Sunday, July 27, 2014

Complaining Geckos and Other Teaching Tools

The other night I told a few traditional folk tales from around the world to a group of adult friends. In the middle of one story, at the part where a choice was made that had obvious negative consequences, one of my listeners gasped. When the story had ended and everything had been resolved, he said, “You don’t have to explain that, the story already says it all.”

From long back, long before books and libraries, even longer before computers and the internet, storytelling was the way people learned about the world and their relationship to it. Ancient folktales from diverse cultures have the same archetypes and themes because they all depict the struggle to become a whole and free human being. Folk tales and ‘fairy tales’ from the ancient oral traditions depict soul/spiritual truths in imaginative form. 

In ancient times, the shamans and the initiates at the various mystery centers around the earth developed knowledge of the natural and spiritual worlds. This information was embedded in images, as stories. In long ago times the intellect was not as developed as it is today, and so for the average person to have access to those truths, it had to be learned as a story. The stories spread from the mystery centers out into the diverse cultures of the earth. Variously called troubadours, minstrels, bards, griot, minnesingers, and more - all are the storytellers who shared traditional knowledge stories on their travels and told them throughout the lands. These old stories come from a time when humanity was more closely connected to nature and the world of gods and goddesses.

What I think of as ‘true’ fairy or folk tales give information about the path of development an individual can take to create a balanced path in life, uniting soul and spirit and body, and learning to walk in harmony. Nowadays this information would be offered as a book; perhaps The Inner Marriage of Soul and Spirit, or as a lecture, Overcoming the Materialism of Our Time. In olden times when the intellect was less prominent in the human psyche, the guide to becoming a more evolved human being was the told story. 
For children, story is an especially powerful way of learning. The images and messages young children receive in story stay with them as companions on their life's path. Fairy tales offer pictures of coming to terms with earthly existence in a way that the young child can digest - images and plot rather than intellectual explanation

There is nothing of greater blessing than for a child than to nourish it with everything that brings the roots of human life together with those of cosmic life. A child is still having to work creatively, forming itself, bringing about the growth of its body, unfolding its inner tendencies; it needs the wonderful soul-nourishment it finds in fairy tale pictures, for in them the child’s roots are united with the life of the world. (Rudolf Steiner, The Poetry and Meaning of Fairy Tales)

The nourishment of these ancient stories can be a seed of inner fortitude. The stories give pictures of the strength and determination needed to carry through, to overcome the evil. They show that it is not always the clever and older ones who are best suited to the task. They tell of the promise that the weak can become strong, that poor can become rich. They speak of the benefit of kindness and honesty.

By the time a child is four, so-called fairy tales are an important element of their lives. Tell your children fairy tales and folk tales - the ancient ones that no one can claim to have written because they have been handed down for millenia. Albert Einstein said that fairy tales cultivate intelligence. Fairy tales also nurture personal morality.

I think it is important to be familiar with a story before telling or reading it to children. After digesting the story, I consider whether or not the story resonates with me as depicting truth. The stories we tell to young children must be true for the storyteller. If a particular story doesn’t feel true for you, don’t tell that one. The deep knowledge and golden wisdom that is the fabric of these tales is tangible, and the more you think about a particular story, then more and more the underlying truths and lessons reveal themselves. 
One amazing thing about these wise old stories is they contain no sentimentality or cuteness. They just tell the facts without any sense of preciousness or stating of judgements and opinions. There is no need. The story already speaks volumes about what is right, and the consequences of wrong actions and words.

I have a long list of my personal favorite fairy tales, but some special ones stand out. For me, these stories describe my own experiences of being a human being trying to evolve. They include; The Frog King (a Grimm’s Fairy Tale), Nkosnati and the Dragon (from South Africa), Chamakanda (from Zimbabwe) and Shingebiss (from the Chippewa people of North America). I have written about these and various other stories in past articles and blogs, and I have recorded many favorites on my storytelling cds.

"Where did it happen and when did it happen? Where and when did it not happen?” It happened and it is happening and it will happen. These stories are true pictures that are true for all time.

P.S. What are your favorite folk tales? Here for your enjoyment is one of my favorites. It is from Bali, Indonesia and is called Gecko’s Complaint:

One night the Chief was awakened out of his sleep by five calls of “geh-ko, geh-ko, geh-ko, geh-ko, geh-ko.” It was Gecko the Lizard and he wanted to see the Chief, a wise and kindly man, who received him pleasantly even though it was the middle of the night. Gecko had come to lodge a complaint. He said he was disturbed and unhappy.
All the other creatures thought Gecko could have no reason to complain. He could do so many things the other creatures could not, such as walk on a wall, or upside down on the ceiling. He could do these things because of the little pads on the tips of each of his toes. Not only that, if he lost his tail while fighting with another lizard, he could grow another one just as good, if not even better, than the old one. 

Gecko rarely got tired as he expended a minimum of energy, sitting lazily up in the rafters, going out at night in search of mosquitos, and filling the night with his loud calls. What could Gecko have to complain about?

Gecko was upset because he hadn’t been able to sleep for several weeks because of Firefly. Night after night the black lightning beetle with red and yellow spots flew all around him, glowing like parks of fire, flashing his light into Gecko’s eyes. The Chief, who did not like his sleep disturbed either promised to make an investigation. He told Gecko to come back in a week.

The next day the Chief called on Firefly and told him of Gecko’s complaint. “Is it only Gecko you are disturbing, or is it possible that others are also bothered by your light flashing into their eyes?” said the Chief.

