Facing the Tiger: A Tale of Transformation
If you really knew me, you’d know that I sometimes get paralyzed by life’s demands. Particularly, it’s at the points where I need to become more than I have been, the places where proceeding requires me to grow, to change my routine, and/or to enter the unknown. Right now I have been feeling it as I try to summon the courage to continue reaching out with my blogs, a private counseling practice, workshops, and being a voice that’s worth listening to. Believe it or not, every one of these blogs is terrifying. Each and every one. It's an opportunity to be rejected by the people I care about as well as by perfect strangers. It's yet another chance for me to discover I have no place in trying to do what I'm doing. It's the same putting up an ad for a group, doing public talks - it’s all way out of my comfort zone. And lately, I’ve been prone to simply shying away.
Like many others from every walk of life, the two fears that paralyze me the most are the fear of abandonment and the fear of overwhelm. Abandonment was born from all the times I interpreted rejection - the painful events in my life that made me question whether I am good enough to take up space. Man, were there a lot of those... any of you out there relate? Overwhelm is the idea that the intricacies of life will be too much, that I’ll be faced with challenges I can’t overcome. Right now I am still trying to build this business with two young kids I need to provide for. Will I be able to do it? Do I have what it takes to meet my fears, put myself out there, and overcome the many unknown challenges ahead? I have built a lot of confidence to know that I am good at what I do, but there is much more to a business than that. And as I said - it begins to make me freeze.
But the test to it all is the faith in this idea that fear is the great awakener. Fear is where we meet the edge of our personal universe and see exactly where there is room to expand. The word “fear” actually comes from the Old English word “fær,” the same root word in “thoroughfare.” Seeing this etymological connection, I can’t help but hypothesize that for a long time it’s been known to humans that fear is not something we are to move away from, it’s something we have to move through. Fear creates discomfort, and any kind of growth requires that I embrace discomfort - whether it's lifting weights or getting vulnerable.
This brings me to the heart of the matter. In this time of fear I have been rather inward lately. In my quest for some insight and inspiration around this, I came upon an old Korean folktale called “The Tiger’s Whisker” that I’d like to try and retell in my own words to you all. The story had a profound effect on me (note that here I am writing my blog after 50 days of silence). Furthermore, this is my first try at retelling a classic tale in my own words. So... without further build up, I hope you enjoy this fresh take on an old tale.
The Tiger’s Whisker
Retold by Jahmaya Kessler
Many, many years ago, there was a woman who had a husband who had gone off to war. In those days, a husband and a wife were bound together in a way that many might judge today. For the sake of this story, set aside the rights and wrongs in regards to men and women’s roles as they are in our time. Back in these days, a woman’s livelihood and identity in her community were quite dependent on her husband - and this young woman pined every day for her husband while he was away. Each day that passed while she waited for her husband, she felt her heart grow sadder, wallowing ever deeper into a pit of sorrow. She desperately wanted him to return so that she could feel joy once again - so that her heart could feel whole.
One day, she came home and had to question whether she was awake or dreaming when she saw him sitting in a chair outside their home. She ran to him, embraced him... and after a moment she realized he was hardly returning the embrace. It was if she had been mortally thirsty in the desert for years, finally finding water, and realizing it was poisoned. As she looked into his eyes, he seemed empty, haunted by a faraway place, and much older than the years that had actually passed. He didn't want to talk about what had happened. And so the first day of his return was filled with many awkward walls of silence and tense connection. They tried to make love that night, but it was, simply put, terrible.
Over the next week she tried to be close to her husband, but the quiet and distance between them grew. He took a job as a butcher and would leave early and come home late. When she pushed too hard he could become ragefully angry and lash out at her for not understanding. This went on for months, and the woman settled into a rhythm of being distant with her husband, not wanting to upset him, but also feeling despair at not being able to be close. They began to lead separate lives, spoke less and less, and on the rare occasion when they made love - it was quick, empty, and only for him. She felt true despair now. This was no longer just pain from not having something her heart wanted - this was a growing belief that she would never have it.
One day she woke up with thoughts of ending her life. But this choice would bring great dishonor to her husband and family. She decided that she needed help to find an answer. She went to the village and spoke to the people she respected, told them of her suffering and asked them what she might do. One of her friends told her about a sage who lived in a cave in the mountains…
The very next day she made her way up the mountain and found an opening to a cave that appeared to be the one described to her. She stepped inside the dark opening, blinded at first as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. After a few moments, as she kept peering forward, she saw a flicker of light coming somewhere from the depths.
As she proceeded through the cave, she could feel the profound stillness of the place. She could hear the sound of crackling echoes through the cave walls. Slowly but surely, she made her way to the back of the cave where an old woman sat in front of a fire. There were leaves in her hair, and she wore tattered clothes made from skins of animals. She had a wizened, wrinkled face but eyes that were youthfully alive, full of playfulness and mischief. As the woman approached the sage she realized that she was overcome by a sense of stillness and reverence. She somehow knew that this wasn’t a time for cordial “hellos.” She sat before the fire with the wise woman until finally after what seemed a long time the sage asked: “What is it you seek?”
The woman replied “I have lost the one I love in the world, and fear I may never feel love again. I am here seeking a potion to heal my husband.” She then proceeded to tell the story of her husband, going to war, coming back broken, and the despair that filled her life.
The sage simply replied “hmmm…” and then sat in silence for a time. The silence between them was thick, only filled by the sound of the fire flickering between them. The woman's mind raced as she waited for some answer, some hope to her hopeless life. She tensed, she wrung her hands in anticipation, but she did not breach the silence. After what seemed like a torturous span that was in reality just over a minute, the sage replied, “Let me think on this cure. Come back in three days’ time.”
