“A king once lost his way into a harsh desert and as he was lying on the sand exhausted, a group of cranes flying above spotted him. They flew down to him and carried him to his palace on their backs. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the king rewarded every crane with a crown of gold, which unfortunately was a curse to the gentle birds. Greedy humans started killing them for the crowns, which made the King very sad. So he changed the crown into one of golden feathers.”
That’s how an African folk tale explains the appearance of the Grey Crowned Cranes.
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Folk tales are deceptively childlike. There’s an innocence and simplicity that make us see them as mere entertainment, but it is also why they pierce right into the softest, most vulnerable corners of our heart with layered messages that our conscious minds overlook.
This tale, for instance, is such a simple story of kindness, friendship, gratitude, greed and thoughtlessness; so easy to relate to. On the outset, there’s the all-too familiar “animals are kind, humans are greedy” theme. But I want to delve into this story and understand if there is anything more to this. Reading the story with a literal and practical approach leads us, inevitably, to skepticism and dismissal: what kind of king goes out without an entourage? How does a king get lost? How inefficient is his administration to not find him? How can birds, however large, carry a human? Thus we spiral into the hard, ruthless world of the rational mind that has its excellent uses — narrating and listening to stories is not one of them.
In ancient times, storytelling was an art form inseparable from poetry. All stories were sung, not told. Metaphors and figures of speech were easily understood, no dictionary or interpretations needed. It was in this form that humans could package a wealth of wisdom in pithy lines. So, to explore the hidden and the deeper significance of this succinct story, we inevitably turn to poetry.
If we treat a story as a message for introspection, then it becomes imperative to treat the story as a metaphor for our inner narrative. The landscape of the story is the landscape of our mind. Every symbol is representative of our inner world, the mind. The ‘King’ is the conscious, active part of the mind that is discerning, plays an active role in making decisions, executing them and generally is the administrator of our life. It’s not uncommon then, for this King to occasionally lose his way in the ‘desert’ of uninspiring, dry circumstances that lack nourishment, encouragement and guidance. What is your ‘lost in the desert’ phase? I have had countless ones: that time in high school when I didn’t know what to do with my life, that time in early youth where I knew what I wanted but didn’t know how to go about attaining it, those times when I feel uninspired and suffer from creative blocks, those times of emotional limbo during bereavement and grief, other times when I know something is wrong with my health but cannot place a finger on the problem… so many.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Shelley may have said this of a skylark, but this is generally how humankind perceives all birds intuitively. Folklore, poetry, mythology have assigned to birds the job of representing the spirit realm, a connection between the ‘other world’ and ‘this world’; they are honoured as beings that can walk the earth and touch the sky, that come from a faraway land as harbingers of changing seasons. Cranes, in particular, are hailed in oriental lore for their grace and loyalty, as symbols of happiness. In occidental cultures, cranes have been associated with omen: they are messengers from the ‘other world’, symbols of fertility, renewal and prosperity.
When lying in the desert, exhausted and starved, one cannot ask for a better rescue team than a bunch of cranes flying in, ushering in a season of bounty and joy. In a Russian folk tale, The Maiden King, the protagonist Ivan has a similar rescue moment. When stuck inside the hut of Baba Yaga with the imminent threat of being eaten by the old woman, Ivan blows his horn to summon the Firebird that whisks him off to safe land.
So what is the ‘crane’ of the inner mind?
Inspiration. Intuition. That deep, far away voice that grows faint with the mind’s chatter and preoccupation with the outside world, but speaks to you in silence, in flashes during a shower, in deep sleep, in dreams, in epiphanies, through ‘gut feeling’… that messenger from the deep well of wisdom, the soundless voice inside that guides should we care to listen…’Drop mathematics, take up botany’ the voice nags. You ignore. It goes quiet. An uneasy quiet. ‘Don’t take that job offer, it is perfect, but not perfect for you.’, it says. ‘Oh well, what am I going to tell my family? It would be absurd not to’, you go. The voice goes quiet. You are perhaps not tired of being in the desert yet, muses the voice. The cue for rescue is not due yet.
Many cranes fly past without picking you up. You don’t even notice the cranes. The mirages of the desert have got you and you are stuck. Helpless dependence and long hours of <insert any substance or medium of distraction you are addicted to>, food cravings, preoccupations about false measures of esteem, vicious cycles of bad luck and negative self-talk — the desert is a dangerous place to get lost in.
One flock finally says, ‘enough now. let’s get you out of here’ but only when you finally stopped resisting them. You don’t argue back and you don’t talk about how uncomfortable it is to be on the crane’s back. You don’t say, ‘but that job is good for my resume…’ or a hundred other excuses you can find to complain how you have no choice but to wander in the desert.
