Saturday, January 21, 2017


There was once a man who set out to travel the world seeking his deepest desire: happiness, fulfillment, contentment, enlightenment. He didn't know what he desired most. But he would learn and would find it. From city to city, province to province, nation to nation he travelled but was unsuccessful. His deepest desire eluded him. One day he rested beneath a tree in a forest. Little did he know that he sat beneath one of the Great Trees of the world, the kalpavriksha of legend - the great wish-fulfilling tree. Whatever one wishes for while seated beneath this wonder is instantly granted. He looked at his surroundings and admired the beauty of the forest in which he sat. He thought to himself, "in all my travels, this is as beautiful a place as I have seen. Would that I had a home here." Instantly, a home appeared. He gasped with delight. "I am hungry. All I need now is food to eat." No sooner had he thought this than a table appeared before him laden with a feast of food and drink, sweet and savory, quenching and appetizing. He reached out, picked up a pastry, and ate it with more satisfaction than he could remember ever experiencing. "If only I had a family with whom to share this." And suddenly he was joined by a joyous racket of youth and a beautiful partner. Leaning back against the tree, filled with wonder and filled with food he thought to himself, "This must be a magical tree. Everything I wish comes true. But what if the magic of this tree is caused by a demon who lives within." No sooner had he thought this than a demon appeared. "Oh no," thought the man, "this demon will probably eat me up." And it did.

This is only one of the many stories i've learned over the years that simultaneously enchants and disturbs me. I know hundreds of stories - nowhere near the 3,000 that the legendary Duncan Williamson was said to have known (and, having once spent a week with Duncan as his driver and host, i believe the truth of that claim) - and I've often wondered about this or that story that i love if i would grow bored of it. Remarkably, this has never happened. At least i continue to find that remarkable. My theory of this is that as long as i have something to learn from a story, i will not, indeed can not, grow tired of it. But while many stories reside in my memory with delight and fondness, there are some that have a more uncomfortable feel to them: enchanting, yes, but also, as i said, disturbing. And, perhaps not surprisingly, i pay special attention to such stories. Though often, upon first encountering them, i will avoid them, certainly avoid telling them, and even try and forget them. But such things are hard to forget and they return again and again to afflict my consciousness - almost as if to say, "let us out, tell us, tell us now!"

This story has obvious resonance with the 1960s-inspired pop-ethic of positive thinking (and which reminds me of what comedian Ronnie Shakes once said, "I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, and then I thought: what the hell good would that do?") But there is, of course, a great deal of power in what we think and it affects not only our mental health but our physical health and the health and well-being of our entire world. I've wrestled for years, and expect to continue such for years to come, with the relationship of our thinking and its influence on our material, spiritual, psychological, and social worlds. Which is why, i suppose, i have devoted my life to a praxis of popular education which is something that i believe is about creating the conditions that support us in changing the way we learn and, therefore, think. And stories, as i've often said, are the original popular education. And this story, with its grim humour, continues to teach me and it makes me smile.

image source: Banyan tree in Calcutta.

No comments: