The Teaching Story: Observations on the Folklore
of Our “Modern” Thought
by Idries Shah (1968)
There is no nation, no community, without its stories. Children
are brought up on fairy tales; cults and religions depend upon them
for moral instruction; they are used for entertainment and for
training. They are usually catalogued as myths, as humorous tales,
as semi-historical fact, and so on, in accordance with what people
believe to be their origin and function.
But what a story can be used for is often what it was originally
intended to be used for. The fables of all nations provide a really
remarkable example of this, because, if you can understand them at
a technical level, they provide the most striking evidence of the
persistence of a consistent teaching, preserved sometimes through
mere repetition, yet handed down and prized simply because they
give a stimulus to the imagination or entertainment for the people
There are very few people nowadays who are able to make the
necessary use of stories. Those who know about the higher level of
being represented by stories can learn something from them, but
very little. Those who can experience this level can teach the use of stories. But first of all we must allow the working hypothesis that
there may be such a level operative in stories. We must approach
them from the point of view that they may on that level be
documents of technical value: an ancient yet still irreplaceable
method of arranging and transmitting a knowledge which can not
be put in any other way.
In this sense such stories (because all stories are not technical
literature), such stories may be regarded as part of a curriculum,
and as valid a representation of fact as, for instance, any
mathematical formula or scientific textbook.
Like any scientific textbook or mathematical formula,
however, stories depend for their higher power upon someone to
understand them at the higher level, someone who can establish
their validity in a course of study, people who are prepared to study
and use them, and so on.
At this point we can see quite easily that our conditioning
(which trains us to use stories for amusement purposes) is generally in itself sufficient to prevent us from making any serious study of stories as a vehicle for higher teaching. This tendency, the human tendency to regard anything as of use to man on a lower level than it could operate, runs through much of our studies, and has to be marked well.
Yet traditions about stories do in fact linger here and there.
People say that certain stories, if repeated, will provide some sort
of “good luck”; or that tales have meanings which have been
forgotten, and the like. But what would be called in contemporary
speech the “security aspect” of stories is almost complete in the
case of the genre which we call “teaching-stories” because of
This factor is the operation of the law that a story, like a
scientific industrial formula, say, can have its developmental or
teaching effect only upon a person correctly prepared for its
understanding. This is why we must use stories in a manner which
will enable us to harvest their value for us in a given situation.
There is another problem which has to be appreciated when
dealing with stories. Unlike scientific formulae, they have a whole
series of developmental effects. In accordance with the degree of
preparation of an individual and a group, so will the successive
“layers” of the story become apparent. Outside of a proper school
where the method and content of stories is understood, there is
almost no chance of an arbitrary study of stories yielding much.
But we have to go back to an even earlier stage in order to
ground ourselves, prepare ourselves, for the value of the story. This is the stage at which we can familiarise ourselves with the story and regard it as a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work. In grasping this in terms of men and women, animals and places, movement and manipulation of a tale, we can put ourselves into a relationship with the higher faculties possible to the mind, by working on a lower level, the level of visualisation.
Let us examine a story or two from the foregoing points of
view. First, take a story of the Elephant in the Dark. A number
of blind people, or sighted people in a dark house, grope
and find an elephant. Each touches only a part; each gives
to his friends outside a different account of what he has
experienced. Some think that it was a fan (the ears of the animal);
another takes the legs for pillars; a third the tail for a rope, and so
This has actually been published as a children's book. It appears in the books of Rumi and Sanai. We have made it the subject of a commercial film, The Dermis Probe. This story, on the lowest possible level, makes fun of the scientists and academics who try to explain things through the evidence which they can evaluate, and none other. In another direction, on the same level, it is humorous in as much as it makes us laugh at the stupidity of people who work on such little evidence. As a philosophical teaching it says that man is blind and is trying to assess something too great for assessment by means of inadequate tools. In the religious field it says that God is everywhere and everything, and man gives different names to what seem to him to be separate things, but which are in fact only parts of some greater whole which he cannot perceive because “he is blind” or “there is no light.”
The interpretations are far and high as anyone can go. Because
of this, people address themselves to this story in one or more of
these interpretations. They then accept or reject them. Now they
can feel happy; they have arrived at an opinion about the matter.