The story keeps the journey back to the palace very short. We will keep it short too. Let’s discuss rescue missions another day, with another story. There are many turnaround stories, stories of revival, healing, change of luck around us to know that they happen. This story is about what we do after we are out of the desert. The King in this story is a nice man. He felt grateful and decided that only a word of thanks was not enough.
How often do we thank our ‘cranes’? That random introduction a friend made to us earned an unexpected business partner and we take the friend out for dinner after launching the venture as a token of gratitude. But we don’t think it is important enough to say, ‘my inner crane brought me this luck when I most needed it, let me sit in silence for ten minutes to thank my guide who brought this good fortune.’ Ritualistic offerings, in traditional cultures, of a portion of the first harvest to deities were the society’s way of ‘thanking the cranes’. Rituals of tradition, one could argue, are themselves a way of talking to the symbolic cranes, acknowledging them for being there, always ushering in a good season after a dry spell, always willing to rescue you out of a mess. Lighting a lamp and sitting in meditation with a mantra was the ancient civilisation’s device of listening to the inner guide and expressing gratitude. Most traditional practices were born out of poetry and metaphors. Human societies developed a way of honouring the collective wisdom, intuition with poetic celebrations.
The crux of the story rests, however, on the act of gratitude. The king’s reward becomes a curse. But before we get into that, what does a crane do with anything gold? If you want to make your child happy, would you give her a soft toy, or a toy of gold? Which one would she rather cuddle with? Innocence does not understand the measures of status, power and wealth. Nor does the part of your mind that connects with the divine. Titles, crowns, medals, cash prizes, reward money are all great for success and thriving in the outer world, but meaningless for the soul. Many poets and philosophers have expressed this quite eloquently.
This story goes a step further. Not only are worldly rewards useless, they are harmful when you use them to reward your inner guide. Outer measures of success not only fail to validate your inner worth, when imposed, they go on to destroy your sense of worth. There’s always someone next door, next cubicle, with a better car, better clothes, better accomplishments, better social media presence…The noisy voices of the discerning rational mind that like to quantify, judge, weigh, assign value, compare will start telling the inner guide, the cranes, that they are no good. The critical voices then expect the crowned crane to become the goose that lays golden-eggs. Why not, eh? Then they kill the cranes to take the gold crowns. The heavy gold burdens the cranes. Now they can’t even fly to save their own lives; they are not as lightweight anymore. The silencing of our inner intuitive voice with noises of ‘I am not as smart as my teammates’, ‘I want a fancier car’, ‘I want a posh house’, ‘my cousin treats me with disdain because she gets paid better’ and other shaming kills all communication with the inner wisdom. Inner shaming is a brutal weapon.
Good sense prevails on the King, however. He shakes his head, lets out a sigh, and replaces the gold with feathers. Ah, now you are talking in the language of the crane world. Feathers, they get. They are of the same mould (and moult), they help to identify their friends and family, they help to hide their heads in straw when danger shows up, they protect and beautify; a much more thoughtful gift.
This, for me, is the essence of the wisdom in the story: the transaction between our conscious mind and our deeper intuition. The mechanics of gratitude. Not just gratitude in the sense of ‘be thankful’, but the how.
How do you thank yourself, your spirit, your inner guide, intuition, creative force, preservation instincts? What is your personal ritual to listen to and honour your inner voice of wisdom? How do you honour yourself?
It may seem nit-picky to not just be happy with the fact that we are grateful, but to insist on the way of gratitude. But going beyond the intent, the ‘how’ is an important step to enhance the quality of communication with ourselves.
Once, after a session of meditation, I shared with my mentor a sudden stroke of inspiration I had. He pointed out to me that my inner guide deserves a day dedicated to her for this help. I was flummoxed. How do I honour my inner guide? I mean, I felt very grateful and all…but what do I do to show it? It’s not like I can wrap myself a gift…So I asked myself, ‘what do I do to celebrate? How do I dedicate the day to you?’ I had no idea what to expect. The answer, to my complete surprise was, ‘talk to me’. For a few seconds I didn’t know what that meant. Eventually, I spent my free time that day away from TV, phone and other distractions and used that time for journalling. I spent the day just with my thoughts. By bedtime, a part of me truly felt like I had honoured myself.
‘How to express gratitude?’ can be answered by empathising with our inner selves: what would make my inner guide feel appreciated? What would strengthen the bond of friendship between us and our intuitive voice? This is a complete feedback loop and it works when we listen to ourselves with empathy. Empathy requires us to ask what the crane needs and wants and to offer it, even if it’s a bunch of feathers, not gift it what we think is precious.