Teaching Tales from the Sufi & Hasidic Traditions
by Michael Berman
Teaching Tales have a long and honoured history for being a way to entertain and, at the same time, educate people. The earliest examples were probably chants or songs of praise for the natural world in pagan times. And since stories first began being told, one of the methods of passing on a culture’s teaching has involved a student sitting at his teachers feet and listening to the tales that teacher had to tell of times and people gone by. The stories of early India, the Greek fables, Taoist, Zen, Sufi and Hasidic tales are all examples of trying to pass on not just a cultural tale but a valuable lesson as well.
The author and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello tells of a master who always gave his teachings in parables and stories, much to the frustration of his disciples who wanted straightforward answers to their questions. To their objections the master would answer, “You have yet to understand my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”
Wisdom tales can remind us of higher goals, and provide the inspiration to practise what we know on a daily basis. Spiritual and cultural traditions the world round have provided tales of how others have danced and stumbled along life's path for this very purpose. Stories offer us doorways into new ways of seeing and being in the world. The secret is that the story door opens inward. When we draw the stories deeply into our imaginations, and make connections from them to our own lives, they become a part of us, like a wise advisor ready to remind us of another way of seeing and responding to life. The shortest tales are especially good for this purpose as they are easily learned and shared spontaneously. It is not always possible to take the time to spin out an elaborate yarn to make a point and we are often called to offer stories in non-performance settings - responding to an immediate issue - with friends, or family or colleagues.
Author, and storyteller Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, described the phenomenon of story living in our psyches as “medicine” that serves us when we need it. This can happen just by hearing a tale. But for a story to be readily available to us, we often must help it to sink in, so that its imagery makes connections in our hearts, memories and imaginations, allowing new learning to arise.
Anthony de Mello (1986) suggests in the introduction to his collection One-Minute Wisdom, that we, “Take one story at a time.” Perhaps it would be a good idea to take his advice one step further and to read not more than one story per week. The hunger for the good story, and for spiritual inspiration, often drives us to plough through story collections like children in a sweetshop. We read one after the other, tasting the unique flavour of each, enough to say, “Mmm, I like that one, or so-so,” often bypassing altogether those that have already been tried. This way of tasting stories is like reading a description of the story on its door, rather than opening the door to be deeply touched by the tale. This is the way of our consumerist culture, but stories call us to be with them in a more time-honoured way.
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