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  • Writer's pictureRoi Gal-Or

Storytelling teaching compassion

Upload July 2019.

Hodja Nasrudin, the famous holy man, fool and trickster from the Middle East was invited to replace the local judge in the local court one day. Early in the morning, he came to hear the first case. Two people came into the courtroom, both flushed with anger, and stood on opposite sides. Hodja listened very carefully to the argument of one of them and at the end said to the man: "I hear you! And you are right!" Then he invited the man on the other side to speak and present his side of the case. Hodja listened very carefully to the second man speaking and at the end of his words he replied: "Yes, I agree, you are right!" One of the people in the audience, a member of the public heard this and said: "Nasrudin, this is impossible! This is not the way to pass judgment! You cannot say that both people are right when they are arguing with each other". Hodja looked at this man and said: "You are, of course, right too!"

It is said that there are at least three sides to every story. Your side, my side, and - the Truth. The tenderness of heart that enables the possibility to truly feel with another being, their experience from their side of the story is called Compassion (originating from Latin- Compati - to suffer with).

Stories shift our gaze beyond habitual perspectives and help us look at the world through many eyes, human and non-human. The shiftiness of this imaginative faculty can lead us in many directions; but when accompanied with integrity, kindness and devoted observation it can lead us back to remember our interconnectedness and can teach us compassion.

There is a story of an Indian saint who once walked with her disciples early in the morning to take a bath in the holy river Ganges. When they arrived they met a family standing by the bank of the river, all arguing and shouting at each other. The Saint turned to her disciples and asked:

“Why do people shout when they have a conflict?”

One of the disciples answered: “It is because they get too emotional about this argument that they shout”. The Saint shook her head and said: “They are standing so close to each other, they can hear each other perfectly well. It is possible to express emotions without shouting. Why do they raise their voices?” Another disciple said: "It is because they feel they want to convince the other side and win the argument." The saint shook her head again and said: “How can shouting help with that? They don’t need to shout to do that. Look, they are standing close to each other, why are they shouting?"

The disciples did not agree on an answer. Then the saint explained: “When people argue or have a conflict they feel like their own heart is moving out of their body and further and further away from the other. It is because they experience their hearts so far away from the other that they feel the need to shout, to cover for the great distance they feel between them. This is of course but an illusion, their hearts have never left them. If only we remember that, there will be no more shouting. Just think of lovers, on the other hand, who have their hearts very close to each other, so close that they sometimes whisper or just gaze at each other’s eyes lovingly and have no need to say anything at all. Remember where your heart is!”

Forgetting we humans are wired for connection, forgetting our heart, we fall into the illusion of separation and can sink into war, hatred and resentment. Nelson Mandela who was himself a great lover of stories once said that resentment is like 'drinking poison and hoping that your enemy will die from it'.

Stories are loved by people of different ages, cultures, gender, and backgrounds. As such, they provide us with the perfect common ground to explore compassion.

Striving to teach us compassion, Storytellers are not afraid of conflict!!!

Without conflict, there are no stories nor transformation. Conflicts managed with compassion are full of potential for growth. They can be seen as opportunities to make life more rich and interesting; a chance to expand in consciousness and get to see things from other angles and closer to the complex truth of a situation. In many myths of various spiritual traditions, the first conflict appears at the very beginning, very soon after creation. Conflict is natural. It is only a problem when we forget where our heart is and then instead of us having a conflict...the Conflict is having us.

Stories are twisted mirrors offering us a look at hidden aspects of ourselves and the freedom to examine and align ourselves with our core values. Every character in every story, the heroine, the helper, and the villain is us and is longing to be given a chance to tell the story through their perspective.

The Buddhist Jataka (tales of the previous life of the Buddha) mentions a time where after he had done some terrible things and had caused much suffering to himself and to others, he found himself in the worst kind of all Hells.

There was only one other man sharing this hell with him, and the two of them were forced to work very hard, under the watchful eyes of a fierce and brutal guard who had no heart, no compassion, no sense for love nor pain and seemed to be obsessed with the task of making them both suffer as much as he could.

The guard had a glowing, heavy and burning iron fork which he constantly used to stab and torture the two men until they bled. One day after seeing the guard torture again the other man in this hell, compassion awoke in the Buddha. He turned to the guard asking, "Where is your heart?" He challenged him for his behavior and for causing the other man unnecessary suffering. The guard got very angry and stabbed the Buddha to death. As he died in this hell, this new compassion led him straight away to be born again as a human on earth.

The other man in this hell saw the Buddha die, and for the first time, his own heart was touched too by compassion. He was touched by the fact that another soul had some love, care, and courage to risk their life and intervene for his sake. As compassion arose in him also, he spoke to the guard, saying, "Do you not have a heart? Through the way you act, you only create suffering for yourself and for other people. Surely you cannot be happy if you have killed another person." The guard became so angry again, and he stabbed the second man until he too died. This second man too escaped hell and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as a full human being.

After what seemed like an eternity, the guard who was left on his own in that hell started feeling incredible loneliness. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and he started craving for the company of others. Realising how important was this company of others for him, in his suffering, he had made a vow that if he was given another chance to watch over other people in this hell, he would learn to deal with them in a different, perhaps gentler way. A transformation took place in the area of the body where his heart was. He did have a heart after all. We all do. We only need something to touch it to remember it is there. These two people he had killed have touched it and a new desire for connection was born in his heart. With this wish, he too died and was reborn a human on this Earth.

We are all sharing our days together here on this Earth, and many of us wonder how to cultivate compassion. May we begin with remembering where our own heart is. And if we try to reach someone else may we trust that 'the shortest distance between any two human beings is - a story'.


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