The Teaching Story

Idries Shah and his revolutionary contribution to the teaching story.

By Robert Twigger


“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Native American proverb

“All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions”.

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, speaking in 1996

“Everything we know comes in the form of a story, a narrative with a beginning and end. Delia Smiths recipes and the handbook of latest version of Windows are stories just as much as ‘Coronation Street’. A thing becomes meaningful only when we can embed it in a story.”

Dorothy Rowe, The Independent on Sunday, 31 March 1996

“Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.”

Aleks Krotoski, Observer, 7 August 2011

“The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

American singer-songwriter Pete Seeger (1919-2014)


It is perhaps hard for people immersed in the current era, where the highly esteemed value of ‘story’ is almost a cliché, to realise that back in the 1950s and 1960s stories were only for small children, narrative values were shunned in favour of theme, content and message, and that the idea that businessmen or scientists could benefit from stories was laughable. People take stories seriously today because Idries Shah demonstrated in a precise, technical manner how a story can function in all the dimensions beyond that of pure entertainment.

Coincident with his rigorous unpacking of the story’s potential, there was a huge general upsurge in the subject – from the work of Joseph Campbell, to anthropologists rejecting the ideas of structuralism, through the folklorist collectors of stories, to the resurgence in Hollywood on focusing on story rather than sizzle. But all this would have lacked spine and meaning, really, without the central role of the story as a teaching mechanism. The Bible and the epic of Gilgamesh would have remained ‘great stories’ rather than the fractured and distorted (through retelling and translation) remains of myriad teaching stories which can still to some extent be fruitfully unpacked today.

First, what do we mean by a teaching story? What makes a teaching story different from an ordinary story?

An ordinary story unpacks relationships and ideas inherent in the starting conditions, or platform, of the story. The platform is made up of the characters and their situation. When this platform is upset, or tilted, we have a chance to see the various elements recombining in pleasing ways which also demonstrate, sometimes, truths about ourselves. All stories can ‘teach’ to some extent, but a teaching story as Shah has shown, if it is to have technical meaning, must allow of multiple interpretations that further our spiritual/psychological development.

A teaching story – which can be as short as a joke or as long as a novel – does this by depicting certain relationships in a way that helps human growth towards a greater understanding of eternal truths, mainly by removing blocks which get in the way of perceiving the breathtaking nature of underlying reality. Such stories inch us towards a greater and more profound understanding of ourselves, our neighbours and our place in the grand scheme of things. It has been said that trying to retain consciousness of being a drop of water as well as consciousness of being one with the ocean is one metaphor that shows the tricky ground on which much spiritual endeavour stumbles. Teaching stories help navigate that ground, enabling a slow and steady growth in perspective. They provide a context which mere information – like this – cannot provide.

Nobel prize winning author Doris Lessing wrote: “A real teaching story, whether thousands of years old, or new, goes far beyond the parables that are still part of our culture. A parable has a simple message: this means that. But in a Sufi teaching story, there may be layers of meaning, some of them not to be verbalized. Current ways of “teaching” literature in schools and universities may make it difficult for literary people to approach Sufi literature as it should be: Sufis do not pull apart a tale to find its meaning, but cite the case of the child who has dismantled a fly and, left with a heap of wings, a head, legs, asks “Where is the fly?” In other words, a student learns to use the mind in ways unfamiliar to us. They “soak themselves” in the material. They ignore the analytical approach, and the practice of memorizing and regurgitating. The meaning of a Sufi tale comes through contemplation, and may take years.”

As psychologist Robert Ornstein has written:

“On the surface teaching stories often appear to be little more than fairy or folk tales. But they are designed to embody – in their characters, plots and imagery – patterns and relationships that nurture a part of the mind that is unreachable in more direct ways, thus increasing our understanding and breadth of vision, in addition to fostering our ability to think critically.”

A classic teaching story which appears in many places and many guises is the story of the elephant in the room, or the blind men and the elephant. It appears in many Eastern storytelling traditions and is even illustrated by the 18thcentury Japanese master wood engraver and artist Hokusai.

In its simplest form four blind men encounter an elephant, or four scholars separately enter a darkened room which contains an animal they only know as a elephant. One grasps the trunk and tells everyone it is snake-like creature. Another grasps the legs and says it is like a pillar. Another grabs the ear and says an elephant is like fan. The last feels the hide and says an elephant is like a wall. In some versions they come to blows, but in others a fifth man who is sighted or simply has a lamp to light the room is able to explain that they have merely grasped fragments and not the whole.

One can immediately find applications for this story, the most obvious being religion (a subject which deals with things we cannot ordinarily see and usually only have opinions about).

The story teaches in a way that a morality proverb doesn’t: it sets out some basic relationships which can be interpreted in several different ways. For example, we might extrapolate the ending and ask ourselves just what would be the best way for the sighted man to explain the fallacy. Thinking about this we learn; the story is teaching us.

