The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 2

For those who may have read Part 1 of this Native American teaching story shortly after I first posted it, you might want to check out the end, as I subsequently added a paragraph. Here’s the conclusion:

On the afternoon of his second day crossing the prairie, much to his  surprise, Jumping Mouse came upon another mouse. It was an old mouse, who was drinking from a stream, and was just as surprised as he. After they’d introduced themselves, he learned that this mouse was from his tribe. They got to talking and the old mouse explained that long ago he, too, had set out on a vision quest; but he’d given up. “I almost got grabbed by an eagle, and I’m too scared to go on, or to go back. There’s all the food and water I need right here, and there are plenty of bushes I can hide under. Look, if you go on you’re likely to end up in an eagle’s belly. Why don’t you just stay here with me, where it’s safe.” Jumping Mouse replied, “Thank you, uncle, but I can’t stay. I have to find the Center of the World, so I’ll just have to take my chances out on the prairie.”

The next day he said goodbye to the old mouse at first light, and went on his way. At mid-morning he came upon the biggest animal he’d ever seen. It was lying on the ground, eyes closed, and its breathing was labored. Jumping Mouse approached the ailing beast, which opened one jaundiced eye. “I’m Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest. Who are you?” “I’m Buffalo Spirit, and I’m sick unto death. The only cure for what ails me is. . . . the eye of a mouse.” Jumping Mouse didn’t want for this magnificent creature to die, and reasoned that he could get along with just one eye. He told the buffalo that he could have one of his eyes, and by magic the eye flew out of his head and lodged in the buffalo’s heart, curing him.

Buffalo Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse for saving his life, and asked if there was anything he could do in return. “I have to cross the prairie to get to the Center of the World, but I’m scared all the time of getting eaten by an eagle.” “Well, I’m a prairie animal and I can’t protect you all the way, but I can walk all the way to the foothills by sunset, and there’s more cover for you once you’re in the hills. You’ll have to scamper to keep up with me; but as long as you stay beneath me, you’ll be safe from any eagles.” So the two of them set out for the mountains. Jumping Mouse was worried at first that the buffalo might step on him by mistake, but he soon learned that the giant beast was very sure-footed. They reached the foothills at dusk, thanked one another, and went their separate ways.

Now Jumping Mouse knew first-hand what mountains are, and he was excited. It took most of two days, mostly uphill, for him to reach the mountain pass. He felt sure that he’d find what he sought on the other side of the mountains.  But just short of the pass, he began to hear a mournful howling. When he got there he saw a wolf –  a creature that he’d normally run from. But this wolf looked pitiful and quite harmless. He seemed to be confused. “Hello cousin, my name’s Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest.”  “I’m. . .I’m. . . I used to know who I am, but I seem to have forgotten my nature.”  “I’m pretty sure you’re a wolf.” The wolf stood up and comprehension returned to his eyes. “You’re right, I’m a wolf.” He howled again, but this time it wasn’t a mournful sound. “My name is Wolf Spirit, and I. . . I. . . what did you say I was?” Jumping Mouse told him again, and once again he acted like a proud, strong wolf. But, again, his memory failed him, and he just looked sad and confused.

Jumping Mouse thought, Uh oh! He has a different kind of illness than Buffalo Spirit, but if he doesn’t know his nature, he’ll starve to death. I can’t let that happen. He said to the wolf, “It seems that there’s strong magic in the weak eyes of a mouse. If you need my other eye to get your memory back, you can have it.” And by magic his other eye flew out of his head and into the wolf’s heart, healing him. Now Jumping Mouse was scared. He was blind in the presence of a hungry wolf. “Please don’t eat me!”

Wolf Spirit reassured him. “Of course I won’t eat you; I owe you my life! How can I help you on your vision quest?” “Well, I’m blind now. Can you guide me to the Center of the World, and protect me from the eagles?”  “I’ll serve as your eyes and take you there. And don’t worry – eagles don’t mess with me!”  The next morning the two of them set out together and started downhill, with the wolf giving instructions. Jumping Mouse couldn’t see it, but Wolf Spirit described a beautiful circular valley, ringed by mountains. In the center of the valley was a round lake. By noon they’d reached the edge of the lake. “I don’t like leaving you here, alone and blind, but I have to rejoin my pack. You can find nuts and berry bushes with your sense of smell, and you can stay hidden from eagles most of the time.” Wolf Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse again and took his leave.

Jumping Mouse was at the Center of the World, but he was  blind! For most of the afternoon, he stayed hidden as he foraged, but as the day wore on, he became very thirsty. He would be visible from the air as he drank, so he knew he’d have to be quick. He ran from the shade of the bushes and slaked his thirst at the rim of the lake. But as he drank, he heard the beating of wings overhead, louder and louder. Just as he turned to run, he felt the eagle’s talons grab him, and he felt himself being lifted higher and higher into the air. He was terrified, knowing he was about to be eaten! And then some very strange things happened.

