Archive for December, 2014

I ran into a friend at a coffee shop the other day, and she told me this story which I recalled hearing sometime before but that had never made it into my collection of tales that I tell.  That’s about to change…. now.  Kind of.

OK, perhaps it’s not quite telling it if I post a link to 3 versions of the story (each about a paragraph long– it’s a short little guy), but we’ll call it a virtual telling.

It’s a traditional Buddhist parable about dealing with our lives in the here and now.  Given how short it is, some embellishment and extra detail can be helpful in bringing the story to life when you tell it.

Application Notes:

  • Ask your listeners about a time that they felt hurt (emotionally) by someone in their lives.  Then ask– after it happened, what were the thoughts going through their mind?
    • Chances are the majority of the thoughts were something like:  why did that person do this? I can’t believe they…  They always…  Well, they’ll be sorry when I …
    • Probably very few, if any, thoughts went into the exploration of things like: exactly why that action by that person caused that reaction in the listener’s mind; or what the nature of that reaction truly is; or how does one skillfully work with such a reaction to ease one’s own suffering, rather than being “right” or getting back at the perceived perpetrator.
  • So that then leads into a discussion of how ineffectively we often deal with our own suffering, because we’re looking “out there” or fixating on the past or the future– meanwhile, our suffering is happening right HERE, right NOW.  And what do we do with that?  In steps mindfulness…
  • Note that this isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for clearly addressing injustices (to ourselves and others) that come from “out there,” or that digging into the past can’t be tremendously helpful when dealing with suffering (e.g. some forms of psychotherapy).  It’s just saying that our minds tend to over-emphasize the one approach, and we could greatly benefit from the other approach as well–a more mindful, present-centered one.
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I heard this story years ago from Madison Jones, a mindfulness teacher in Washington D.C. Beyond that I haven’t been able to track down a cultural source. Here’s the story in a nutshell—as always, feel free to run with it, fleshing it out and bringing it to life in a way that works for you and the context in which you use it.

A long time ago, in a walled city, there was an old lady who would sit by the main gate into the town, watching all the comings and goings of trade and guards and travelers. She had a reputation for always being totally and completely honest.

While sitting there one day, she saw a traveler coming down the road, approaching her city. By his dress, it was clear that he was from a far-off place. As he neared the gate, he saw the old lady and made his way towards her.

“Excuse me, but I’ve never been to this city before. Could you tell me what it’s like?”

“Well,” said the old lady, “what is your own hometown like?”

“Achh, it’s crowded and dirty, and the people are terribly rude.”

“I’m afraid that you will find this city to be just like that.”

“Figures,” said the stranger, kicking a rock and entering the gate.

The old lady returned to watching the world go by her, and it wasn’t long before she noticed another stranger making his way down the road. He too approached the old lady.

“Excuse me, but I’ve never been to this city before. Could you tell me what it’s like?”

“Well,” said the old lady, “what is your own hometown like?”

“Ahh, it’s a splendid place, with lovely buildings and friendly people.”

“I’m happy to say that you will find this city to be just like that.”

“How wonderful,” smiled the stranger, thanking the old lady and entering the gate.

The old lady went back to watching all of the goings on before her, comfortable in the knowledge that over the course of both exchanges she had been totally honest.

Application Notes:

  • The first obvious follow-up question to ask listeners is, how could it be that she was totally honest if her answers seemed so contradictory? It shouldn’t take too long before someone shares the idea that her answers were all a matter of perspective, and given the probable bias of each stranger, their experience of the same city was likely to be vastly different.
  • Here you can get into a discussion about how powerful perspective is in shaping our individual worlds, and how powerful mindfulness can be in working with our perspective. Through mindfulness we learn to observe the “filters” we have in place, moment by moment, with regards to what we notice about the world around us and how we interpret it. Moreover, we can learn ways of expanding or shifting our filters, so that our outlook can bring more happiness and compassion to our experience of the world.