snowhite in the woodsWhen people say, “That’s just a fairy tale!” they mean that what the person believes is a naive illusion, a lie told to the self. But this is the opposite of the truth. Fairy tales succeed because they wear the clothing of simplicity and innocence, when they are in actuality deadly serious. Fairy tales are ironic. In many tales there is a character with a name like “Dummling” who turns out to be the hero. The stories themselves wear the guise of such foolishness. They do this because telling the truth can be dangerous. The only member of court who could speak truth to the king was the jester, the fool. As George Bernard Shaw said, if you are going to tell the truth, you better make it a joke.

Rather than being shallow fantasies to entertain the kiddies, fairy tales describe the human process of development in all of its mystery. They tell us the harsh facts of our beginnings, how we come to find ourselves in trouble in our lives, and they provide the only viable way out of life’s dilemmas.

They reveal their message in symbolic form because the conscious mind resists and rejects what it cannot easily incorporate. They speak to what every child knows in his heart, but all are afraid to say. As grown ups, we have all too often forgotten these realities, and we dare not admit them now. We have relegated this knowledge to a hidden place, the place where our heart resides beyond our access.

Fairy tales address our deepest existential challenges. They aim to answer the question of how to have, as philosopher Paul Tillich calls it, the courage to be. How do we live fully in the face of the threat of non-existence, insignificance, and moral failure? As Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment,

“The fairy tale takes (our) existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life and the fear of death.”

Fairy tales address the problems of human life and relationship. The stories tell us that we are all wounded in the core of our being. The result of this woundedness is that we are all distanced from living out what Aristotle called our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. This is what it means to have a lost heart. The stories tell us how we came to be wounded in the first place and how this has led to a loss of connection to our essential selves. They remind us of what we have lost and how to find our hearts and bring our essential nature back out into the light again.

How have we become so wounded? The psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tell us that fairy stories reveal the truth about our inner lives. What these pioneers on the quest for the secrets of human nature could barely admit to themselves was that they also revealed the truth about our outer lives and our most important relationships. They reveal the archetypal patterns of the struggle between generations, between parents and children, that has plagued humanity and been repeated over and over back to the murky recesses of our most distant past.

Freud would have us believe that the story of Oedipus is all about the fantasy of the child wanting to kill the father and bed the mom. But Freud leaves out the essential beginning of the tale. The story starts as all the hero myths do. The father is threatened by the birth of the child, because there is a prophecy that the appearance of the prince means the end of the king. So threatened, the king does all he can to rid himself of the threat by having the boy killed.

The dangerous truth that fairy tales reveal is that our beginnings are fraught with peril and danger, and almost always at the hand of a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father gives his daughter away to a beast to save his own skin; Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest to starve; Cat-Skin’s father aims to marry his own daughter; Cinderella lives a life of ignominy and shame at the hand of her stepmother; the examples go on and on.

In contrast to our sentimental beliefs, the relationship between parent and child is not made up exclusively of love. Instead, parents, on a level far below their awareness, and influenced by the depth of their own woundedness, are fundamentally threatened by their children. The prophecy that each oracle reveals in the myths is that the appearance of the child means that the wheel of time is turning. It is only a matter of a few cosmic instants before the parent loses his or her beauty and power and succumbs to death, and the child achieves dominion over the realm. The appearance of the child foretells the parent’s doom.

The tales tell us that this is the natural flow of life. Unfortunately, most grown ups have a hard time accepting this reality. To the extent that we cannot accept this, we are out of harmony with what the Chinese Sage Mencius called the Heavenly Mandate. When we live in harmony with this mandate and accept the natural flow of life, we make way for the next generation wholly and completely and all is right in the world. When we resist against this flow then our hidden aggression against our children comes out in various ways and we cause harm. If we do not accept our own death, then the next generation does not have their turn to advance the human experiment. We hurt our children, and the result is that they lose their hearts.

Part Two will appear tomorrow.

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Finding the Lost Heart: A New Path to Growth, Love and Wisdom,

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902
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I stared into my paella. I felt myself swirling around, just one more piece of sausage in a chaotic stew. My friend Abby was jabbering about how, at the ripe old age of 23, she had just published a novel. She’d blown into New York less than a year before and was already one fourth of the town’s most notorious performance quartet. She tossed back her beet red hair and laughed, but I didn’t think much of anything was funny. Laurie, on the other hand, looked worse than I felt. She lay unconscious, her head sprawled on the white tablecloth, deep in a migraine.

This is some way to celebrate my 37th birthday, I thought. Clearly, my best days were behind me. My drawer was filled with rejection letters from every record label in America for the singing group I was producing. I had just failed in resurrecting my fourteen-year marriage, which I had screwed up over the previous few years with a string of infidelities.

I was relegated to composing jingles for toy commercials. Now that was something to have engraved on my tombstone: brainwashed small children into buying plastic for a living.