In a flash, his vision returned – only it was sharper than it had ever been! And the pain abruptly disappeared! It almost seemed that the beating wings were his own – that he was flying! Studying the lake with his new-found eyes, he saw someone he knew. Prince of Waters sat on a lily pad beneath him. Jumping Mouse wanted to talk to the shaman who’d re-named him, and with that thought he descended, landing on the shore near his teacher. “Prince of Waters, I’m so glad to see you! The strangest thing just happened! See, I was blind and an eagle grabbed me! And then suddenly I could see again – only better! And it felt like I was flying! What’s happening to me?”

Prince of Waters replied, “When we first met, I saw that you were curious and brave. When you rose to my challenge, I gave you a new name. Now I know that you are also tenacious and have a generous  spirit. You have passed many tests on your vision quest, so it is again time for a new name. You are no longer Jumping Mouse. Your new name is Eagle.”

 

When I tell this story to children, I preface it by explaining that in pre-literate cultures, storytelling is how the tribal culture (customs, values, etc.) is passed on from generation to generation. Then, after the story, I usually ask what it taught. The children usually get that it depicts curiosity, valor, tenacity and generosity as virtues. Sometimes one or more of them grasps the central metaphor of the story, without being told: In order to see with the vision of an eagle, you first have to stop looking at the world through the eyes of a mouse.

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 1

I’m flying out to California next week for a writers’ workshop at Big Sur, so I may go a week without a post. But before I go, I’ll share my re-telling of a Native American teaching story that is one of my favorites:

Little Brown Mouse lived in a mouse village close enough to a river that you could sometimes hear the sound of water running over the rocks. He was a very curious mouse, so he asked his parents, “What’s that sound I hear off in the distance, beyond The Meadow?” “It’s something the elders call a river.” “What’s a river?” “We  don’t know, just something having to do with a lot of water. But don’t bother yourself about it. Our tribe never leaves The Meadow, and we have all the water we need right here.” Still curious, Little Brown Mouse asked some of the elders what a river was. But none of them had ever seen it, and it had nothing to do with The Meadow, so nobody seemed to care what a river was.

Except for Little Brown Mouse. One day he left the village and set out in the direction of the sound – which got louder as he ventured further and further away from home. He was almost to the edge of The Meadow when he came across a raccoon. After they introduced themselves, the raccoon asked him, “What are you doing so far away from your village?”  “I want to find out for myself what a river is.” “You are one curious mouse. Come on, I’ll take you there. I go there all the time.” So the two of them went through a wooded area and emerged onto the bank of a river. Little Brown Mouse was amazed! He had never imagined this much water in his life. “It’s beautiful!”

Cousin raccoon spotted someone he knew, and waved to him. It was a frog, perched on a log. This was no ordinary frog, but a powerful shaman. The raccoon turned to the mouse and said, “I have to go now, but first I’ll introduce you to my friend, Prince of Waters. He can answer your questions.” He introduced his new friend to his old friend, and left. “What are you doing so far from your village?” asked the frog. “I wanted to see for myself what a river is.” “And are you glad you came?” “Oh, yes! I didn’t know there was this much water in the whole world!” “So now you know for yourself what a river is. Have you ever heard about mountains?” “Only in stories. The Center of the World is in the mountains, I think.” “Do you want to see mountains for yourself?” “Oh, yes!” “Sometimes you have to give of yourself before you get what you want. If you do what I tell you, to the very best of your ability, you’ll catch a glimpse of mountains.” “I’ll do whatever you tell me!” “All right. You can’t see the mountains now because you’re so small, and you can’t see over the scrub on the other side of the river. But if you jump high enough, you’ll see for yourself what mountains look like. Are you ready?” Little Brown Mouse hunkered down and tensed his jumping muscles. The frog said, “Then jump!”

And the mouse jumped as high as he could. Sure enough, at the apex of his leap, he caught a glimpse of rocky mountain peaks in the distance. But without meaning to, he’d jumped slightly forward as well as up, and fell just past the lip of the riverbank, into the water. He managed to mouse-paddle to shore and clamber back up onto the riverbank. Wet from head to tail, he shook himself and spoke angrily to Prince of Waters: “I could have drowned!” “But you didn’t. Did you see the mountains?” All traces of anger suddenly gone, the wet mouse said, “Yes, and they’re so beautiful! But I want to see them up close, like I see the river now.” Prince of Waters laughed. “You have courage and curiosity. You have passed a test and acquired a new understanding. It’s time for you to have a new name. You are no longer Little Brown Mouse. Your new name is Jumping Mouse.”

