Stories Store Knowledge as Metaphor

We love stories. From our earliest days of rational, self-conscious thought, stories have embedded information essential for survival into stories for the next generation. Stories are an effective way of preserving knowledge and enhancing learning.

How far back does this tradition of storytelling go? Paleo-anthropologists claim that we are essentially the same creature as we were 60,000 years and upwards of 120,000 years ago. As new scientific discoveries are made, our connection with our ancient ancestors is pushed deeper and deeper into our past.

For example, cuneiform of the ancient Sumerians provides among the first examples of writing, going back to 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. However, humans have been recording information long before this in far simpler forms, including such practices as making notches on a stick, for example.

The human mind is hardwired to seek explanations for the world around us. Before the advent of scientific inquiry in ancient Greece, we used storytelling to help us to make sense out of life and of the environment. Our nature made it vital for us to develop an understanding our personal relationship to plants, animals, and climate. We had to figure out how to maneuver in the environment, but it was also necessary to support others with the information so that they too could survive.

That's why we find ancient stories which mention the use of plants and herbs, some of which are poisonous and others beneficial. There are stories around how people should treat each other. All of this knowledge was embedded in mystical, cultural and religious contexts.

There are stories about animals and our relationship to them. One of the early cultures taught that the world was supported by a huge turtle, which was in turn, sitting on top of another turtle and so on. Turtles all the way down. (Let us not forget that, if we indeed reincarnate, that we are our own ancestors).

It is, in fact, our ability to pass on information to each other that we, as just another creature, have become so dominant.

As scientific inquiry gradually took hold during the Renaissance, such mythologies seem more fairytale than fact. While there are hundreds, thousands likely, of mythological explanations for the world around us, science gives a more useful explanation of things. Rather than the earth being set upon on stacked turtles (as one ancient mytth suggested), we now know that the Earth is suspended in space.

Yet science too, gives us stories to explain the world around us; stories that help answer the "hows" of life but thought cannot explain the "whys".

Aside from the useful information embedded in the world's mythologies, cultures, and religions, there is also coercion and manipulation. We find plenty of politics in the culture of science. It's not surprising because we humans are politicians by nature.

Because of our political nature, I have carefully selected how and when to use stories to teach about life's principles. Stories are useful because they help to sustain the lessons in the mind, but lose their usefulness when taken too literally.

In the following section I will share some of the stories that I have been taught. My hope is that these stories are useful. Stories store knowledge as metaphor.

She Laid Down Her Cross

A woman, overwhelmed by the pain in her life, went before God to complain

She told God that the cross she was bearing was too heavy and could He give her a different cross to bear. God said, "My dear child, of course you can have a different cross. Put down the one you have," and he gestured to a huge field filled with crosses of all shapes and sizes, and that she should pick a new one.

She spent several weeks going through the whole field testing one cross after another. Finally, feeling a cross to be the correct one for her, she took it up. She realized that she had inadvertently picked up the same cross that she had put down.

(Told to me by my teacher Jagna.)

A Tree Grows in India

In India there grows a tree that requires watering on a daily basis for ten years before anything sprouts above ground. If, even on one day, watering does not occur, the tree dies. After ten years of watering the ground, it shoots up thirty feet in several weeks.

A Falling Man

A man fell from the top of a 100-story building. At the 50th floor another man stuck his head out of the window and asked the falling man how he was doing. The man said he was doing fine so far. 

(My teacher Jagna too, told this story to me.)

God's Banquet

God set out a banquet in Hell and a banquet in Heaven.

All the people in Hell sit around the table, a wonderful spread of food before them. Likewise in Heaven those souls also sit around the table together with a wonderful spread of food.

In Heaven the souls are well nourished and in Hell the souls are starving even though there is plenty of food. The reason for this is that God gave everyone, a long spoon. The souls in Hell were not able to feed themselves because the spoon was longer than their arm. In Heaven on the other hand the souls fed each other.

As they say, "No good deed goes unpunished." The reason for this is that to truly help in the world is to be in a position that has ben earned.

When we find ourselves submerged in our own conditioning (good and bad), then whatever we do in the world will be a mixture of helpful and harmful. Through inner work, an individual becomes capable of helping, and so the universe grants this power. Before helping others, we must first work on ourselves.

Fighting Squashes

There was a room full of squashes, all fighting with each other and causing tremendous turmoil. The Zen master came into the room and instructed all of the squashes to sit and meditate. They sat down, becoming quiet and still. After a while the Zen Master told them to touch the top of their heads, which they did. It was then they knew that there was a vine connecting all of them together. They were all, in fact, brothers and sisters.

(Told by a Zen Master )

The Lost Jewel

A king and queen were out on their pond in a pleasure boat. The sun was shining and they were happy...until the queen dropped one of her jewels into the water. She then became upset.

The king told the captain to recover the jewel. The captain ordered his men into the boats and out on the water where they rowed around looking for it, but were unsuccessful.

The king, seeing that the captain was getting nowhere called in the wise man and asked him to recover the jewel. The wise man told everyone to get out of the water. He then sat down and did nothing. The king waited awhile and then told the wise man to help, as sitting down doing nothing is not going to get the jewel found.

The wise man replied, "Just relax and wait." The pond had become muddied from the turbulent efforts of the soldiers. In time, the mud and the silt that was suspended in the water settled to the bottom. The water became crystal clear. As the sun shone through the water, the jewel began to sparkle. The wise man, the king, and the queen saw the jewel and were then able to recover it easily.