My hair was just about done with the tortuously painful process of falling out. I had been the “wunderkind,” the “child prodigy” once, but now I was just Uncle Glenn, smiling at my young friends’ successes, but grimacing underneath. I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock from the poem by T. S. Eliot:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)

I looked up from my paella. I looked at Laurie: her mouth was open and she looked rather green. In her normal, lucid moments, Laurie bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother when she had been in her twenties. I was sure she was a reincarnation. Looking at her reminded me that I was an orphan, without connection to a single family member, as both of my parents had died and I had lost contact with the few other family members I had. I recalled a song lyric I had written:

All the love that’s gone forever
I don’t understand
how it slipped through my hands

“I’m lost,” I mumbled to my friends. “What should I do?”

Laurie opened her eyes, raised her head and said, “Go to Ellis Island.”

The next day, on a crisp October New York morning, under a cloudless sky the color of sapphires against gold and ruby leaves, I went down to the seaport, bought a ticket, and walked on the boat that swung past the Statue of Liberty on its way to Ellis Island.

At sixteen, without a dime in his pocket, my grandfather, a Russian Jew, had come to America through Ellis Island, the port of embarkation for many immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s. Nearly a century later, as the ferry sailed through New York Harbor, I imagined I saw Manhattan as my grandfather had seen it the day he arrived in America.

I leaned against the ship. Children, with the sun gleaming on their faces, played and screamed noisily around me but they seemed as remote from me as my own innocent past. Something gave way deep inside. I could no longer defend against my feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and grief for all the love I had lost and destroyed. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The front that I was strong, in control, powerful and all put together came crashing down. I plummeted into emptiness, suddenly facing a void.

Landing on Ellis Island, I walked through the halls where countless immigrants had made their way into this country. As I heard old folk songs my mother had sung to me as a child, old feelings half-buried in the rubble of my life began to stir.

Reaching the sea wall, I read the names inscribed there, of all the travelers who had passed through this door into freedom. I found my grandfather’s name: Chaim Pollack. Wiping back tears, I looked up into the heavens and asked, “Grandfather, what should I do?”

As though the voice spoke from the center of my being, the answer came — one that Jewish elders have been giving since the beginning of time:

“Devote your life to study, and tikkun, fixing the broken world.”

How could I, a flawed man who had hurt so many, help to heal the world? How could I devote my life to study? I had bills to pay, clothes to buy, places to go, people to meet.

Again I heard my grandfather’s voice: “I traveled across the sea knowing full well that I would never reap the rewards of my journey. I knew that I would not enter the Promised Land. But I came for you, for the promise of my grandchildren. My hope lay in you. If I gave up my home, and made my way around the world to start a new life, I am certain you can find the time, the money, and the way to do what I have commanded you to do.”

I knew that I wanted to change. Was I finally ready? As the Talmud said,
If not now, when?

Humbled, I left the island.

When I returned to New York, everything was transformed. The city of dreams glowed with the primal vibration of life. Everywhere I looked, I saw meaning and beauty. My senses were all amplified and enriched. I felt love for all that I saw. I felt my grandfather’s inspiring hand gently on my back, whispering in my ear that it was time to fulfill my destiny — I could do it.

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bhakti-marga1No singular method will solve our problems and bring us what we want in life. Instead, we must learn a new attitude of heart, an approach to life and living.In order for us to become what we are meant to be requires the development of a new kind of spirituality. In order to realize our hearts, we need what in Sanskrit was called a Bhakti spirituality, a Bhakti Marga, or the Way of Devotion.This is a devotion not to some supernatural being, but rather to those things that are close at hand. We devote ourselves, first and foremost, to the rediscovery of our own hearts.In the Parsifal legend, the young hero brings the king to health and the kingdom back to life simply by asking the right question, “Where is the holy grail?” All we have to do to bring ourselves back to health is to ceaselessly ask the question, “Where is the heart?”It is only when we devote ourselves to putting the rediscovery of ourselves at the center of our lives and working on this every day that we have the possibility of truly flourishing.In order to realize our destinies we need to align ourselves with what Mencius called the Heavenly Mandate. These are the laws and principles of the universe and human nature. When we are in harmony with these laws we are happy and fulfilled, our relationships and families are harmonious and our society is peaceful and prosperous. Devoting ourselves to a lifetime of searching for the heart is the way to learn about this natural, universal law, because the heart is where these laws reside within us. This devotional act brings us closer to the essence of the cosmos.The goal is not some end point, or even some final success. The goal is an immersion in the process itself. The finding is in the seeking. It is this devotion which leads to the finding of the heart, because devotion is the authentic condition of the heart, where devotion means an ultimate commitment of love.The finding of the heart is in the striving. This striving for the core within us that lives in harmony with the universe, is what nourishes our ch’I, the lived embodiment of universal energy. It is what gives us strength, courage and self-confidence. Like in the tale where Lily had to search the world over to find the lost and enchanted prince, to find the lost heart we need to say, “As far as the wind blows, and so long as the cock crows, I will journey on, till I find it once again.”