Companions for the Journey IV

From time to time I discover a book that helps orient me in the turbulent times in which we live. Recently, a friend gave me Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit & the Heart, by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman (1). The authors have collected stories from a wide variety of sources: Taoist, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, Zen, Desert Fathers, Hindu, and the man or woman who never gets quoted anywhere else. I want to share with you some stories.

“I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian People, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”(2)

These five short sentences from Gandhi focus on life’s biggest problem – self-acceptance, as Jung pointed out when he wrote, “Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.” (3)

The second section of the book opens with several accounts of simplicity. Nasrudin, the “wise fool” who appears in many stories from the cultures of the Near East through Central Asia, tells his friends in the tea shop the story of his life:

Nasrudin was now an old man looking back on his life. He sat with his friends in the tea shop telling his story.

“When I was young I was fiery—I wanted to awaken everyone. I prayed to Allah to give me the strength to change the world.

“In mid-life I awoke one day and realized my life was half over and I had changed no one. So I prayed to Allah to give me the strength to change those close around me who so much needed it.

“Alas, now I am old and my prayer is simpler. ‘Allah,’ I ask, ‘please give me the strength to at least change myself.’’ (4)                                                                                                                 

One of the Hassidic stories recounts the travels and fame of two rabbis who were brothers.

“In the course of their long wanderings, the two brothers Rabbi Zusya and Rabbi Elimelekh often came to the city of Ludimir. There they always slept in the house of a poor, devout man. Years later, when their reputation had spread all over the country, they came to Ludimir again, not on foot as before, but in a carriage. The wealthiest man in that little town, who had never wanted to have anything to do with them, came to meet them, the moment he heard they had arrived, and begged them to lodge in his house. But they said: “Nothing has changed in us to make you respect us more than before. What is new is just the horses and the carriage. Take them for your guests, but let us stop with our old host, as usual”(4)

The third section of the book, entitled “Living Our Truth,” opens with another delightful Nasrudin story.

‘One day Mulla Nasrudin got word that he had received a special message from the Sheik of Basra. When he went to pick it up they told him that he must first identify himself. Nasrudin fished in his trousers and took out a brass mirror. Looking into it he exclaimed, “Yup, that’s me all right.”(5)

To live our own truth we first must discover our own truth. Early on in the Red Book Jung admonishes the reader not to imitate him (nor what he writes in the Red Book). “It is no teaching and no instruction that I give you. On what basis should I presume to teach you? I give you news of the way of this man, but not of your own way. My path is not your path, therefore I cannot teach you. The way is within us, but not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws. Within us is the way, the truth, and the life.” Jung’s words remind me of the passage where Jesus is reported to have said “Man, if thou knowest what thou doest, blessed art thou; but if thou knowest not, thou art accursed and a transgressor of the Law.” Consciousness makes all the difference.

“Mindfulness,” rather than “consciousness,” is the word people now often use. The friend who gave me the book told the story of two Zen masters, one visiting the other.

“It was raining as the visiting Zen master made his way to the other master’s house. When he arrived, he set his umbrella down by the door, knocked, and was let in. In the course of conversation the host asked his guest whether he had set his umbrella to the right or to the left of the door. Surprised and confused, the guest master could not remember. Whereupon he relinquished his position as master and returned to ranks of the students.”

The story makes a simple, but profound point: be aware of what you do. Another story (this one from the book) reminds us that mindfulness, that knowing what we are doing, depends on attention and on intention. No autopilot here.

“A young female disciple undertook to develop the meditation on loving-kindness. Sitting in her small room, she would fill her heart with loving-kindness for all beings, yet each day as she went to the bazaar to gather her food, she would find her loving-kindness sorely tested by one shopkeeper who would daily subject her to unwelcome caresses. One day she could stand no more and began to chase the shopkeeper down the road with her upraised umbrella. To her mortification she passed her meditation master standing on the side of the road observing this spectacle. Shame-faced she went to stand before him expecting to be rebuked for her anger. “What you should do,” her master kindly advised her, “is to fill your heart with loving-kindness, and with as much mindfulness as you can muster, hit this unruly fellow over the head with your umbrella.” (8)

So what is it about these stories that make them “soul food”? Why call them “soul” food at all? These and similar stories produce a specific effect on me: They alter my point of view. More precisely, they take me out of my “business-as-usual” mindset. By shattering the expectations of my conditioned mind, they open me to a different way of seeing and being. But why call them “soul food”?

In Psychological Types, Jung defines the soul as “the relation to the unconscious . . . and as a personification of unconscious contents.” A little later on he writes: “The organ of perception, the soul, apprehends the contents of the unconscious, and as the creative function, gives birth to its dynamis in the form of a symbol”.

In other words, “soul” is that capacity in each of us: 1) to become aware of something not in our current consciousness; 2) to be moved by that something, by its dynamis; and 3) to experience that “something” in a form and shape that carries more meaning than we can unpack (i.e., it is a symbol in Jung’s sense).

These stories feed that capacity in each of us that takes us outside of and beyond our current mental state. They enliven and energize our consciousness in unexpected ways. (That’s the dynamis, the energy effect.) In a word, they liberate us from our stuckness in the here-and-now that so often can feel oppressive and stifling. Understood in this way the question in Mark 8:36 begins to make sense: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Then we have Scrooge, Midas and the whole lot who, as people used to say, “Know the price of everything, but don’t know the value of anything.”

Soul food stories combat the soul-less-ness of a dog-eat-dog reality and offer us a liberated way to see and understand what’s going on around us.

(1) Kornfield, Jack, and Chrfistina Feldman (1996). Soul Food: Stories to Nouris the Spirit & the Heart. New York” HarperOne.

(2) Kornfield and Feldman (1996:55).

(3) Jung, C.G. (1953). Psychology and Religion, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para. 520.

(4) Kornfield and Feldman (1996:184)

(5) Kornfield and Fledman (1996:269).

(6) Jung, C.G. (2009).  The Red Book: Liber Novus, A Reader’s Edition. Ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W Norton, p. 125. (Italics in the original.)

(7) “List of authentic agrapha,” Codex D of Luke 6:4.

(8) Kornfield and Feldman (1996:274).

Feb2018 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW