longing, regret, delight and love arising between us.  The surprise was an island in the middle of a mysterious sea  not to be foundon any map. Perhaps only to be felt and seen in the gossamer space between us vibrating with all of our images surfacing. Setting foot on groundless territory is the gift of storytelling. To find within ourselves a   depth of feeling and complexity of longing is the bait hooked. The joy  of release into the listening more marvelously – created in collusion -  propels  us naturally to let go of any preoccupation, lingering.

In my chapter what I emphasize is the way that a story keeps us engaged more and more in our own  response, and release from concerns and hurt.  While not fully lost in the story since we are dependent on listening, we can  even pop up from immersion to ask questions or make comments and then quickly return. We are practicing wakefulness and non grasping, and pliability of mind,  in this process of  involvement.  Words become images immediately, felt  and vivid;   not ttached to meanings and interpretations that lift us back into thinking and having to make sense.   They are happening experiences; taking place on many levels at once. This is the virtue of the Island without boundaries.

The Secret Island is always present.

  The beauty of arriving is not stopping

to announce “We have arrived.”

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Knowing when to speak and when not to speak is a practice of patience and loving kindness to oneself and others.


Here is a tale based on a West African story from Nigeria… I have always loved this tale since first reading it in a 1930’s NY Board of Education collection of African tales in a school library in Harlem.

      A hunter saw a head lying on the ground on top of a high hill. There was no body,     just a head. The hunter heard a voice, “I got here by talking.” The hunter looked everywhere for a person, not able to imagine a dead head speaking. But when he leaned down, the voice reverberated from the skull,   It said again, “I got here by talking.”     He raced down the hill to inform the Chief of the remarkable head.   He thought, “To enhance the power of the Chief is to bring greater importance to myself .”

He told the Chief about the talking head on the mountain. The Chief responded, ”I have no time for fools  Dead heads don’t talk!”   The hunter insisted. He finally offered, “If the head does not talk you can cut off my head. ”The chief followed behind the man with an entourage of warriors. They came to the head. The hunter requested the skull to speak. It remained silent. He leaned down and begged the head to talk.   After some time, the Chief ordered a warrior to cut off the hunter’s head.   It rolled beside the first head.That evening, as the sunset, the first head turned to the hunter’s head.   It said, “You see what I mean about talking.”

Thinking about this tale, I contemplated another African tale: A woman informed her husband of something extraordinary she had witnessed. It was sadly the ultimate cause of the death of her child.   Again and again in the great wisdom tales of the world we are warned: Be careful of revealing too muc too soon and know to whom you sharing a secret!    Or be wary of boasting about what we have done or seen. To understand the possible consequences of sharing a secret that should not be spoken can be life saving.  To remain silent is not simple. Reacting quickly with words, is often the cause of unforeseen disaster and confusion.

This contemplation helped me realize that a root cause of a particular long lasting trouble in my life stemmed from telling someone something that was best to have left unshared.   All blame to them for the results had to be forsaken when I recognized my part in the seeding of troubles.   Like a cascade of stones down a waterfall on a mountainside, the ramifications were painful and long lasting.

I now think of the Talking Head story with more respect.   I sometimes hear it told jokingly. But humorous as it is, it is not that funny. The patience I have had to learn, decoding stories, did not come easily.   I had to practice -pausing – before responding. Or making an immediate excited, “I get it” when first hearing a story.

I had to develop a discernment about whom I thought to share something of importance with, or a particular tale; to hold secrets close to my heart, and to recognize my responsibility as a storyteller as far more than putting my voice on words that I interpreted .  Even more fundamental – I had to sometimes not agree to keep someone else’s secret.  The energy that propelled me to share a secret or an event in a tale that was not yet ripe in my heart, is a harsh teacher. Part of the ultimate joy of being a storyteller has been to come to know that who tells the story and how it is told makes the difference of how it is heard.

In Buddhism there is a practice called “staying like a log.”   The task is not to suppress the urge, but rather to sit with the energy of the arising immediate desire to speak about something .   When I feel that urge of energy arising, I stop. I push the storyline to the sideline and find the feeling inside of me, as I have been taught.    I breathe into it. (a practice taught by Pema Chodron) And then I might discover the motivation was not kind, but self-serving.   I want to make someone happy or myself more important; to win their trust or some momentary reward by sharing a covert revelation . The effect doesn’t stop once the words are shared.  Finding my own sense again, I see the situation more clearly and kindly. I attempt not to race down the mountain.  The longer I sit with the energy, the more it reveals about myself and about potential consequences. Slowly, I win my own trust.

If  I sink deeper into the speaking skull story, I recall  images of skulls – from Neolithic caves, from Mayan temples and Tibetan shrines – heads, skulls adorned, and speaking bones. The language beyond death is a mystery whose wisdom has to be earned by patience. How a story image moves inside of us when we slow down to meet the radiance of meaning that bubbles up in the discipline of unbiased listening..    I am loosening my compulsion to understand. As I contemplate , without rush still feeling the speed, what might lie within the story beyond the obvious, can resonate     I also feel the poignancy of how speed removes from what the story has to offer. Interpretations, learned opinions stack up like a wall between myself and the nature of image .   Feeling the fear that arises when reckoning with the unfamiliar or illogical opens a path toward greater wisdom and awareness. Now, from the recollection of bones that speak comes joy.

In a traditional culture, the hunter has learned the way of the animal and the spirit of the animal; the world he walks in and the truth of death. He (or she) is protector of the tribe, providing food, skins and bones, He is protector of the environment. Joy comes with knowing interdependence; sacred web of life – our nurturence.   In the moment, the hunter’s thought, a hook, carried him away. He lost his head . But in the telling of that moment, we re-find our own. And we hear, what the King did not hear, the voice of the speaking skull.

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A HARVEST OF SORROW – The storyteller as healer

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The Journey of the Healer as Teller of Tales is complex:

As a storyteller I have learned that to tell a story and lead others through it with a depth of intimacy and distance (simoultaneously) I need to have lived the story myself. It is not always the incidents of the tale that I know, but the experience of the journey.

In High School, in the 1960’s, I wrote a tragic story about a boyfriend who never returned from a war. I read it in the front of my homeroom. Everyone wept. I had no idea where the idea came from. But in retrospect, I was watching images of war in Viet Nam every evening on the news and my life had changed that summer overnight. I returned from summer camp to find my beautiful red haired mother, who played Bach and Hungarian Czardas on the grand piano, seated in a wheel chair.; leaning to one side, white-haired, and unable to speak without slurring her words. No one had told me that she had suffered a stroke. I endlessly repeated the tale of seeing my mother; and created viscerally sorrowful love stories that I repeated in my own life for a long time.

Years later, I fell into despair after a divorce and a diagnosis of cancer.   I decided to do what I had suggested my students do: choose a myth and reflect on my life through the mirror of the story. “A healing journey can lift you out of misery,” I had said a hundred times to others. I bought an over-sized journal. On one side of each page I wrote a line or two from a text of the pre-Hellenic mythic tale of Demeter and Persephone. On the other page I journaled about loss, pain, family, and romances gone wrong -  while taking notes from research on the history and varied interpretations of the story.  It was a 25 year project.  It culminated in a one woman show called THE DAUGHTER OF DEMETER: Of Myth and Memoir; and a chapter in a book about the myth   ~ (named after my essay) called THE LONG JOURNEY HOME ( Christine Downing, editor; Shambhala Books).

In both situations sorrow was a gift. But,  barely recognized at the time.  The story we tell ourselves can either glue us into hopelessness and depression, or lift us up with tenderness into deep inspiration. The tragic love story imprinted me with a romantic pattern of loss and unhappiness as my romantic fate. The writing and telling of Demeter and Persephone transformed my life. I moved through the sorrow harvesting its tenderness and heart breaking kindness to an awakening of profound joy.

A Babylonian tale, told as part of a Jewish Thousand and One Nights, , recants the journey of a Rebbi. He set out across the world to discover if spirit could be known in this world.  After many obstacles and strange events,he gave up hope of ever returning home or reaching his goal.   He met a Bedouin Chief who knew the place where heaven and earth met. “They can  be seen at one time.”   The Chief led the Rebbi through the desert. On the way The Rabbi fell to his knees weeping, overcome with thick empathy.   Beneath the sand he heard a cacophony of wailing voices. Irrisistibly drawn to the sorrow that reflected his own loss, he refused to leave that place.  The Bedouin urged him onwards, “This is the place in our journey where too often we get stuck. This place is the unsettled burial ground of those who gave up hope while crossing the desert with Moses. This sadness is the fixed misery of those who fear to go beyond their unhappiness. “ Pulling himself away, with the help of the Chief, he acknowledged the reality of loss, and uncovered within himself renewed energy and vaster courage to move forward.  The Rebbi fulfilled his journey although he actually never saw the conversion of heaven on earth that occurred only in an instant. But he knew it to be true.   Ultimately he eached home. He carried with him two unexpected gifts: he received a ring that brought what was dead back to life and he had the story of his journey.  When he told the tale, he inspired others not to get caught in  their sorrow . Those who listened made the journey of loss and return; a return amplified by the knowledge of the ring and the victory of fearless confrontation with sorrow without becoming overtaken by its allure.

The storyteller  either provokes us into  pity and sadness,  and leaves us in grief,  as if it is the fate of our lives as human beings. Or, they let us experience the depth of sorrow and feel the strongest emotions fully while moving us forward and through it without getting attached  to being sad, only. – Like the Rebbi in the ancient tale, in order to tell the story, we have to make the journey ourselves. How else do we dare to  take others through the narrative without becoming captivated in the mulch of misery, or skimming over it as if it was something we can contain in words and ignore its presence in  the heart. Feeling into the sorrow, without becoming attached to it, gives us the core of the sorrow to feed us. It is the capacity to feel and live with tender hearted care for ourselves and others that is the nurturance we harvest.

What I learned from my two episodes of encounter with deep loss was that in telling the story through the filter of a great myth, I gained the capacity to feel and tell the story with intimacy and distance. I learned to see beyond and within the grief at the same time as I felt it. It is this quality of presence and compassion that I seek in my preparation as a storyteller, and the guiding principle of my role as narrator/guide in performance. It is the task of the healing and the healer.

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The Story’s Revelation: Filling space with joy

Rummaging through old journals I find stories.   This Ethiopian tale was tucked into a group of stories I found doing research for a program  last year.  I never wrote down the source. For that I apologize. But it exemplifies something I have been thinking about for a long time.

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A story told has more meaning  then what we think.   There are treasures to  harvest in the brilliance of listening. Once the story is enlivened by embodied voice and intelligent experience – in contact with an audience – the words are more than heard. They move in sound and energy shaping into luminous form to be recieved.  They are felt – alive as image – arising then in the mind of each one who hears the tale. The imagination aroused, has the power to immediately render word into visceral sense and gossamer form . This process of direct listening accesses authentic complex emotion, and associations -  as the story is spoken. Moment by  moment, it engages the heart and the body of the listener in the more flexible and less fixed realm of waking visual dream.  No more passive narrative medium has this unique response.   The mental concept or analysis is an after thought. It has value, but is not the most beneficial. The event itself penetrates.   The experience of the story is enduring It is more true than the explanation of what someone thinks the story might mean.






We can search for reasons and analysis,  of why the third foolish son succeeded. But in truth, what has happened in our minds as we heard the story is the geunine work of the story. For each of us  – filling space – or own minds – with seemingly solid objects, solutions and definitions – or expansive thick feathers  – makes sense. But when we imagine the candle illuming all of the room itself, our insides are illumined. The space within us grows light. We, the listener,  becomes pliable and radiant. This activity is what occurs when we  listen.   The wisdom is not in the lesson, but in the reciprocity that opens us.   Twice we become the conventional brothers finding solutions that seem to be right.  This is the kindness of a story.  And then  at last, we become the fool, who has dwelled with space itself, and therefore meets emptiness with luminosity and we come to know and light the candle within rendering us bright throughout.

Before we can expect to make change with ourselves or with others, the capacity for change has to be felt and practiced.   The key to the potency of a story is not in memorizing the words, or adding voice to a text. It is in each teller’s capacity to  reflect viscerally the experience personally of the event  within themselves.  Before we make a decision or a definition we need to open ourselves, and become the many levels of what is occurring in the tale.   Then, the words, spoken from experience, from the heart, in direct contact with an audience and the energetic space between, brings the story to life from dynamic imaginative responsiveness. It  is immediate, visual, visceral. It is not easily forgotten.









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Fieldnote #1 Telling Young Children

This is the first post of a special series, STORYTELLER IN THE FIELD, exploring the actual telling of stories.

Child AudienceStorytelling in Hoboken, New Jersey at an exceptional community program called HOPES. (Please visit their website [] to regain faith in how compassion works.) The storytelling event was organized as a gift for small children by Umojawa, Stephanie Jelley’s crowdfunding platform for creative change.


Hope with HOPES

Young children in active listening

The children entered the room with a sense of excitement and calm. I had spread Indonesian cloths on the floor to define the space; to alert children to a place prepared especially for them. I was delighted to greet them as they happily took their assigned places. Teachers involved sat with the children. The few who needed extra support in order to listen were with individual staff.After welcoming everyone and introducing myself, I lifted my arms, “Now lift up your arms and reach out your fingers to touch the goodness in the sky. Now let’s take our hands down together slowly.” Slowing down with anticipation and playfulness, we drew from a deep shared energy within each of us and from the communal feeling the activity engendered.

I began a story. My audience alive with curiosity and four-year-old preoccupations were not shy. They settled into listening:

“There was once a King who…”

A boy called out, “I am a King.”

Another said, “Are the Three Little Pigs in this story?”

“What about the wolf?” asked a girl with an embroidered dog on her t-shirt.

I began again, “There was once a King in India whose favorite story was The Three Little Pigs and the Wolf.” I asked the child who had asked about the King to become the King, “Join me on my large chair.”

He leaned back and said, ” I am not a King anymore. ”

But two girls squeezed in next to me.

That seemed to satisfy everyone.

The five-minute tale now took fifteen as I included everyone’s comments.

For me to include everyone signaled to the children the unspoken fact that the most important aspect of the journey was our participation together. For a storyteller, being present to the actuality of the room expands the joy and the focus tremendously. An inner knowing of confidence arises. It is as if they are saying with their continued focus, “I am able to not only learn and participate, but influence the things that happen in my life.” There is a combination of discipline and spontaneity that colors the storyteller moving it from the territory of text into a living art.

Amazingly we moved well into the story about a poignant friendship between an elephant and a dog.  They were with me all the way to the conclusion.

I brought the tale to a close with, “And everyone, including the three little pigs, the wolf, the other Kings and Princesses, the cheetah, Jocelyn the dog and a red race car all lived happily ever after.” We finished with each of the 35 children taking a turn beside me on the chair. I announced, “welcome,” as they sat down very pleased. Then I counted to 3 and off they went back to their seats on the floor.

The white tiled floor covered with colorful cotton perked up and focused the conference room (which was remarkably clean for a school). Behind me was a bright green batik cloth held up with red tape. During the telling, already infused with participation, it fell off the wall and slid onto the floor. Children in the first row began to tug at it covering their legs, tumbling out of the story. Since I couldn’t think of a way to include it in the unfolding, already-stretched-thin narrative, I took it in my hands saying, “Amazing. The cloth was so excited it wanted to hear the story too.” Then I draped it over one shoulder making sure the children saw that it was close to my head. And I continued. Bringing humor and life into the room rather than blame or serious discipline allowed them to self adjust and come back to their senses. There was a small extra appreciation I felt for the cloths. I had purchased them in an open-air street market in a small town in Kuala Lumpur on my way to tell stories. That they were somehow falling off the wall, or crumpled beneath children felt delicious and appropriate. If the audience had been older I might have told them the story of finding the cloths. A wakeful storyteller, dedicated to the audience relies on an inner sense of what can keep the joyful and deepening relationship of an audience active. A memorized tale or prepackaged response has far less benefit for the audience.

The second story I told was a join-in tale from Puerto Rico: The Squeaky Door. I stated that I first heard the story in Spanish. A boy lifted his hands up in the air as if thrilled.

He shouted, pointing to the girl next to him, “She lives in Puerto Rico!”

She moved away from him, distressed, calling out, “I do not live in Puerto Rico.”

I said, “You live in Hoboken.”

She smiled and relaxed.

But we had opened the door for a plethora of place names and countries, including Disney World, being called out.

I let it go on for a time and then asked, “Is there anyone here who has ever been afraid of the dark?”

Almost all the children called out NO so strongly that I said, “Wow. No one?”

And a small girl in the back, wearing a very light pink blouse, raised her hand nodding, “I am.” I said, “Sometimes I am as well.” I wanted to make sure that anyone who had not admitted feeling afraid of the dark sometimes could find some allowance for their feelings, even if they’re not publicly acknowledged.

So we began.

The call and response included actions, sounds, emotions and choral chants. Mostly everyone was captivated in the thrill of it all. Somehow having announced that she was afraid of the dark, the pink-blouse girl nodded in agreement every time I mentioned the squeaky door that made a scary noise. I nodded to her knowingly and felt as if we were perhaps not only acknowledging her fear, but also feeding her bravery each time the door closed in the story. Twice she even stood up and sat down like an exclamation point.

