The Secret Wisdom of Ancient Parables: Lessons for Living Positively

by Stanley Siegel

The Secret Wisdom of Ancient Parables: Lessons for Living Positively

PTM presents a monthly series of healing strategies based on ancient parables from around the world and beyond. From the book of the same name by Stanley Siegel, Editor-In-Chief.

A ceaseless river of negative thinking, second nature to most of us, stands in the way of our achieving a state of uninterrupted well-being. From a single negative thought we go on to invent a detailed story to explain our unhappiness, much of which has little to do with the present circumstances.

The idea that what we think and believe creates our reality seems contemporary, but, in fact, it bridges centuries old philosophies and religious traditions. It appears in ancient parables of every culture, handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. While many of these teaching (prescriptive) tales have been forgotten, or remembered only within certain circles, their messages echo throughout our contemporary consciousness.

The parables presented here are transformative in the way only stories can be. They enter our unconscious minds with the impact that a sermon or lecture rarely accomplishes. Through indirectness, imagery, and mood, they suspend our resistance and, often with surgical accuracy, introduce us to a new way of framing our thoughts. While lectures and sermons directly preach to us about how we should think, parables offer lessons about the consequences of how other people think. They are narrative vessels packed with life directives.

The practice of reading parables is likely to change your mind and, subsequently, your life, perhaps even without your awareness. They often bypass the logic of your rational mind, sinking deep into the unconscious. Like the wind, they sweep across the river of negativity, with enough power to change the direction of its current.

Some of these parables were told to me by spoken word, while others I collected through my years of spiritual explorations. After each parable, I interpret them based on the principles of my practice as a psychotherapist and teacher for over 40 years. We all have different ways of learning, and while the stories alone will slowly sink into the deepest levels of your psyche, the brief essays will serve as food for your conscious mind.

Some of us understand concepts better through experience, so I have suggested exercises that, when followed, can facilitate the lessons of each parable.

Read the parables as a daily practice, in the morning when you rise and at bedtime before sleep. Do the exercises as instructed. Share them with family and friends until they are part of your vocabulary. And most of all, enjoy how your life changes.

Reversing Thought Errors

A student approached his Master and said to him, “Every time I am trying to do my spiritual work, I am sharing from a pure place, but negative thoughts keep coming to me. Regardless of how I try to push them away, they return even stronger.”

The Master tells his student that he can give him the solution to his dilemma.

“You must go and see my teacher,” the Master said.

The Master’s teacher lived a long distance, and there was no easy way to travel there.

The student accepted the journey with love. After three days of inconvenience he arrived at the Master’s teacher’s house.

Now, the student knocks on the teacher’s door, but there is no answer.

The student waits all night, periodically knocking and calling out to the teacher.

In the morning when the sun rises, the teacher, at last, opens the door.

The student excitedly tells the teacher that his Master has sent him, so that he might receive guidance for a troubling question. “May I come in?”

The teacher abruptly closes the door in the student’s face.

Taken aback by the teacher’s action, the student bangs on the door pleading for the teacher’s help.

Again the teacher opens the door, but this time he says to the student. “I allow in my house whomever I choose. And you are not welcome here.”

The student, deeply disappointed, returns to his Master. “What did you do to me?” he accuses. I spent six days on the road trying to find the answer to my question and your teacher shut the door on me.”

“What did you learn from this?” the Master asks his student.

“I learned that there is no value in my spiritual quest. The great teacher did not act in a spiritual way.”

The Master looked at the student. “Don’t you realize that your mind works like the teacher?

The teacher chooses whom to invite into his house in the same way you allow the negative thoughts to enter your mind. It seems the thoughts keep coming, but the choice is made by you. If you shut the door and do not allow them in, they will never be there.”


When some aspect of our desire is unfulfilled, we experience a state of disharmony because our body/mind/spirit has fallen out of alignment. From this place of emptiness or lacking, negative thoughts emerge along with actions that prolong the disharmony and further our alienation from our true selves.

A negative thought, when we allow it, can quickly become a thought error, and like the student in this parable, we suddenly find that it predominates our minds and leads to actions and eventually habits that can trap us in a state of perpetual unhappiness.