Firefly’s light was out as he spoke to the Chief, “I meant no harm Sir. I thought I was doing something for the village. I heard the drumming of Woodpecker as he struck the tree trunk with his bill and I thought it was a kulkul, the wooden slit-drum, calling the villagers together. I was only flashing my light to help pass on the message.

The Chief went to ask Woodpecker about this. When he found him, he told him what Firefly had said. Woodpecker said, “I was only passing on a warning, Sir. I heard the kwak-kwak-kwak of the Frog in the rice paddies, and I thought Frog was warning that an earthquake was coming. So I just passed on the message.”

Now the Chief went in search of Frog, and told Frog what Woodpecker had said. Frog replied, “The reason I was kwak-kwaking more and louder than usual is that I saw Black Beetle walking down the road carrying garbage, which I thought was so dirty and unhygienic that I had to stop him.” “I would have done the same,” said the Chief, and he went off to talk to Black Beetle at once.

Black Beetle, plump and gleaming like polished copper, was very humble and respectful as he explained the situation. “You see, Sir, Water Buffalo comes by so often dropping his pat in the middle of the road, and I thought it was my duty to clean it up.”

The Chief was beginning to lose patience. “Tell Water Buffalo I wish to see him.”

When Water Buffalo appeared before the Chief, he was polite but expressed his displeasure with Beetle’s report. “It is clear that I am not appreciated. Rain washes away stones in the road, and I fill up the holes. Who else does that, I ask you?”

By this time the Chief was tired, but he had to hear Rain’s story. And Rain was angry.

“Complaining about ME? Who asks for Rain, who needs Rain to make the plants grow, and for washing and drinking. Without Rain there are no mosquitos, and if there are no mosquitos, Gecko is hungry and unhappy. Don’t speak to me, speak to Gecko!”

When Gecko returned to see the Chief, as he had been told to do, the Chief spoke to him quite sternly. “Gecko, say no more. We all have our problems. Go home, and live in peace with your neighbors.”

And he did.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Billy Goats Gruff in My Living Room

Stories can be powerful tools for teaching, healing and transformation. When there is a behavior in your young child that you would like to see changed, an effective tool can be a story that portrays the challenge and an outcome you’d like to see. Later in this post I’ll give some tips about creating a story for your child.

Stories are a wonderful teaching tool and a powerful way to convey the values of the teller to the receiver of the story. With young children, it is an effective way to help change behaviors and create new habits without a lot of intellectualizing and explaining. 

One of the amazing things about storytelling is that is received by the heart of the listener, bypassing the intellect. After a story, we say; “I loved that story,” or “I didn’t like that one.” We don’t respond to a story with, “I disagree with that,” or “That’s not correct.” We respond with our feelings, and it seeps into our thoughts later.

Young children so easily learn stories by heart, even without comprehending the meaning. For the very young, stories are an opportunity for language to wash over them. They begin to taste the flavor of their mother tongue, and they learn language sounds, vocabulary, grammar and syntax. And, they begin to develop an essential capacity for later reading - the capacity to make inner pictures of what the words are describing.

There are some important guidelines for telling or reading stories to young children. The first is that the story has a ‘happy ending.’ For the children to develop and unfold their skills and capacities, they have to feel that their world is a safe and good place to be. Stories can help create an environment where the children can thrive, and can provide nourishment for their young souls.

The other guideline is that the story speaks powerfully for itself. Any interpretation spoken to the children dilutes the message that the images of the story already so clearly brought. Adult minds of course engage in analyzing and looking for meaning in stories and everything else but practice holding back. Interpretation is an intellectual activity, and stories speak to the heart. Don’t speak your interpretation of the story or state the moral to the young child.

Now, about making that story for your child. 

In the story you make ‘the names are changed to protect the innocent,’ but the basic situation remains. If you want the characters to have names, choose names other than those of your child and his or her friends. In your imagination transform your child’s situation into one involving animals instead. What animal would your child be. Switch the gender of the central character so the child is less likely to think it is about him or her. You can include real interactions your child has had, and even include some actual dialog. The creative part is making an ending where the situation is resolved and everything comes out fine - a happy ending. An ending where needs are met and there is a feeling of satisfaction.

Once you have your story together, run through it in your imagination and see how it feels. Fix up some parts if they need it, but don’t worry about perfection (whatever that is). The act of trying to come up with a healing story for your child is such a powerful activity. This really is a case of the trying is what makes a difference.

When you tell your story, put your undivided attention into the story. Make the images of the story come alive in you - try to ‘see’ the story as you are telling it. Is there a way you can get out of the way so the story can speak through you?

You have to remember your story so you can tell it again the next day. And the next. And for a week and more. Repetition helps the story penetrate more deeply into the child’s psyche, and repetition is what strengthens neural pathways. Young children naturally want a story repeated over and over. I am sure you have had the experience of your child asking for the same story every day for weeks on end. Repeat the story as long as possible.

Steve’s How-to List:
  1. Change the situation to one involving animals
  2. Change the gender of the central figures
  3. Change the names 
  4. Make a happy ending where the good prevails. 
  5. No moralizing or interpretation
  6. Repeat the story every day
What I would really appreciate is after you create one of these special stories and try it out, let me know what happened. What was the situation, the story and the result. 

P.S. Please share this ‘how-to make a healing story guide’ with your friends!