Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

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.

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.

Stories are funny things.  A tale may lie dormant in the mind for years, and then all of a sudden it will pop up, seemingly from nowhere.  This happened to me just this past week with this little Zen story.  I’m not exaggerating (a storyteller exaggerate?  Never…) when I say that I probably haven’t even thought of this tale in maybe six or seven years.  Then, while teaching a class this past week, it just slipped into my consciousness without any clear trigger.  I like to take this as a sign that the story is asking to be told.  Since I respect the wisdom of these tales (which in some senses are like centuries-old spirits), I followed the cue and found an opportunity to tell it to some students during lunch that same day.  And now I’m “telling” it here!

Application Notes:

  • This easy-to-tell-tale can be well utilized when teaching about the power of positive thinking, connecting to such topics as gratitude or even well-placed faith when used as an antidote to the meditative hindrance of doubt.
  • On the story’s page, the brief tale is followed by a long list of “people’s reactions to this story.” Many of these could be wonderful focal points of a discussion spurred on by the telling of this tale.

This teeny little story (that’s super easy to tell) can pack a punch. It’s a tangible example of how shame/self-doubt/self-criticism is not “true” so much as a particular filter on the world, taking into account only certain pieces of information about ourselves and working them into a particular narrative about who we are and what we do. Mindfulness practice can not only help us become more aware of such identity-narratives and the impact that they have on us (and those around use), but it can also help us widen the filter of our perspective to take in more information, moment by moment. As this tale shows, sometimes we just need one new bit of information to turn our whole perspective on its head!


  • The website this story is on is actually a wonderful resource of powerful teaching tales. Indeed, I’ll likely be linking to other stories on it again in the future. Just as I provide “application notes” for using the stories and games on my blog to teach mindfulness, this website provides notes on how to use these stories for certain types of healing.
  • This story is a beautiful compliment to the game I presented last week.
  • You could do a whole range of follow-up activities with this story: discussions that focus on some of the themes I mentioned in the introduction; art projects where participants draw links between themselves and the cracked pot, identifying flaws and how these can be seen as blessings (and then being mindful of how such a re-frame may (or may not) shift one’s feelings around the perceived flaw); and so on…

My last post was about a game to introduce students to concentration practices. Keeping with that theme, this is a lovely Hindu story where the young protagonist’s concentration (on a mantra or prayer, in this case) is so profound that he becomes the North Start itself—staying motionless in the heavens as the stars spin endlessly around. What a lovely metaphor for finding a still point during meditation, even as thoughts and sensations spin on in the periphery.

To get to this story, follow this link and scroll down past the first short story to the title, “The Faith of A Child: The Story of Dhruva.

In my last post I described a game that can illuminate the power that perspective has in shaping our experience. It seems fitting to share a story on the same theme—in this case an Eastern European Jewish folktale about the legendary “town of fools” called Chelm.

In this version of the story, a simple misunderstanding causes the protagonist to completely shift his perspective on his hometown, leading to surprise and confusion. The version I usually tell (as related by Rabbi Ed Feinstein) takes a slightly different approach, and it’s easy to adapt the story linked here accordingly. Here’s the version I like, in brief:

The main character is sick and tired of his life in his hometown, so he sets off to find paradise. Knowing he is bad with directions, when he takes a nap under a tree he removes his shoes and points them in the direction he was headed. While he sleeps someone (or something) turns his shoes around to point back towards his home, which is the direction he starts walking once he awakens. When he sees his hometown, he assumes it must be paradise. He recognizes the similarities between paradise and his home, though he figures that of course paradise would be tailor made for each person to be like her/his home so he/she can be as comfortable as possible. He finds his same old town, same old house, same old wife and kids, same old job and routine—but since he’s now convinced he’s in paradise, it’s all become wonderful to him!

Application Notes:

  • Given that the theme of this story parallels the theme of the last game I described, much of the application to mindfulness education is similar: recognizing that how we relate to our experience has tremendous power, and seeing how gratitude and appreciation are greatly available if we can just shift our perspective.

Since I just posted a game about gratitude, I thought I’d also share an elegant little story that I like to use to convey that theme. This tale really hits the nail on the head when it comes to mental states and the impact they have on our moment-to-moment well-being.

Note:  The story is on the bottom half of this page.

This tale is one I often tell to children in kindergarten through fourth grade, though I would tell it to adults as well if the setting were right.  The story has some great fairy tale elements– journeying into a forest for the sake of healing, magical encounters that can be on the spooky (yet not scary) side, and powerful dreams.  At the same time, its combination of the “We are all one” refrain with the acts of compassion by the protagonist are a great way of giving listeners an experience of how a sense of interconnectedness can lead to compassion.

Note:  When following the link, feel free to skip over the top half of the page and go straight to the story below.