An interesting postscript to this is how the elephant in the room story has been deformed into a pat phrase meaning a huge but unmentionable thing everyone is ignorant of, or blind to. That kind of simple, single meaning shows the way a teaching story, if nor maintained, is likely to collapse into mere narrative (or micro narrative in this case).

Another aspect of how stories teach may be illustrated from a story fragment that appears in several fairy stories recalibrated by Idries Shah to make developmental sense (in helping one grow rather than just providing entertainment, which is what many worn out versions of stories do). In this fragment a brave protagonist must cross a guarded moat, climb a wall and defeat more guards to reach a beautiful princess in the tower. Thanks to information gathered earlier, the hero knows how to create a disturbance so that one set of guards attack another… leaving him time and space to rescue the princess. When we unlock one aspect of the story we find a useful analogy based on seeing the princess as enlightenment and the hero as a seeker who is blocked by various mental barriers. The princess is guarded (but in reality, imprisoned) by many different vices, hang-ups, mental habits that stop us from appreciating the true extent of reality (what the princess stands for). But these mental obstructions cannot be fought head on – that just makes them bigger (in other stories this is represented by monsters that become a thousand monsters when slashed with a sword. We also see its distant vague reflection in the Matrix series where Agent Smith multiplies infinitely when attacked). One method to defeat these monsters is to use one vice to swallow another: ‘Setting the guards against each other’.

On a more prosaic level, if you are lazy and addicted to cigarettes, use your laziness – not wanting to get up and go and buy them – to counter the addiction. If you are vain and also greedy, use your vanity about your appearance as motivation to stop eating. The problem with vices is that like the guards they get in the way. By setting them against each other we can start to see more clearly and get out of our own way.

The bigger point is that by presenting thousands of stories, Idries Shah provided a vocabulary, or symbolic library if you like, of ways to use stories to help not just personal development in an external sense but also removal of blockages to allow a greater perception of reality. Once the concept that stories can actually be instrumental in this technical sense (beyond the power of inspiring young minds, capturing our emotions etc.) we can then start looking for the same patterns in all traditional and folk art. You will develop the talent to decode to some extent ancient objects; you will also gain the ability to empathise with our forebears rather than seeing them as aliens from another space-time dimension.

A curious feature of some versions of Asperger syndrome is an aversion to stories. We know from the persuasive work of Dr Ian McGilchrist (The Master and his Emissary) and others that the Asperger scale can usefully be read as varying degrees of excessive left brain domination. It is the right side of the brain that provides the holistic overview, the context rich insightful intuition- as opposed to the detail loving nit-picking limited view of the left hemisphere of the brain. Of course both sides work together; what is damaging is when the left brain thinks it can take over. It is the right side of the brain that ‘loves stories’ and can see at once all the dimensions possible in a story even if they lack (left brain) unpacking ability. Idries Shah gives us left brain tools (words, narratives, concepts) to support a more right brain holistic version of the world. And it is in stories that we see the perfect amalgam of left and right brain working together at the highest level. Technical jargon mixed with diagrams and numbers pale in comparison to the subtlety and expressive possibilities of even a simple story.

Basic language in a story telling mode may become over complicated – as in a legal case – but the reality is that the best story wins. A leading barrister once confided to me that a case is never won on ‘the argument’ it is always won by craftily persuading the judge and jury, as early as possible, to view the facts through a certain window, a certain angle. In other words, hand them a mechanism for telling themselves a story.

And since we can’t escape story we should embrace it and use it in its higher form, the teaching story. Even science can’t escape the power of story. It is instructive to read how the name ‘black hole’ originated. At first this phenomenon (which by definition cannot be known directly) was calculated in 1916 by the physicist Schwarzchild and was broadly referred to as ‘phenomena associated with the Schwarzchild radius’ . Eventually research in his area so expanded that a quicker name was needed. In the early 1960s physicist Dr Robert Dicke started using a simpler term. In the Dicke family when something was lost they all said it had been sucked into the ‘black hole of Calcutta’. So when physicist Dicke started talking about the intense gravitational force of a collapsed star, he said it’s like being drawn into ‘the black hole of Calcutta’. So the origin refers to another story, that of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. It was the drama of that story that gave it the impetus to be used for re-naming the Schwartzchild radius. But still the name wasn’t universally taken up until 1967. And it is physicist John Wheeler who is credited with popularising ‘black hole’ as a noun rather than a metaphor. He famously said that naming things in physics is vitally important as it affects how we think about them and how much attention we give to them and their constituent parts. He sounds like a novelist talking about character’s names! But also like someone talking about teaching stories, in the sense that the name encapsulates a buried story. Logically it makes no sense, but we all know that a sexy name like ‘black hole’ is far more alluring than Schwarzchild radius, more likely to attract interest and study (and funding).

This diversion into physics is to show how the concept of the teaching story presented by Shah already exists in a nascent form in the culture, is always reappearing – it is what we do. What Shah did was to sharpen this blunt tool and make it useful for higher studies, that is, the area where we can usefully ask questions which science and art cannot answer.

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