Telling Stories

The Blessed One thought,
“I have taught the Truth,
But simple as it is, the people can not understand it.
Therefore I will tell them stories.”

I have written many times that it seems to me that the essential truths of Mankind are largely taught through the medium of parables and metaphors. This seems true in almost every culture. In Western literature of course many of our so-called fairy tales have embedded in them deeper meanings. Most are familiar also with Aesop’s Fables, and Arabian Nights which are stories with lessons and hidden meanings. Then there are the parables associated with various religious traditions, such as the parables of Jesus and the Sufi stories about Nasruddin. All these have underlying tuition and themes that are instructive to us. Indeed Jesus is purported to have said “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35)

[As an aside, the Jesuit Anthony De Mello (whose marvellous little book “Awareness” I have frequently referred to in previous essays) was an inveterate collector of such stories and published many volumes of them. They are a delight to read and I can recommend them to you.]

Most of these stories are part of long oral traditions. Before the advent of printing, the accumulated wisdom of societies was passed on this way. Many say for example that the Koran is much more compelling in its oral form rather than its written form.

Stanford University’s Robert Ornstein (psychologist, researcher and writer) writes:

“The aim, of course, in esoteric tradition is to receive unfamiliar information. Teaching stories purposely contain certain especially chosen patterns of events.”

He maintains that the repeated hearing of the story allows these patterns to be reinforced in the mind of the person hearing them. Since many of the events are improbable and unusual, repeated hearing of the story begins to create new constructs and conditions the mind to be more receptive to unusual and sometimes seemingly illogical ideas. One might conjecture that this oral tradition helps establish what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”.

Then there are the allegorical writings in more modern times of authors such as Jonathan Swift, Cervantes, C S Lewis and H G Wells. They created improbable, metaphorical devices to uncover truths about the human condition. The genius of their art is that they attract readers who would be repulsed by having to read a moralistic treatise that put these truths directly to the reader.

As I wrote in my previous blog sometimes the truth can’t be approached directly. In seeking to teach in this way we are trying to engage something other than the intellect. If this was not so we could propagate the message by just saying, “Be kind. Beware of Hubris. Don’t let an exaggerated sense of self distort your view of the world. Don’t pin your hopes for happiness on the acquisition of material wealth. ….” Or whatever.

Because exhortations to reform our moral stature are seldom effective, these storytellers use strange tales and improbable stories to inveigle us to reexamine our motives and habits. We might ask how does such a device work?

I would conjecture that this strategy allows us to receive unfamiliar and often confronting information that traditional communication techniques would not allow. We are encouraged to suspend normal belief structures when we read or, perhaps even more importantly, listen to such stories. The stories take the mind along unfamiliar and non-linear paths. It is then not necessary to “understand” the stories in the usual intellectual and rational mode.

Perhaps it would be useful to look at an example of such a parable. The following is narrated in Idries Shah’s book, “The Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin.”

“A man saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. ‘What have you lost, Mulla?’he asked.

‘My key,’ said the Mulla.

So the man went down on his knees too and they both looked for it.

After a time the other man asked, ‘Where exactly did you drop it?’

‘In my own house.’

‘Then why are you looking here?’

‘There is more light here than in my own house.’”

In this parable we might ask, “What is this key that Nasruddin is seeking?” Well we can be sure it is not a physical key. It is the key to understanding. And where does the Mulla look? Outside in the light. He is looking for a physical understanding, ‘in the light’ – that is in the light of his conventional thinking. But where is the key really? Well it’s inside his own house – ie inside his own mind, a place more esoteric where he has little knowledge. And this is a typical human response. We try and try to understand our problems through conventional logic, drawing on our established understanding. But many solutions can’t be found this way. We have to venture inside into ‘the dark’. So this is a delightful parable, humourous on the surface but containing deep insights that might be more difficult to relate in a more direct way.

Our education is dominated by the verbal, analytic mode of enquiry. Our reasoning is generally confined to the logical. The parable above, and indeed most parables, are designed to shock us into considering another way of knowing. (See my previous blog essay.) Their function is to open up the other mode of knowledge which complements what most of us believe is the “normal” one.

There is a danger here of course. Those that have mastered the esoteric, can easily pour scorn on the rational. And certainly the rational will scoff at the notion that the esoteric might have found something that logic could not uncover. And in our modern world so enamoured of science the esoterics are at a great disadvantage. They suffer from the fact that they attract fellow travellers of dubious character. They are saddled with the pop psychologists that propagate the notion that repairing human suffering is just a matter of will. They are demeaned by many of the proponents of alternative medicines who advocate treatments that have little evidentiary support. But despite this they still have influence. And one of their tools of influence is the telling of stories.

A parable does not rely on conventional logic. Yet it conveys to us meaning and understanding. Parables often shock us because they run counter to logic. Yet when they transcend our rationality we gasp at the arcane nature of their wisdom. And then, for a little while, when the serial logic of our minds is temporarily suspended, we just “know” the embedded truth.

9 Replies to “Telling Stories”

  1. Yes this is interesting Ted, the great truths are seemingly only in parables, and often paradox parables too. Of the course the classic one we relive every Easter is the die-to-live parable, the Arabian Nights with their give-to-receive stories, and everyone knows the hare and the tortoise! What about the modern parables like The Wizard of Oz and (as you mentioned Lewis Carroll) Alice through the Looking Glass – both stories where a black-and-white flat world is transformed and coloured-in by a traumatic experience on the part of the subject …….it’s all how you see it! And for that matter Baz Luhrmann’s Australia which goes from drab desert to blossoming flowers once love arrives! And Harry Potter is a splendid parable that has so refreshingly infected the youth of today, and I guess Tolkien’s works too…. and one might be forgiven for puting quite a bit a theatre into the broad category of parable – a story that on the surface is fanciful but which contains an underlying truth….nést ce pas?