Thought errors are distortions — incidences when we tell ourselves things that sound rational but are actually inaccurate. They can take many forms, such as: polarized thinking, in which we perceive things as black or white; filtering out the positive aspects of a situation and magnifying the negative; generalizing by coming to a conclusion based on a single piece of evidence; catastrophizing, by expecting a disastrous outcome; personalizing, believing that everything others do is about us; blaming ourselves or others, expecting we can change other people; and perpetuating a negative cycle, always needing to be right by continually trying to prove our beliefs and actions are correct.

The Master in this parable understands that we are completely responsible for creating the conditions of our lives through the thoughts we maintain. As the poet Emerson put it, “A man’s life is what he thinks about all day long.” For better and worse, nothing happens that we have not created. If we are distracted from enjoying the present moment, it is because we have cracked open the door and allowed negative thoughts to enter our minds.

The solution the parable offers is simple. Every encounter with a negative thought is an opportunity to establish a spiritual mindset. A spiritual mind is one in which we choose what to think about. The prescription: Do not welcome or allow these thoughts to enter in the first place. If in error we do, do not indulge them or allow them to spiral out of control. Quickly shut the door on them. Negative thoughts create negative results!

The purpose of your life is to understand what you want and how to attain it. To achieve this, you must not only recognize those negative thought errors that have subconsciously become the blueprint for your life; you must also understand where and how they originated to attain insight into their irrelevance in your present life. Your erroneous thought habits are accumulated over of a lifetime of being told what is “true” by parents, teachers, clergy, peers, and society. By the time you are an adult you have essentially been hypnotized, through endless repetition, into accepting these beliefs as your own. Because our self-concept has been shaped by how we are told to be, most of us have little or no idea of who we truly are and certainly no idea of who we can become.

To understand what you want — your life purpose — you have to find the courage to identify and let go of those relentless negative thoughts and assumptions that have led to the creation of your current reality. You must get beyond your fear or other feelings that hold you hostage to definitions of who you are and the unconscious rules that maintain it. You can create the opportunity to reimagine life as you want it by disrupting your inner dialogue and the self-defeating actions that accompany them.

Meditation for Understanding the Source of Thought Errors  (podcast)

This guided meditation will help you identify the source of those negative thoughts and assumptions — the inner dialogue — through which you subconsciously filter the present conditions of your life. They shape your response in every situation, including relationships, money, sex, career, and friendship. It is your perception of the current situation through these filters that defines your self-image and what you believe is possible.

In this meditation, I am going to take you back to your childhood. I am going to ask questions for you to answer in your mind. Some are specific, and others about feelings and senses are abstract. You may have ready answers for some questions or you may not know how to answer immediately. Let the questions sink into your subconscious. When they do, answers will find you.

Ideally, it is best to listen to the meditation on podcasts such as this guided meditation with your eyes closed. If a computer or listening device is not available to you, read the instructions below slowly, taking your time between questions to fully imagine your answers.

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This meditation will take 19 minutes. Be sure you have the time to complete it before you begin.

  • Now make yourself as comfortable as possible.


  • Drop your attention inward.


  • Let go of your day and bring yourself here right now.


  • Focus on my words.


  • Breathe deeply, in through the nose, out from the nose.


  • As you’re exhaling, release everything that happened in your day.


  • Relax your shoulders on the exhalation and any part of your body in which you feel tension.


  • Now, breathe slowly and regularly.I am going to ask you some questions about your childhood.


  • Choose a time in your childhood when you had difficulty with your family.


  • Allow whatever comes up in your thoughts to take visual shape. It may help to
  • imagine how you looked at that time. How old are you? What do you see around you?


  • Visualize your parents and other family members. How do they look at the time?


  • How is the family interacting in this moment? What is everyone doing? What are they saying?


  • How do your parents and other family members feel at this time?


  • How do you feel at that moment?


  • Let’s go a little deeper. Imagine now the way your parents felt about the world at that time?


  • Did they experience the world as a safe and generous place, or a dangerous one?


  • Were they worriers? Were they brave?


  • How were they painting the world to you?


  • Were there family slogans like, “Be careful,” “You can’t trust anyone,” “All for one and one for all?” “It’s everything else’s fault—the government, bad economy, rich thieves.”


  • What did your parents say about you to each other in private moments?


  • How did your parents think about you then?


  • What do you imagine were their most negative thoughts about you?


  • Drop your attention back to your breath.


  • Say goodbye to that moment now.


  • You are returning to the present.


  • Breathe deeply, in through the nose, out from the nose.


  • As you’re exhaling, release everything that happened in your imagination.


  • Continue to breathe deeply and regularly.


  • You are back in the here and now again.


  • What was the motivation or dilemma that led you to listen to this meditation?


  • If your parents knew what you were struggling with, what would they say about it?


  • What would they think about you?


  • Do you think about yourself in the same way you imagine your parents do?


  • What are your thoughts about the world?


  • Do you experience the world the way your parents told you to?


  • Do you defend their point or view or defend yourself from surrendering to their view?


  • How do you think about your place in the world?


  • How would your parents think about your place in the world?


  • How do you think about yourself?


  • What are the thoughts that define you most?


  • What are the most negative thoughts you have about yourself?


  • Bring your attention back to your breath.


  • Inhale through your nose, exhale out your nose.


  • Again, take a deep breath through your nose and exhale out your nose.


  • And again.


  • Continue to breathe deeply and regularly. Keep your eyes closed.Through this guided meditation you’ve begun to identify your internal dialogue. This dialogue profoundly impacts how you perceive the world. It is made up of thoughts and feelings that lead to actions and habits that create your reality. In other words, your thoughts are creating you.But they are just thoughts, and thoughts can be changed. When we change our thoughts, our reality changes too. By changing our negative thinking, we begin to get clarity about what we truly want and how to attain it. If the mind can conceive something new, it can achieve it. You no longer have to be held hostage by past erroneous thoughts and assumptions.


  • Bring your attention back to your breath.


  • Breathe deeply through your nose, exhale out your nose. Again, breathe deeply through your nose, exhale out your nose.


  • Breath deeply and regularly now


  • Energy is flowing through you with each breath.


  • Focus your thoughts not on what is, but on what you want. How do you want your life to be?


  • Allow yourself to engage in imagining everything you want without resistance, excuse, or explanation. Your life is full of infinite possibilities. Feel the pleasure in your desire. Drop any resistance to what you want. Expect what you want to become reality. Fill in all the details of what you want and all of its manifestations in your life.


  • Imagine how you feel when you’ve attained what you want. Be in the excitement of the reality of having achieved what you want.


  • Notice any negative thoughts that enter your mind. Rather than indulging them, observe them and return your attention to the moment when you have what you want. Keep your thoughts in alignment with what you want. Stay in the pleasure of that moment — the expansion of your desire. Realize that you have created it. You have attained it already through your thoughts and actions.


  • What do you think about yourself now? Who are you now? How do you feel when you are in alignment with what you want? What is your internal dialogue now?


  • Return your attention to your breath.


  • Breathe in deeply through your nose, exhale out your nose.


  • Again, breathe deeply through your nose, exhale out your nose.


  • Breathe deeply and regularly now.


  • Positive energy is flowing through you with each breath.


  • Breathe deeply and regularly.


  • Soon I am going to ask you to slowly open your eyes, but before you do I want you to hear these thoughts.


We all have tremendous wisdom within us that has been clouded by a lifetime of negative thoughts and habits. Many have been inherited from our families over generations of habit. From their themes, we recreate the soap opera and dramas that we call our lives. As Gandhi said, “Your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

Negativity has its hooks. Use the positive thoughts/feelings you created in this exercise as leverage against the negative ones. Remember them along with the clarity you experienced during this exercise. Acknowledge to yourself that you are already changing. Continue to fill your mind with positive thoughts.

Most change comes through repetition. It takes about 30 days to form a new habit. My suggestion is that you repeat this meditation often until you regularly catch yourself in the act of negative thinking and can successfully replace those thoughts with others that reflect what you want and who you want to be. Once your thoughts are in alignment with your desires, your response to any of life’s conditions will come from a sense of confidence. Keep imagining that you are already there. And the path will continue to find you.