Jumping Mouse thanked him,  but he knew it was time to go home. He had a feeling he’d be seeing him again someday. He was still wet when he got to the village.  He was excited, eager to tell everyone about his adventure; but nobody seemed to care about what he’d seen. All they saw was a wet tribe member – when nobody else was wet – telling them something about having a new name. He began to feel like he didn’t belong in his tribe anymore, and resolved to go on a vision quest to the nearby mountains, to search for the Center of the World.

Jumping Mouse explained to his parents that he had to go on a vision quest, but promised that he’d return. He set out early one morning, and found a place where he could cross  the river by jumping from rock to rock. On the far side was a wide expanse of prairie grassland, stretching to the not-so-distant mountain range. He was afraid, because the prairie was open land, often with no place to hide from hawks and eagles. Mice have poor long-range vision, and an eagle in the sky would just be a moving blur – until it struck! But despite his fear, he set out in the  direction of the mountains. He found nuts and berries to eat, and drank from puddles, or streams that he had to cross. He spent his first night sleeping under a bush, where he felt safe.

Next: Jumping Mouse’s adventure continues.

 

 

 

 

 

The happiest man in the world

I collect stories and used storytelling as a therapeutic technique throughout my career. Stories can be transformative and can trigger insights. Here are my re-tellings of two of my favorite teaching stories:

John was a very sad man. He suffered from what the Germans call Weltschmerz (world pain). The pain of the world weighed heavily upon him. He had a loving family and friends, and made a good living, but nothing gave him satisfaction. He was so depressed, he often thought about ending his life. But then one day he met a kindly old man, who asked him why he looked so sad. John poured his heart out, ending his account by expressing his hopelessness that he could ever find lasting happiness. The old man smiled at him and said, “I know what you can do to cure your sadness. You  need to track down the happiest man in the world and ask him for his shirt. When you put it on, you will know happiness.” “But how will I find him?” John asked. The old man replied, “If I were you, I’d travel to Istanbul and follow my nose wherever it takes me, then ask around. If he’s anywhere near, people will know, and they’ll tell you what they know. Seek him with your whole heart, and you’ll find him.”

John immediately quit his job and sold all of his worldly possessions, other than what he could wear, or carry on his back. He thought he had enough money to bankroll his quest, and booked passage to Turkey on a tramp steamer. When he got to Istanbul, he took a train east, but soon got off, sensing that he had to go the rest of the way on foot. Most people he asked knew nothing of the happiest man in the world, but others smiled, pointed to the east, and wished him well. A few claimed to have seen him, themselves, and gave John their blessings.

After a while John lost track of which day of the week it was, or which country he was in. He was meeting all kinds of people, and learning to make himself understood in new languages. He walked dirt roads through beautiful valleys and walked up and down mountain paths, avoiding cities. But he went on, because he knew he was getting closer to the itinerant man he sought. Now people were telling him things like, “I saw him go through town just last month” and “Two weeks ago he was in my home village, on the other side of these mountains.”

Bandits stole all of his money, and John came to rely on the kindness of strangers as he went on. His clothes were ragged and he had holes in his shoes. Strangers were not always kind, and he didn’t get to eat every day. When people didn’t take him in for the night, he had to sleep wherever he could find shelter. It seemed like the happiest man in the world was always just one or two days ahead of him.

One day John entered a village – he didn’t even know where it was – hungry, weary and raggedy. In the village square he inquired if anyone knew the whereabouts of the happiest man in the world. One of the villagers said, “Oh, he was just here!” When John’s face fell, the man pointed down the road and said, “If you go about two kilometers in that direction, you’ll find him under a big tree off to the right, in sight of the road.” John grew excited and pushed on, despite his exhaustion.

Sure enough, two kilometers down the road he spied a ring of colorfully dressed people surrounding a huge tree, dancing and singing. He ran and joined the circle. There, under the tree, danced a laughing man, who had to be the happiest man in the world. All of his few worldly possessions lay beside him on the grass. And then John noticed that he was shirtless, and realized that the happiest man in the world didn’t own a shirt! And with that knowledge, John knew happiness.

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Here’s another (very short) story about material things and happiness: A zen monk lived in a simple hut on a mountainside. He owned only the essential things he needed to sustain independent life – straw bedding, a blanket, cooking and eating utensils, a few tools, and a change of clothing. One day he went down to the nearby village in the valley. When he returned late at night, he discovered that thieves had stolen all of his meagre possessions. But he laughed, seeing that the thieves had left the moon in his window.

Joni Mitchell (my favorite female poet/troubadour) recorded her song, based on this story – “Moon at the Window.”  You might also want to check out “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'” on the soundtrack of George Gershwin’s classic American opera, Porgy and Bess.