According to their conditioning they produce the answer. Now look
at their answers. Some will say that this is a fascinating and
touching allegory of the presence of God. Others will say that it is
showing people how stupid mankind can be. Some say it is antischolastic.
Others that it is just a tale copied by Rumi from Sanai -
and so on. Because none of these people can taste an inner content, none will even begin to imagine that one exists. As I say these words the ordinary mind will easily be able to dispose of them by thinking that this is just someone who has provided a sophisticated explanation for something which cannot be checked.
But we are not here to justify ourselves. We are here to open
the door of the mind to the possibility that stories might be
technical documents. We are here to say that there is a method of
making use of these documents. Especially we are here to say that
the most ancient and most important knowledge available to man is
in part contained in these documents. And that this form, however
primitive or old-fashioned it may seem, is in fact almost the only
form in which certain teachings can be captured, preserved and
transmitted. And, too, that these stories are conscious works of art,
devised by people who knew exactly what they were doing, for the
use of other people who knew exactly what could be done with
It may take a conventional thinker some time to understand
that if he is looking for truth and a hidden teaching, it may be
concealed in a form which would be the last, perhaps, which he
would consider to be applicable to his search.
But, in order to possess himself of this knowledge, he must
take it from where it really is, not from where he imagines it might
There is plenty of evidence of the working of this method, that
of the story deliberately concocted and passed down, in all cultures.
We do not have to confine ourselves to Eastern fables. But it is in
stories of Eastern origin that we find the most complete and least
deteriorated forms of the tradition. We therefore start with them.
They lead us, naturally, to the significant documents in the Western
and other branches of the tradition.
In approaching the study of stories, then, we have to make sure
that we reclaim the information that stories contain, shall we say, a
message. In this sense we are like people whose technology has
fallen into disuse, rediscovering the devices used by our ancestors
as we become fitted for it. Then we have to realise that we have to
familiarise ourselves with certain stories, so that we can hold them
in our minds, like memorizing a formula. In this use, the teaching
story resembles the mnemonic or formula which we trot out to help
us calculate something: like saying: “one kilo equals 2.2 pounds in
weight”; or even “thirty days hath September.”
Now we have to realise that, since we are dealing with a form
of knowledge which is specific in as much as ii is planned to act in
a certain way under certain conditions, those conditions must be
present if we are to be able to use the story coherently. By
coherently I mean here, if the story is to be the guide whereby we
work through the various stages of consciousness open to us.
This means that we must not only get to know certain tales; we
must study them, or even just familiarise ourselves with them, in a
certain order. This idea tends to find opposition among literate
people who are accustomed to doing their own reading, having
been led to believe that the more you read the more likely you are
to know more. But this quantitative approach is absurd when you
are dealing with specific material. If you went to the British
Museum library and decided to read everything in it in order to
educate yourself, you would not get very far. It is only the ignorant,
even in the formal sense, who cannot understand the need for
particular kinds of specialisation. This is well exemplified by the
club porter who once said to me, in all seriousness “You are a
college man, Sir, please explain football pool permutations to me.”
It is in order to get some possibility of right study that I
continually say things like “Let us get down out of the trees and
start to build.”
So far, however, we have not been saying much more than this:
1. A special, effective and surpassingly important teaching is
contained in certain materials. In this case the materials are stories.
2. We must accept the possibility before we can begin to
approach the study of this knowledge.
3. Having accepted, even as a working hypothesis, the
foregoing contentions, we have to set about the study in an efficient
manner. In the case of the tales, the efficient manner means to
approach the right stories, in the right manner, under the right
Failure to adhere to these principles will make it impossible for
us to function on the high level needed. If, for example, we settle
for merely knowing a lot of stories, we may become mere
raconteurs or consumers. If we settle for the moral or social
teaching of the story, we simply duplicate the activities of people
working in that domain. If we compare stories to try to see where
the higher level is, we will not find it, because we do not know
unless guided which are the ones to compare with each other, under what conditions, what to look for, whether we can perceive the secret content, in what order to approach the matter.
So the story remains a tool as much as anything else. Only the
expert can use the tool, or produce anything worthwhile with it.
Having heard and accepted the above assertions, people always
feel impatience. They want to get on with the job. But, not knowing
that “everything takes a minimum time,” or at any rate not applying
this fact, they destroy the possibility of progress in a real sense.
Having established in a certain order the above facts, we have
to follow through with a curriculum of study which will enable us
to profit by the existence of this wonderful range of material. If you
start to study what you take to be teaching-stories indiscriminately,
you are more than likely to get only a small result, even with the
facts already set out. Why is this?
Not only because you do not know the conditions under which
the study must take place, but because the conditions themselves
contain requirements of self-collection which seem to have no
relationship to the necessities for familiarising oneself with a
We must, therefore, work on the mind to enable it to make use
of the story, as well as presenting it with the story. This “work” on
the mind is correctly possible only in the living situation, when
certain people are grouped together in a certain manner, and
develop a certain form of rapport. This, and no other, is the purpose
of having meetings at which people are physically present.
If read hurriedly, or with one or other of the customary biases
which are common among intellectuals but not other kinds of
thinkers, the foregoing two paragraphs will be supposed to contain
exclusivistic claims which are not in fact there.
This is itself one of the interesting - and encouraging -
symptoms of the present phase of human intellectual folklore. If a
tendency can readily be seen manifesting itself, whether in physics,
scholasticism or metaphysics, one may be approaching its solution.
What is this tendency?
The tendency is to demand a justification of what are taken to
be certain claims in the language in which the demand is made. My
stressing, for instance, that meetings at which people are present
who have been grouped in a certain manner, may easily (and
incorrectly) be supposed to state that the kind of learning to which I
am referring can take place in no other manner. The intention of the
paragraph, however, was simply to refer to one concrete manner in
which what I have called “a living situation” can come about. A
meeting of a number of people in a room is the only form of such a
situation familiar to any extent to an average reader of such
materials as this.
I have used the word “folklore” to refer to a state of mind of
modern man closely similar to that of less developed communities.
But there is a great difference between the two folklores. In what
we regard as ingenuous folklore, the individual may believe that
certain objects have magical or special characteristics, and he is
more or less aware of what these are claimed to be.
In modern man's folklore, he believes that certain contentions
must be absurd, and holds on to other assumptions, without being
aware that he is doing so. He is motivated, in fact, by almost
completely hidden prejudices.
To illustrate the working of such preconceptions, it is often
necessary to provide a “shock” stimulus.
Such a stimulus occurs both in the present series of contentions
about the teaching-story (because, and only because, certain
information about it is lost to the community being addressed) and
exists equally strongly within the frameworks of such stories
themselves, when one can view them in a structural manner.
This train of thought itself produces an illustration of the
relative fragmentation of contemporary minds. Here it is:
Although it is a matter of the everyday experience of almost
everyone on this planet, irrespective of his stage of culture or his
community, that anyone thing may have a multiplicity of uses,
functions and meanings, man does not apply this experience to
cases which - for some occult reason - he regards as insusceptible
to such attention. In other words, a person may admit that an
orange has colour, aroma, food value, shape, texture and so on; and he will readily concede that an orange may be many different things according to what function is desired, observed or being fulfilled. But if you venture to suggest that, say, a story has an equal range of possible functions, his folkloric evaluating mechanism will make him say: “No, a story is for entertainment,” or else something almost as Byzantine: “Yes, of course. Now, are you talking about the psychological, social, anthropological or philosophical uses?”
Nobody has told him that there are, or might be, categories of
effective function of a story in ranges which he has not yet
experienced, perhaps not yet heard of, perhaps even cannot
perceive or even coherently discuss, until a certain basic
information process has taken place in his mind.
And to this kind of statement the answer is pat and hard to
combat. It is: “You are trying to be clever.” This, you may recall is
only the “yaa-boo” reaction of the schoolchild who has come up
against something which it cannot, at least at that moment,
rationalise away or fully understand.
from Point, Number 4 (Winter 1968-69), pp. 4-9.
For more on the contemporary study of Teaching-Stories, see: The Idries Shah Foundation.