Navigating through these strange times guided by Wondertales
Updated: Apr 14
Do you want to play a fun guessing game?”, a child once asked the famous trickster Hodjah Nasrudin on Easter day.
The holy fool replied: “Of course!"
“Well, guess what is in my pocket?”, said the child.
“Oh it is difficult, give me a clue”, said Nasrudin.
“It’s oval, white on the outside and yellow on the inside.”
“Hmmm I love riddles…give me another clue”, said Nasrudin.
“If I'll let go of it, its soft white shell will easily break.”
“How interesting…difficult to guess…please…give me another clue”, said Nasrudin.
“It is shaped like an egg! It looks like an egg!”, the boy said impatiently.
“Hmm…let me take a wild guess - is it some kind of cake?"
“Oh, I know”, said Nasrudin, “it is a hollowed-out turnip filled with a small carrot inside!”
I love this story. For many reasons. The play between knowing and not knowing, the invitation to remain inventive and open to find more and more new possibilities rather than the past-based, logical, computed answers. The surprise gifts of working with the imagination.
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke about the ‘Beginners Mind’ - the genius of meeting the world with an empty mind which avoids labelling and is always open and ready to see things with fresh eyes: ’In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’
Like many of us, I can easily feel great despair seeing how current trends in this world seem to lead us to the brink of extinction. Facing the seemingly unsolvable challenges we are facing nowadays, I wonder how on earth will we find our way through and out of this mess.
One thing that gives me real hope for the future is witnessing the deep mystery at work when telling wonder tales to an adult audience. I never cease to marvel at how, for the duration of the telling, the listeners seem to slowly drop off their shields as if they intuitively recognise this precious opportunity opened by the story, to let go of all supposed knowledge, to suspend the rational mind with its tendency to find the shortest, habitual linear path to a solution. For a rare moment of a calm and deeper breath, the listeners relax into following the unfolding story with wonder, like children, and feel renewed by entering with their imagination, the shoes of those who meet the world with a beginner's mind.
A classic wonder tale formula presents us with an innocent young simpleton who, against all odds, sustainably succeeds in their quest, unlike her/his two older siblings, who are arrogant, reckless, and privileged. These stories invite our mind to expand back to its original full size (or fool size) of great potency, imagination and possibility. This escape path is the antidote to rational, reduced, pressured prescriptions and narrow templates for success as defined by dominating culture.
Wonder tales humbly offer us a road map and navigation tools to break the spells of selfishness, disconnection and colonialism, which have been cast upon our minds. They reveal how we might free ourselves to journey - both inwardly and in the outer world - to find our essential nature of interconnectedness and gain compassion and wisdom. They invite us to consider what may be our right place in the fabric of the world to participate responsibly in co-creation.
The young heroines/heroes in these stories seem to move in the world with a kind and positive attitude, a selfless and pure open heart. They are non-judgmental and non-hierarchical. They are honest and therefore trust others (this innocence is often taken advantage of but in the long run prevails). They move slowly and pay equal attention to everything and everyone. They prefer being to doing. They are curious and soft.
For these qualities they are mocked by their arrogant elder siblings; for indeed at surface value, it may seem foolish to even contemplate that such qualities can lead one anywhere in the speedy, harsh, and competitive reality that surrounds us.
But what if we dive deeper?
I once guided a storytelling workshop where one of the participants was a special man who wonderfully embodied in his being the way of the simpleton. In one of the exercises he shared with me his theory and thoughts about evolution:
“A long time ago”, he said, “chickens gave birth to their chicks directly on the ground and the poor chicks had no protection at all. The soft chicks of course got trampled and squashed easily, so the birds developed a protective shell in the form of an egg. The first eggshells were so thin and soft that they got squashed quickly too! Then for a very long time with every generation, the eggshell got thicker and harder until we arrived at the eggs we have today. These eggs, as we know, are still quite soft. Now, there is the danger, that if evolution continues this way into the future, there will come a time when the shells will be so thick and hard and the chicks will never be able to break the shell and would die inside.”
Pondering on his story, I felt this could be a profound cautionary tale of the danger of hardening ourselves. Like many simpletons, this man had experienced both deep loneliness and mockery by the outside world, yet was aware of the risk of protecting himself with a too-hard, suffocating armour. In our storytelling group, he quickly became a loved hero. His simple softness created a field of joy, deep listening and tenderness that drew out these very qualities from everyone around him in a profound and remarkable way.
You may be familiar with the English folktale of Lazy Jack, a simpleton mocked by his mother for always getting it wrong. In practice, Jack actually follows his mother’s words – her “expert” instructions - without any discernment; perhaps pointing to the limits of literal interpretation.
Jack was paid with a coin, which he lost on his way home, and his mother said to him: “Next time, make sure you keep whatever you are given in your pocket.”
The following evening, Jack poured the bottle of milk he was given for his work down his pocket. Back home, his angry mother said he should have carried it on his head.
The next day he placed a slab of butter he was paid with on his head! The mother, furious, told him he should have held it in his arms.
