A Unique Form of Literature

In some cultures, especially those of the Middle East, stories or “fairy tales” have several functions. They can both entertain and give pleasure to young children. Often, they may contain a useful moralistic parable and help to form a common cultural heritage—a shared universe of discourse. They also provide the basis for more advanced instruction later in life.

From The Psychology of Consciousness, by Robert Ornstein
reprinted here with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Ornstein.  

The logic of these stories is not ordinary: it is more like that of the dream. In the stories, linear time, for instance, has little value. In fairy tales, events occur in, around, before, during, and after each other. Indeed, magic carpets exist here, which can transcend time. Many symbols in fairy tales, if looked at in terms of the psychology of consciousness, may take on a new meaning. I invite you to reflect for a moment on these: a genie locked up in a bottle, whose release may mean destruction; a beautiful and almost unattainable princess imprisoned in a tower; a dragon guarding a precious jewel.

Many books of quite innocent-appearing stories were written to provide a vehicle for the traditional esoteric psychology. Often they have been mistaken for either literal history or trivia. They include early retellings of Aesop’s Fables, the Greek myths, The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, among very many others.

These stories have been given the name “teaching stories,” since their effect is not only to provide pleasure or a useful parable, but also to connect “with a part of the individual which cannot be reached by any other convention,” and establish “in him or in her, a means of communication with a nonverbalized truth beyond the customary limitations of our familiar dimensions.”

How can these stories work on consciousness and communicate in this way? Why are they to be read and re-read constantly? To look at it loosely, consider that we recognize only the familiar. Recall that we can hear our name quickly, at lower intensity than most other words. We can recognize an English word more quickly than a random sequence of letters. We see red sixes of hearts much more quickly than red sixes of spades.

The aim, of course, in esoteric tradition is to receive unfamiliar information. Teaching stories purposely contain certain specially chosen patterns of events. The repeated reading of the story allows these patterns to become strengthened in the mind of the person reading them. Since many of the events are improbable and unusual, the reading of the stories begins to create new constructs, or new “organs of perception,” so to speak. The stories take the mind along unfamiliar and nonlinear paths. It is not, then, necessary to understand the stories in the usual intellectual and rational mode. The constant re-reading entices the consciousness into operating in an unusual manner; it creates patterns of operation or categories which are available when external events dictate them. This practice may allow a person to perceive aspects of reality which are so uncommon and unusual that he would not otherwise possess the needed constructs, or receptive organ. As T. S. Eliot says, “Only by the form, the pattern, can words or music reach the stillness.” It is the genius of this form of literature that intellectual analysis still has a function, although such analysis does not exhaust the story. This literature works on both modes.

These stories are conveyed primarily by oral tradition. It is quite rare at this moment in our culture for one to sit down and listen to stories. Reflect on the obvious differences between reading a piece of literature in the usual way and listening to it. Reading aloud takes longer and allows the events more importance. Listening takes the burden off our eyes and our visual system and returns balance to the ears. It allows us to picture the events as they occur in space. Some of these books, especially the fairy tales, are illustrated for this very purpose. Finally, listening involves the sound of the language, which can communicate to the tonally sensitive areas of the brain through the inflections and higher harmonics of the voice.

The storyteller himself is one of the most important elements in these traditions, in using language to make an end run around the verbal intellect, to affect a mode of consciousness not reached by the normal verbal intellectual apparatus.

A Key to Understanding

These special stories exist in every culture, but, like many other esoteric psychological techniques, without some supervision they become altered and degenerate. Sometimes people come to believe that the stories relate literal history; so they must be reformulated for each cultural age, by a person or a school sensitive to the many functions which a story can perform.

It was the work of Idries Shah to reintroduce this material to contemporary western culture. Shah traveled for many years on several continents, collecting and comparing traditional teaching stories.

These stories can be employed in many ways. For instance, they can serve as reflection points. Reflection can mean both “to think about” and “to mirror.” Often an action caught in a story forms a pattern which is also present on another level of consciousness, as when an electron-microscopic photograph contains the pattern which can be seen in a photograph of a river taken from an airplane, or in a picture of the earth seen from a satellite. This is a meaning of the esoteric saying, “As above, so below.”

Some stories can serve as templates for consciousness, patterns frozen so that we can observe ourselves. In one, Nasrudin is interested in learning to play the lute. He searches out the lute master, and asks, “How much do you charge for lessons?” The lute master replies, “Ten gold pieces for the first month, one gold piece for the succeeding months.” “Excellent,” says Nasrudin. “I shall begin with the second month.”

Some quite brief and improbable situations can be simultaneously considered in different ways.

“Nasrudin was walking on the main street of a town, throwing out breadcrumbs. His neighbors asked, ‘What are you doing, Nasrudin?’

‘Keeping the tigers away.’

‘There have not been tigers in these parts for hundreds of years.’

‘Exactly, effective, isn’t it?’”

Here Nasrudin at the same time is the fool who performs a superstitious and useless action and a teacher of the traditional psychology whose actions may be incomprehensible to the ordinary, linear consciousness.

In another story, Nasrudin is made a magistrate. During his first case the plaintiff argues so persuasively that he exclaims. “I believe you are right.”

The clerk of the court begs him to restrain himself, for the defendant had not been heard.

Nasrudin is so carried away by the eloquence of the defendant that he cries out as soon as the man has finished his evidence, “I believe you are right.”

The clerk of the court cannot allow this. “Your honor, they cannot both be right.”

“I believe you’re right,” says Nasrudin.

This story can be considered from several viewpoints simultaneously. First, Nasrudin is the part of us who latches on to any new idea or new technique, becomes excited, and maintains its worth to the exclusion of others. When we discover a new person in our lives, or a new writer, or a new movie star, it seems they can do no wrong. Our older friends and interests are forgotten. In school we may study Greek civilization and come to feel that the Greeks achieved the ideal way of life, and then we may study the Romans and then feel that they achieved the pinnacle of human development. This same tendency may exist in an entire discipline, such as psychology, where an idea, such as behaviorism, may come along, offering a new and useful technique, and we become totally focused on and committed to it, forgetting earlier commitments, interests, values.

Second, note that Nasrudin is a judge in this story. When we ourselves judge others, we usually are saying (in one form or another), “I believe that you are wrong.” This is evident in close personal relationships, as well as in scientific arguments. Two academics who may have extremely similar educations, ideas, and competences, may spend years arguing over a small technical point, and miss their numerous essential agreements. Two churches may exhibit the same tendency. Our education too, is geared towards finding differences between things, and trains us to analyze and separate different events as much as possible. “Compare and contrast …” Here Nasrudin is opening up the alternative: to emphasize the agreement first, then, perhaps, consider the points of disagreement.

The Blind Men and the Matter of the Elephant

Beyond Ghor there was a city. All its inhabitants were blind. A king with his entourage arrived nearby; he brought his army and camped in the desert. He had a mighty elephant, which he used in attack and to increase the people’s awe.

The populace became anxious to learn about the elephant, and some sightless from among this blind community ran like fools to find it.

As they did not know even the form or shape of the elephant, they groped sightlessly, gathering information by touching some part of it.

Each thought that he knew something, because he could feel a part.

When they returned to their fellow citizens, eager groups clustered around them, anxious, misguidedly, to learn the truth from those who were themselves astray.

They asked about the form, the shape, of the elephant, and they listened to all that they were told.

The man whose hand had reached an ear said: “It is a large, rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.”

And the one who had felt the trunk said: “I have the real facts about it. It is like a straight and hollow pipe, awful and destructive.”

The one who had felt its feet and legs said: “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.”

Each had felt one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly.

No mind knew all: knowledge is not the companion of the blind. All imagined something, something incorrect.

The created is not informed about divinity. There is no Way in this science by means of the ordinary intellect.

Third, and this recalls the story of the elephant reprinted above, both the prosecution and the defense may be right at the same time, just as a man who says “It is cylindrical and solid,” and a man who says “It is long and flexible and emits air,” are both correct, when one looks at the entire elephant. From such a higher perspective many views which might otherwise seem opposite can be seen as complementary. In psychology such views might be “consciousness is individual,” “consciousness is cosmic,” “we understand immediately, through language,” “we understand immediately, though intuition.” As our scientific and personal knowledge develop, we may gain a measure of perspective and be able to reconcile viewpoints that had once seemed to be opposites.

A very famous Nasrudin story opens with a man looking at Nasrudin searching on the ground.

“What have you lost, Mulla” the man asked.

“My key,” said the Mulla.

So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the man asked, “Where exactly did you drop it?”

“In my own house.”

“Then why are you looking here?”

“There is more light here than inside my own house.”

Although this story is funny (it has been performed on stage as such), it strikes an obvious superficial moral.

But we can work with the story a bit and open some of the deeper elements. I invite you to spend a little time with the story yourself, and to read it over a few times. Then, close your eyes and imagine yourself frantically searching for something.

  • What are you looking for?
  • Where are you looking?
  • Is there a “lot of light” there?
  • Now after you have done that, close your eyes once again and contemplate a key.
  • What is your key? (Take your time.)
  • What comes up?

After you have spent some time on the key, say to yourself, “I have lost my key” and see where this takes you.

Then spend some time on “My key is in my own house.” Note where your thoughts go.

Then put the whole story together: “I am looking for my key—which I really know is in my own house—in places where I know the key is not, but where there is more light,” and spend a little more time with the story. It is a good place to visit.

In addition to the personal associations called up by the story, I offer another, more directly related to the concerns of this book. Two areas of the mind are opposed, the light or day, and the dark, or night. The key is inside the house, in the dark unexplored area of our house, of our mind, or of science. We are normally attracted and a bit dazzled by the light of the day, since it is generally easier to find objects in daylight. But what we are looking for may simply not be there, and often we may have to grope around somewhere inelegantly in the dark areas to find it. Once we find what we are looking for in the dark, we can then bring it into the light, and create a synthesis of both areas of the mind.

“Die Before Your Death”

Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

Not all the Sufi stories concern Nasrudin. This is “The Ants and the Pen.”

An ant one day strayed across a piece of paper and saw a pen writing in fine, black strokes.

“How wonderful this is!” said the ant. “This remarkable thing, with a life of its own, makes squiggles on this beautiful surface, to such an extent and with such energy that it is equal to the efforts of all the ants in the world. And the squiggles which it makes! These resemble ants; not one, but millions, all run together.”

He repeated his ideas to another ant, who was equally interested. He praised the powers of observation and reflection of the first ant.

But another ant said: “Profiting, it must be admitted, by your efforts, I have observed this strange object. But I have determined that it is not the master of this work. You failed to notice that this pen is attached to certain other objects, which surround it and drive it on its way. These should be considered as the moving factor, and given the credit.” Thus were fingers discovered by the ants.

But another ant, after a long time, climbed over the fingers and realized that they made up a hand, which he thoroughly explored, after the manner of ants, by scrambling all over it.

He returned to his fellows: “Ants!” he cried, “I have news of importance for you. Those smaller objects are part of a large one. It is this which gives motion to them.”

But then it was discovered that the hand was attached to an arm, and the arm to a body, and that there were feet which did no writing.

The investigations continue. Of the mechanics of the writing, the ants have a fair idea. Of the meaning and intention of the writing, and how it is ultimately controlled, they will not find out by their customary method of investigation. Because they are “literate.”

Here the linear, cumulative mode of gathering knowledge is again contrasted with a holistic and tacit mode which can appear only when consciousness is organized differently. This story emphasizes the strengths and limitations of the ordinary mode, and the necessity to operate in a mode appropriate to the kind of knowledge one is seeking. The ants, believing themselves already literate, effectively block themselves from any possible understanding of the meaning of the writing.

To relate this to scientific inquiry, we could attempt to determine, say, a person’s voting patterns by examining each cell in his or her body, and totaling these chemical and electrophysiological observations in a strictly additive, cumulative manner. This would not only be tedious and expensive, but it would almost surely not yield an appropriate answer (certainly not before the next election). A more appropriate level of analysis for this situation would be the sociological, rather than the biological. We would then attempt to consider that whole person as he exists within the social context, and we would conveniently ignore, for the purposes of this analysis, that he or she is composed of billions of discrete individual cells.

In this higher level of analysis, we would consider factors which are more relevant to the question at hand, such as the income or family status of the person. We would never think of asking “What is the income of this cell?” In the story of the ants, in order for them to fully understand the nature and meaning of the writing, their level of analysis itself would have to be expanded. But, just as the biological and sociological levels of analysis can simultaneously coexist, so can the personal, individual consciousness coexist with another that is often called objective or cosmic consciousness. The esoteric practices attempt to suppress temporarily the individual, analytic (here represented as looking at each cell separately) consciousness, and to allow the consciousness of the whole organism to emerge.

Many have become confused at this point, believing this to be an either-or question, believing in the unique existence of one mode or the other. However, the existence of an individual and separate consciousness does not rule out the possibility of the simultaneous coexistence of another level of organization. Just as the existence of society does not deny the existence of the individual, so the existence in the body of billions of individual cells, as separate, discrete, analyzable units, does not rule out the existence of an emergent, whole person, with properties not traceable to any linear combination of cells.

This higher level of consciousness is often referred to as the mystic experience, the perception of unity, of “We are all one.” This statement does not mean that “We are all the same thing and exactly alike,” as it is sometimes interpreted. Rather, it means that people are all individual components in an emergent level of organization, and that this level, this organization, may become perceptible in the same way that the sum of the cells in a body are individual, yet make up one person.

The shift from the individual, analytic consciousness to a holistic mode, brought about by training the intuitive side of ourselves, is often referred to by a term that translates as “ego death” in esoteric tradition. This shift consists of a breaking down of the constructs which maintain personal consciousness, and a transition from this analytic mode to the emergent, gestalt mode of consciousness.

Is there any number higher than 100?

A man, having looted a city, tried to sell one of the spoils, an exquisite rug. “Who will give me 100 gold pieces for this rug?” he cried throughout the town.

After the sale was completed, a comrade approached the seller, and asked,

“Why did you not ask more for that precious rug?”

 “Is there any number higher than 100?” asked the seller.

Seeing Double

A father said to his double-seeing son, “Son, you see two instead of one.”

“How can that be?” the boy replied. “If I were, there would seem to be four moons up there in place of two.”

Consciousness is selective and limited. Concepts of the possible limit personal consciousness and scientific thought. We constantly ask ourselves “Is there any number higher than 100?” We limit our awareness and our possibilities. Throughout much of the day, we act like the double-seeing son and confuse our personal construction with external reality.

Never Know When It Might Come in Useful

Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips in his boat. One day a fussy pedagogue hired him to ferry him across a very wide river.

As soon as they were afloat, the scholar asked whether it was going to be rough.

“Don’t ask me nothing about it,” said Nasrudin.

“Have you never studied grammar?”

“No,” said the Mulla.

“In that case, half your life has been wasted.”

The Mulla said nothing.

Soon a terrible storm blew up. The Mulla’s crazy cockleshell was filling with water. He leaned over toward his companion.

“Have you ever learned to swim?”

“No,” said the pedant.

“In that case, schoolmaster, all your life is lost, for we are sinking.”

A Second Mode of Consciousness

There is a second mode of consciousness that exists on many levels—cultural, personal, and biological.

On the biological level, two cerebral hemispheres of the cortex are specialized for different modes of information processing. The left hemisphere operates primarily in the verbal, sequential mode; the right hemisphere primarily in a spatial and simultaneous mode. This right hemisphere mode is often devalued by the dominant, verbal intellect. Since you have not learned grammar, “half your life has been wasted,” said the pedagogue to the boatman. This second mode often appears inelegant, lacking formal reasoning and polish of the intellect. It is more involved in space than in time, more involved in intuition than in logic and language.

It is a mode often forgotten and ignored, especially within the scientific community, but one that may prove important for science, and even for our own survival. “Have you ever learned to swim?” asks the boatman of the pedagogue. Since it is nonlinear, this second mode is not involved in the ordinary realm of cause and effect that underlies so much of our personal and intellectual life. It is a mode in which all occurrences exist as a patterned whole, as in the drawing that accompanies this story:

Moment in Time

“What is Fate?” Nasrudin was asked by a scholar.

“An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other.”

“That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect.”

“Very well,” said the Mulla, “look at that.” He pointed to a procession passing in the street.

“That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?”

The two major types of psychology have each predominantly investigated one mode of human consciousness. Modern science is primarily verbal-logical; esoteric traditions have specialized in the tacit holistic mode, one largely inaccessible to language and reason. These two modes are portrayed in the story of the blind men and the elephant. One mode of consciousness approaches the elephant by piecemeal investigation; the other attempts to develop a perspective of the whole organism.

The Man Who Walked on Water

A conventionally minded dervish, from an austerely pious school, was walking one day along a river bank. He was absorbed in concentration on moralistic and scholastic problems, for this was the form which Sufi teaching had taken in the community to which he belonged. He equated emotional religion with the search for ultimate Truth.

Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by a loud shout: Someone was repeating the dervish call. “There is no point in that,” he said to himself, “because the man is mispronouncing the syllables. Instead of intoning YA HU, he is saying U YA HU.”

Then he realized that he had a duty, as a more careful student, to correct this unfortunate person, who might have no opportunity to be rightly guided, and was therefore probably only doing his best to attune himself to the idea behind the sounds.

So he hired a boat, and made his way to the island in midstream from which the sound appeared to come. There he found a man sitting in a reed hut, dressed in a dervish robe, moving in time to his own repetition of the initiatory phrase. “My friend,” said the first dervish, “you are mispronouncing the phrase. It is incumbent on me to tell you this, because there is merit for him who gives and for him who takes advice. This is the way in which you speak it,” and he told him.

“Thank you,” said the other dervish humbly.

The first dervish entered his boat again, full of satisfaction at having done a good deed. After all, it was said that a man who could repeat the sacred formula correctly could even walk on the waves: something that he had never seen, but had always hoped—for some reason—to be able to achieve.

Now he could hear nothing from the reed hut, but he was sure that his lesson had been well taken. Then he heard a faltering U YA as the second dervish started to repeat the phrase in his old way.

While the first dervish was thinking about this, reflecting on the perversity of humanity and its persistence in error, he suddenly saw a strange sight. From the island, the other dervish was coming toward him, walking on the surface of the water.

Amazed, he stopped rowing. The second dervish walked up to him, and said, “Brother, I am sorry to trouble you, but I have come out to ask you again the standard method of making the repetition you were telling me, because I find it difficult to remember it.”

The techniques of these esoteric traditions are often thought to involve deliberately exotic and mysterious training, such as the use of special, mysterious magic words in meditation. However, the essence of meditation is the focusing of awareness on a single, unchanging source of stimulation. It is the attitude, not the specific form, that is primary. If the exercise is performed correctly, a new set of capacities may emerge, symbolically portrayed in “The Man Who Walked on Water.” The techniques of meditation, the dishabituation exercises, and other special exercises are designed to cause a shift from the ordinary analytic consciousness to the holistic.

Nasrudin went into a shop and asked the shopkeeper, “Do you have leather?”

“Yes,” said the shopkeeper.

“Nails?” ”Yes.”

“Thread?” “Yes.”

“Needles?” “Yes.”

“Then why don’t you make yourself a pair of boots?”

We do not often realize that we may possess the separate pieces of a complete consciousness, until Nasrudin in his role points it out to us. As a guide, he may ask, “Why don’t you make a pair of boots out of the material at hand?” And yet, like Mulla Nasrudin, we have often been looking for the key to understanding ourselves in the brilliance of the day. But it may not be there. It lies within, in our dark side, a side often forgotten because “there is more light here.”

The Sultan Who Became an Exile

A sultan of Egypt, it is related, called a conference of learned men, and very soon—as is usually the case—a dispute arose. The subject was the Night Journey of the Prophet Mohammed. It is said that on that occasion the Prophet was taken from his bed up into the celestial spheres. During this period, he saw paradise and hell, conferred with God 90,000 times, had many other experiences—and was returned to his room while his bed was yet warm. A pot of water which had been overturned by the flight and spilled was still not empty when the Prophet returned.

Some held that this was possible, by a different measurement of time. The sultan claimed that it was impossible.

The sages said that all things were possible to divine power.

This did not satisfy the king.

The news of this conflict came at length to the Sufi Sheikh Shahabudin, who immediately presented himself at Court. The sultan showed due humility to the teacher, who said: “I intend to proceed without further delay to my demonstration: for know now that both the interpretations of the problem are incorrect, and that there are demonstrable factors which can account for traditions without the need to resort to crude speculation or insipid and uninformed ‘logicality.’”

There were four windows in the audience chamber. The sheikh ordered one to be opened. The sultan looked out of it. On a mountain beyond he saw an invading army, a myriad, bearing down on the palace. He was terribly afraid.

“Pray forget it: for it is nothing,” said the sheikh.

He shut the window and opened it again. This time there was not a soul to be seen.

When he opened another of the windows, the city outside was seen to be consumed by flames. The sultan cried out in alarm.

“Do not distress yourself, sultan, for it is nothing,” said the sheikh. When he had closed and again opened the window, there was no fire to be seen.

The third window being opened revealed a flood approaching the palace.

Then, again, there was no flood.

When the fourth window was opened, instead of the customary desert, a garden of paradise was revealed—and then, by the shutting of the window, the scene vanished as before.

Now the sheikh ordered a vessel of water to be brought, and the sultan to put his head into it for a moment. As soon as he had done so the sultan found himself alone on a deserted seashore, a place which he did not know.

At this magic spell of the treacherous sheikh he was transported with fury, and vowed vengeance.

Soon he met some woodcutters who asked him who he was.

Unable to explain his true state, he told them that he was shipwrecked.

They gave him some clothes, and he walked to a town where a blacksmith, seeing him aimlessly wandering, asked him who he was. “A shipwrecked merchant, dependent upon the charity of woodcutters, now with no resources,” answered the sultan.

The man then told him about a custom of that country. Every newcomer could ask the first woman who left the bath-house to marry him, and she would be obliged to do so. He went to the bath, and saw a beautiful maiden leaving. He asked her if she was married already: and she was, so he had to ask the next, an ugly one. And the next. The fourth was really exquisite. She said that she was not married, but pushed past him, affronted by his miserable appearance and dress.

Suddenly a man stood before him and said: “I have been sent to find a bedraggled man here. Please follow me.”

The sultan followed the servant, and was shown into a wonderful house in one of whose sumptuous apartments he sat for hours. Finally four beautiful and gorgeously attired women came in, preceding a fifth, even more beautiful. The sultan recognized her as the last woman whom he had approached at the bath-house.

She welcomed him and explained that she had hurried home to prepare for his coming, and that her hauteur was only one of the customs of the country, practiced by all women in the street.

Then followed a magnificent meal. Wonderful robes were brought and given to the sultan, while delicate music was played.

The sultan stayed seven years with his new wife, until they had squandered all her patrimony. Then the woman told him that he must now provide for her and their seven sons.

Recalling his first friend in the city, the sultan returned to the blacksmith for counsel. Since the sultan had no trade or training, he was advised to go to the marketplace and offer his services as a porter.

In one day he earned, through carrying a terrible load, only one-tenth of the money which was needed for the food of the family.

The following day the sultan made his way to the seashore again, where he found the very spot from which he had emerged seven long years before. Deciding to say his prayers, he started to wash in the water; he suddenly and dramatically found himself back at the palace, with the vessel of water, the sheikh and his courtiers.

“Seven years of exile, evil man!” roared the sultan. “Seven years, a family and having to be a porter! Have you no fear of God, the Almighty, for this deed?”

“But it is only a moment,” said the Sufi master, “since you put your head into this water.”

His courtiers bore out this statement. The sultan could not possibly bring himself to believe a word of this. He started to give the order for the beheading of the sheikh.

Perceiving by inner sense that this was to happen, the sheikh exercised the capacity called Ilm el-Ghaibat: The Science of Absence.

This caused him to be instantly and corporeally transported to Damascus, many days’ distance away. From here he wrote a letter to the king:

“Seven years passed for you, as you will now have discovered, during an instant of your head in the water. This happens through the exercise of certain faculties, and carries no special significance except that it is illustrative of what can happen. Was not the bed warm, was not the water jar empty in the tradition?

“It is not whether a thing has happened or not which is the important element. It is possible for anything to happen. What is, however, important, is the significance of the happening. In your case, there was no significance. In the case of the Prophet, there was significance in the happening.”

When consciousness is changed, many begin to worship experiences or states. Yet these experiences may occur and still be meaningless, as happened to the sultan who was in exile. Since we construct our ordinary world around the limited input from our sensory systems, we remain largely unaware of much of our immediate environment, either because we lack the receptive organs or because the phenomena change slowly. But although fish are unaware of the medium in which they live, we need not remain unaware of our own geophysical ocean. Under certain conditions, this additional comprehensive awareness can be developed.

Adapting to the Modern World

There is currently quite serious concern about the nature of human consciousness and our ability to adapt to the modern world. Many people feel that the development of their own consciousness is of high priority because humans now have a greatly increased ability to control and manipulate the earth, an ability far beyond anything we had during the long millennia of our biological evolution. The destruction of the entire earth is no longer an impossibility. In this view, there may be no more human biological evolution without conscious evolution, as it is often called.

Nasrudin allows us to see our situation in this modern tale, through the lens of humor, summing up much of what is known about the inflexibility of the normal human consciousness and the current need to change thinking. Nasrudin is taking a plane from a Middle Eastern country to London along with his flock of followers. The four-engine plane takes off and all is well for a while. Then one engine fails, and the captain says, “Do not worry, we will be late into London, by a half hour.” Everyone is calm. The second engine fails, and Nasrudin’s flock gets worried. The captain says that they will be two hours late. Nasrudin is soothing, everything is all right. Then the third engine fails, and the captain says that the plane will limp along and will be several hours late to the destination. Nasrudin, in this story the fountain of conventional thinking, says:

“Let us pray that the fourth engine does not fail! For if it does, we’ll be up here all day!”

This reprint contains the following teaching stories by the educator and savant Idries Shah, included here by the kind permission of The Idries Shah Foundation:

Excerpts including “See What I Mean?” “Moment in Time,” and “There Is More Light Here,” from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah.

Excerpts including “The High Cost of Learning,”I Believe You Are Right!” and “Why Don’t You?” from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah.

Excerpts including “The Sultan Who Became an Exile,” “The Man Who Walked on Water” and “The Blind Men and the Elephant” from Tales of the Dervishes, by Idries Shah.

“Seeing Double,” and “The Ants and the Pen,” from Caravan of Dreams, by Idries Shah.