I hardly had to tell the story once we were knee deep in what was repeatedly occurring.One child or another called out events before I had a chance. The audience became the storytellers.

A summary of the tale: A boy was afraid of the dark. He jumped under his bed and cried every time his grandmother closed the squeaky door to his room. His grandmother’s solution was to keep adding animals under the covers so he wouldn’t be afraid.

We had a lot of fun becoming the animals, calling out whaw.whaw(mock crying) and meow; woof woof; oink; sssshhhh; and finally loud neighs accompanied by rhythmic hoof sounds on their knees.We came close to the culmination of the tale, but someone called out, “How come she didn’t’ put a cow in the bed? ”

The story stopped as a lot of kids starting asking about different animals. In time I replied, “She would have put the cow, the monkey, the elephant and the tiger in the bed. But when the horse jumped out of the bed, it fell apart.”

“Of course,” replied a boy in the middle who had been quiet until then, relieving me of telling the story for hours until my repertory of sounds and over used throat might have run out of inspiration!

The story came to a close with satisfaction and full involvement.   The idea of a bed collapsing brought a roar of laughter and incredible near somersaults.

I have told the same story often in camps and orphanages in Haiti after the earthquake. In that situation, where the loss of a bed and a house collapsing was visceral, I changed the ending. I had the grandmother find a tin of oil in the kitchen and fix the squeaky door. This never changed the essential work of the story and saved any child who might have been triggered by the images of destruction so fresh in their minds.

As we delighted in the images of the bed and the house falling apart, a very energetic zany event, I said very quietly, “And the little boy climbed into a new bed in a new house that had no squeaky door.”

The secret play of silent collusion ensued as they leaned in to taste the end of the tale.“That’s it!” I said, clapping.

“One more?” said the pink-bloused girl.

I told what I thought would be a very short story about my sixth birthday when I wanted a puppy. It is a tale where not much happens, but there is tremendous suspense. Of course the minor part where children come to my house with gifts expanded into a list of desired gifts. A child would say what they imagined I wanted, revealing what they wanted. In the context of the story there was expression, rather than disappointment or dissatisfaction or want. I repeated what they said adding it to the suspense and fun of the story. I rushed to the conclusion of the tale: a gift of a small white puppy with one black ear. A puppy I named Clipper, Zipper, Tipper. They roared and repeated the names.

A very happy group of children left some rushing up to hug me, others waving, others leaving, smiling to the next moment of their lives. They exited, careful of one another, listening to their teachers, and full of energy. As they departed, I scooped up the cloths and laughed out loud for the sheer pleasure of having enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed being part of the story.

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goose1-445650THE TIME OF MISSING PLANES. Can something so large disappear from radar screens? We have measured and documented the world. Still there is a space of mystery and unforeseen consequences. Territories not recognized. It reminds me that when a wind blows the leaf of a tree in one place in the world it might cause a storm in another. There are wildernesses unknown like other worlds in fairytales. But we think they are make-believe. Giants in one story wreak havoc and are stupid. In another tale they are the ones who guard the most profound secrets for how to heal the world and ourselves. We have no idea of what we are doing. We assume the nature of reality.

THE TIME OF EXECUTIONS GONE WRONG. The awful agony of poison not working as we expect, becomes public. We live through this murder together. What usually occurs in private, unrecorded, becomes an instant replay into our living rooms. The entire idea of justice is questionable. In a folktale a man who sought justice arrived at a small house with burning candles. Each one a human being’s destiny. He was shown his own. It was splattering and small, about to go out. He panicked. “I didn’t know that I was dying?” He tried to steal another’s candle that was large and seated in a pool of oil. An old man put his hand on his shoulder saying, “Is this your idea of justice?”

SEEING is occurring. How long can we remain blind to what is actually the result of our disconnection from interdependence? THE TIME OF OUTRAGEOUS RAPE as 200 girls vanish. A mad man reigns with terror. Confusion of concepts and politics of greed and theories, ideas and secret pacts are revealed. It is time to awaken Durga’s compassion. It is time to ask her to save the world. Her response was seduction of monsters. “If you are as powerful as me show me your female side?” Enraged the monster battled with her. She defeated him by exposing his soul, his goodness, his female self.

THE TIME OF MELTING ICEBERGS. Polar bears walk into cities and mountain lions sleep on verandahs. It is beauty. What takes place that we cannot control haunts us. We need to fall in love again. We think we do not have to learn to live with others including elephants and our demons. Elephants—our teachers reminding us of gentleness and mourning and love. Hunted, they go on rampage. Once they were clouds in Indian myths. Now come to earth. Ten young Aboriginal boys, huge, painted in white, climbed up the rickety steps to my Broadway loft. They sat in the living room in a circle. Playing didgeridoo. I feared the floor would collapse. Then I entered the room in time to see them dancing the dance of the crane; leaping into the air and landing light as feathers. The air cleared. The heart strengthened. Somewhere a goat separated from a horse cried until a woman brought them together again. A hippo adopted a turtle. A boy in Rwanda slept in the arms of his parents’ murderer and unknowingly found solace. baby-hippo-tortoise-love-friends

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ASSUMPTIONS create havoc. They destroy relationships. They ignore the space between speaking and hearing , where everything travels and is alive with energy and feeling. Inquiry before accusation opens territory for dialogue and deeper relationships. It is a pause button of invaluable kindness. Acting on assumptions, hearsay or events out of context are the cause for harm. The few minutes it takes clears the path for conversation, and also makes us aware of our own tendency to believe whatever arises from our own fearful thinking reactive mind factory. I have experienced this personally often. Whole careers, not to mention projects and community cohesion, can unravel by an assumption gone public. Media, driven by searching for a fast sound bite story that will grab readership, has replaced journalism and reflection. Adding to the already disconnected practice of mistaking digital communication with genuine communication it is an equation for desperation, imbalance, and violence. We have to do all we can to re -generate direct communication. A way of seeing outside of our own reactions and responses to becoming aware of others. Even looking at something fully outside ourselves can become a relief from self harming assumption that will have effect on others. This is an emergency.

A man who was considering making a donation to a project I mentor for adolescent girls in Haiti living in a camp four years after the earthquake, wrote to say he was reconsidering because one of the girls in a photo had a Louis Vuitton bag on her lap. I was startled at his assumption. But he probably has never really thought about the lives of these girls to assume they may have purchased an expensive French purse when they can barely afford to eat everything. I wrote back, “ Thank you for a chance to give you a bit of a glimpse in to their lives. They buy these things thrown out by Americans , supposedly donated, but sold. They are piled up on the streets and in the markets for pennies. It has more to do with our sense of waste then it does with their sense of fashion. For a young girl having something they think is normal and beautiful, strengthens them. I am sure she has never heard of or cares about Louis Vuitton. They feel so humiliated by living in the camp with little sanitation, hard to find water for drinking or being clean, no privacy and a constant risk of illness,despair and rape. Probably your friend doesn’t realize this. I actually once stopped on the street and bought a pair of shoes I could never afford in NY for $13 the high price for a non Haitian.

And this was a mild assumption.

There is a great wisdom story that I have written about before. A queen in Afghanistan could not recover from the grief of the loss of her first child. With time she grew more and more distressed. Until, she did not leave her rooms. The King
despaired. Doctors of every sort had no effect. He heard about a musician who was said to heal cripples, and transform sorrows. The young man, who played a wooden flute called Tula, was brought from his mountain village. He played every day in the chambers of the queens. In time, her grief was lessened and she returned to life. The King was grateful. And when she gave birth to a second child, he rewarded the flute player and planned to send him back to his village.

However, the queen requested that he remain to play for the child. The King agreed but the thought entered his mind that perhaps the child was not his, but the love child of the musician. This thought grew. It took on a life of immense proportions haunting the King. He began to create tests to see if his wife was in love with the young man. Beautiful women were brought before the flute player. His indifference convinced the King. He never inquired to discover that the young man was in love with a young woman in his village and betrothed in marriage. Finally he constructed the ultimate test.

The King had artisans create a gold mechanical bird covered with shining jewels. A lever caused a recorded song, similar to the sound of the flute, to be played. He placed a carpet on the ground and had his wife put the baby on the carpet. Then he placed the mechanical bird and the wooden flute beside him. At first for a moment, the child looked at the glittering object, but then he lifted up the flute. The King convinced lifted up his sword. The Queen realized in that moment what had occurred. She placed her hand on his arm and stopped him before he beheaded the flute player. Then she signaled the musician to play. His music calmed the King who slowly put down the sword and recognized his devastating mistake.

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Another Kind of Presence

AFTERMATH:  The Sorrow of Violence

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.






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