The following day he wrestled with a scratching tomcat and tried hard to keep it in his arms, only to be told by his mother he should have tied it with a rope!
This he applied when he was paid with a piece of meat which he dragged behind him on the dirty ground. The mother, beside herself with rage, shouted: “You fool! You should’ve carried it on your shoulders!”
The next day, when a live donkey was offered to him, Jack remembered his mother’s instruction and carried the donkey on his shoulders.
At this point, the story takes an interesting turn, for Jack happened to pass by the house of a wealthy family whose daughter was very sad and had been suffering for years from a strange illness that stopped her from speaking. No doctor could cure her. Seeing this funny sight of Jack swaying from side to side, carrying the anxious donkey on his shoulders, she laughed out loud and, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her own shoulders, she seemed to recover her well-being and her speech. Jack married the girl and was rewarded with much wealth for curing her. I can imagine Mother was finally pleased…
What is the dis-ease that only laughter can cure?
The “expert” instructions of Jack’s mother seem to make things worse when handled by a fool with a beginner's mind.
Reflecting on how we manage contemporary challenges, is there anything we can learn from Jack’s story?
The wonder tale of ‘The Golden Goose’ from the Brothers Grimm introduces us to another simpleton with a kind heart who, unlike his elder brothers (who later are mysteriously punished for their selfishness), is willing to share his food with an old grey man he meets in the forest and is rewarded with a golden goose. Three sisters see the boy and crave a feather from his goose. While the boy is asleep, trying to steal a feather, the girls magically get stuck to it. When the boy awoke he continued on his journey with the goose, seemingly unaware of the attached girls. From then on anyone approaching them (including high status folk) gets stuck too. Whatever the Golden Goose metaphorically means to you, the one thing we know for sure is that it’s contagious! The end of this tale is almost identical to the end of Jack’s story. This amusing procession of people stuck to the goose is healing and heart opening for a different sick princess whom simpleton ends up marrying.
Another innocent young brother in another Grimm story called ‘The Queen Bee’, finds an enchanted kingdom and is presented with three impossible tasks to solve. His arrogant, cold-hearted brothers had failed the first task and were turned into stones. In his despair, the youngest brother sits on a rock and cries. (Simpletons don’t even try to suppress a true emotion when it comes!) To his aid come the ants, the ducks, and the queen bee whose lives he had saved from the actions of his brothers earlier on the way to the castle. This story reveals the real danger is disconnection and the hardening of our hearts and shows that when life is at stake only the consequences of our kindest actions and our care for nature will determine whether we survive.
Some ‘foolish’ navigation tools for these lockdown times can be found in the story of ‘The Three Feathers’ from the Brothers Grimm. A king challenges his three children to test which one of them will inherit the kingdom. They are sent to find objects of great beauty, truth, and goodness. To avoid a conflict, they agree to each blow a feather to the wind and follow it. The feathers of the elders are carried, one to the east and one to the west but the youngest’s feather falls on the ground under his feet. He is left mocked for his failure, yet as he kneels on the ground where he stands he discovers a trap door that leads him to an enchanted world of toads who help him win the competition. As the older siblings don’t really care for what they find, the youngest discovers the door of the ‘here and now’, and the ‘down to earth’ solution of finding a new way of seeing, a deeper connection to his immediate surroundings and to magical ever-present help available.
Such stories and wonder tales can easily be dismissed as nonsensical lies, yet can we consider that though these stories are not historically true, we may find some timeless soul truths in them? The rational mind may say that we will get nowhere by telling such stories of childlike fantasies and dreams, but in our current messy reality, can we afford not to dream that another way is possible? To bring about the changes we long for and imagine the future, we may find we need at least one foot rooted in the bold question “what if?” asked by the ‘innocent beginner’s mind’.
Sometimes we stop seeing things for what they truly are when we take them for granted or simply fall into an enchanted sleep by swallowing structures, labels and names as they are taught to us. Without the gift of imagination, our world can shrink to an unbearable size with all of us calcified into stones.
Imagination keeps everything questionable, open, and soft. It can erode any stubborn form and hard structure that no longer serves our development. Imagination helps us to find hope, innovation, and new possibilities in times of challenge. We can move differently through the world if we only dare to dream. We may not have all the answers yet but we can dare to show up with the humble qualities of a simpleton and may find guidance and support from some things we will never be able to see as long as we are operating only from the consciousness of the older siblings in these stories.
The origin of the word entertainment is to ‘hold together' and true to this, stories invite us to find fresh meaning, values, and insights. Storytelling is a great container as well as a mighty calling to ignite social warmth, melt away selfishness and awaken the intuitive wisdom of the imagination. May this wisdom guide us to meet with creativity, faith, hope, and love, whatever may come towards us next, in this great unfolding story.
Written By Roi Gal-Or for the 'LOST ISLANDS' Online Storytelling course April 2021
This course will run again in May 2021. Learn more about the course here: https://www.roigalor.com/the-lost-islands-online-course
To read more musings from Roi visit : www.roigalor.com/musings-1