    I supect that parables work so well is because they come in under the imtellectual radar so that our intellectaul defence mechanisms see no threat and they don’t push the red buttons on the ground to air missiles….

    1. Thanks Jack – and you are right – parables are good at teaching because they sneakily teach us something without us being aware we are being taught and thus avoid most of our self-defence mechanisms. They are also a lot more fun to write. Telling a story which conveys an inherent message is also a lot more satisfying than giving moral instructions!

  2. Hi Ted
    Having spent most of my life navel gazing, I am somewhat surprised that you are still searching for deeper meaning of life. My summary of my inner contemplations is that all of my life various people tried to influence my views on various subjects eg religion, morality, politics, character analysis etc etc.
    I realised in later life that their views were the condensed wisdom of everything they had read or what others had told them. Their convictions were sincere and genuine, but most people find explanations that their intellect can accept. Many years ago I found that I listened to everyone but just stored the info without agreeing or disagreeing with it.
    I know as much about the afterlife as any other person (zilch)and having studied religion most of my life it is interesting but not something that I can embrace (as I did conscientiously until I was about 30 yo). Like you, Buddhism is a philosophy that I can accept. However, we have been exposed to science and knowledge far more advanced than the promoters of religious philosophies. This may be a negative, but it cannot be disregarded.
    Of all the issues facing mankind at present, the issue that I feel personally as important is the old basic of human interaction, kindness and respect. Some of my relatives by marriage (my brother) are deeply involved in charity work for new migrants and one is currently up near Weipa where she is helping boat people.
    I have mixed race grandchildren who I love dearly and admire and respect their efforts in life. I am conscious of the racial bigotry that they have witnessed even though they are high achievers. These overtones in our society are usually not overt but reflect innate prejudices. Travel, education and exposure to different cultures have highlighted to me the need to interact whenever possible outside of our closest class of contacts.
    Reading the above sounds as if I am arguing with you but I’m not. I don’t disagree with what you are saying, but what are your long term goals for the ideas that you are propounding? What sort of person are you seeking to help/ influence?
    Don’t forget that coffee you promised some time when you are in town!
    I identify with that name – Valerie suggested it to me when I was trying to think one up for some computer site.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ron – or should that be Cyberon! I can’t respond adequately in this short comment but I would like to make a couple of points:

      Firstly I want people to come to their own realisations about their beliefs. So many people just take on the belief sets of their families, their cultures, their perr groups etc. If you believe philosophy and spirituality are important as I do then it is essential that we need to come to our own understanding of the world.

      Secondly, this implies that we should seek to expand our knowledge of as many spiritual traditions as possible so to inform our choice.

      Finally I have no desire to evangelise. I am happy to share with my readership some of the things I believe but not to convince them to share my belief but just that they should measure such ideas against their own criteria.

      As most of my readers know I am a great fan of the Jesuit, Anthony De Mello who was also well-versed in the Eastern traditions. In his fabulous little book “Awarenes he told his audience –

      ‘…..even though I say to you at some times”Wake Up!” my business is to do my own thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it fine; if you don’t too bad! As the Arabs say, “The nature of rain is the same (wherever it falls), but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowere in the gardens.”‘

      So my motivation is just to put to my readership my observations and understandings. In the course of the discussions you might learn something and often, of course, I learn something. That is enough for me.

      And yes I will have a coffee with you but I will confirm that by private e-mail.

  3. Oh and I forgot – any story involving slaying of dragons (like say Jason and the Argonauts, like Perseus and Medusa, like Theseus and the Minotaur….) has got to be a parable for the personal struggle for the ascendancy of good over evil, spiritual over carnal.

    What about stepmothers Ted? Pretty well every fairy story (parables in themselves of course) has evil stepmothers, never evil stepfathers. Same for stepsisters vis a vis stepbrothers. Ashpodel (Cinderella) comes to mind, and Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel….and (while we’re in Halloween mode) why is literature full of witches? Que?


    1. Hey Jack I seem to have missed something here! This seems to be the second part of a two part response, the first part of which I can’t locate.

      Nevertheless I enjoyed the comments. It is amazing that dragons have played a large part in the mythology of both the East and the West. It seems to be a common archetype embedded in the subconscious of humanity. I tried to buck the trend of portraying all dragons as evil when I penned “Yu The Dragon Tamer”. I wrote a little parable about the Little Blue Dragon who was a very benign and wise little chap!

      As for stepmothers, evidence would suggest that step-fathers are far more dangerous. But in the end, the evolutionary psychologists would tell you that our desire to preserve our genes means that when some of us forced to care for offspring where we have no shared genetics we will treat them less favourably than those that share our genes.

      It might be a good question to put to the good Dr Phil!

  4. Sorry Jack, but in my response above I was talking through my hat as usual. Of course you had posted an earlier comment which I had responded to. Thanks for your interest.

  5. I’ll add another De Mello quote that just seems to belong here.

    The Master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure — and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.
    The Master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, “You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.”
    Another time he said, “Do not despise the story. A lost gold coin is found by means of a penny candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story.”

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