Those next three days, the woman waited just as you would wait if you were waiting to learn if there was, in fact, a cure to your life’s greatest problems.
Three anxious and tense days later she stepped into the cave once again. Her eyes once again adjusting, and once again proceeding into the dark to the flickering light in the back. She approached the fire and stood in silence in front of it, waiting for the sage to speak first.
After a long minute passed, the sage said “I have indeed come upon a cure for what ails you. I have all but one very rare and difficult to acquire ingredient."
Filled with joy at this new hope offered to her, the woman cut the sage off saying “Oh thank you! Thank you so much! Yes, I will get it! Whatever it is, I will get it for you!” As if the woman hadn't spoken at all, the sage continued “The ingredient I need is a whisker from the head of a living tiger, particularly as close to the mouth and teeth as you can get. With this, I can complete your potion.”
Where there was joy, the woman suddenly felt her heart drop through the cave floor. All the despair rushed back in and more. The woman’s eyes broke into tears, her voice broke as she teared up and replied “That.... is impossible. How... How could I possibly get that?!”
The sage reminded her that a moment ago she had just said she would do anything and get whatever it was. At this the women gathered herself, she thought of her life as it was. She thought of going back home to her husband, the endless heartache, the thoughts of ending her life... Finally, she realized that she had so little to lose. With absolutely no idea how, she would have to try, even if it meant her death.
That night she went home and was cooking a dinner of rice and meat sauce. As she stirred the sauce she thought about a giant tiger rumored to roam up a mountain path nearby. Years ago several of the bravest men in the village had walked the road to confront the legendary man-eating beast. After none of them returned, they were assumed dead and eaten. For many years no one had dared take the path. As she stirred the pot of meat sauce, she wondered how she could possibly approach such a beast. As her stomach rumbled for her dinner, it suddenly occurred to her that this beast would be hungry as well. And then and there, an idea was born…
The very next day at dusk, after all her chores were done and dinner was made, she ascended the dangerous mountain path holding a bowl of the rice and meat sauce. Her heart pounded, her mind grew sluggish, and her instincts to run away were overcome again and again as she proceeded farther and farther up the path. She shook and her hands were sweaty which made her grip the bowl tightly to ensure she didn’t drop it. It was as if the air itself got thicker and thicker, like trying to walk through glue. Finally, there came a point where she tried to take a step and her feet simply wouldn't obey. She had gone as far as she could go. At that very spot, she put down the bowl of rice and meat, and as quickly as she had ever moved in her life, turned and ran back down the mountain. At the bottom, she let out a huge sigh of relief in the midst of panting to catch her breath. That relief only lasted a second as she thought about going back up the path tomorrow. And perhaps the next day. And the next.... As the arduous reality of the task ahead sunk in, her eyes released a momentous and cleansing cry.
She woke up the next day with dread at what she would have to do later. But once again she did her chores, made dinner, and close to dusk she ascended the mountain. Once again she was gripped with fear, but she made her way to the place she had previously reached. She looked down and saw that the bowl of food she had left was eaten. With a breath, she proceeded to walk past that bowl, stepping as far into the teeth of her fear as she could. About ten steps farther than before, once again she was paralyzed, placed the bowl on the ground, turned and ran like hell was chasing her, this time snatching the old bowl up as she passed it, panting and crying as she reached the bottom.
She began to settle into a new routine. Each day was the same: chores, make dinner for herself, her husband, and the tiger, go up the mountain with the fading light, proceed up the path to where she had placed the bowl before, go ten steps farther into her fear until she froze, place the bowl on the ground, turn back and run, grabbing the empty bowl on her way down.
After weeks of this, one night she left a little later than normal. She saw that the moon was waxing and rising in the sky, and found herself smiling at the beauty of the night. As she caught herself in that smile, it amused her that she was actually enjoying this walk. Come to think of it, she realized she felt a lot less tense than that first night she had done the walk. The tension always built up as she got closer to where she had left the previous night's bowl - but it was getting easier to walk ten more steps, and she found herself not running nearly as fast to get back. This day when she got to the bowl from the day before she walked quite a ways farther. She came around a bend in the path and was struck by the sight of a cave. And there, strolling out of the cave just as she arrived, she saw the most beautiful and terrifying sight of her life. She saw its glowing eyes first which she continued to stare into. The moonlight reflected in them, making them seem to glow as they watched her intently. Then she took in the awesome beauty of the beast she had sought for so long.
She froze with terror, awe, and exhilaration for finding what she had sought. There were no thoughts; there was only stillness. It was, simply put, a feeling of being alive like she'd never known before that moment. Whether she was about to die in that moment was a surprisingly distant thought. She held her ground and stood still, breathing, just breathing in this breathtaking moment. Somehow, she found herself placing the bowl down on the ground directly in front of her. With courage rather than cowardice, she backed ten steps away from the bowl. The tiger crouched low but did not take a step. Then she spoke: “Great Tiger, I fear you but I also need you. If you do not eat me today, I will come back tomorrow and bring another bowl of food.” She gestured to the food and never broke eye contact. Both stood still for a time. Finally, the tiger walked out of the cave, the moonlight glowing on the orange fur, making the tiger seem luminous. The woman lucidly watched this dream that was a reality.
As it tensely walked to the bowl on the ground, in her state of wakeful awe, she took in the powerful muscles moving on the tiger’s back, each and every hair on its neck standing on end, and the delicately curled wiggling whiskers upon his fearsomely handsome face. It proceeded to quickly eat the food while she stood absolutely still watching. When it was done, it looked to the woman, as if contemplating whether she should be an extension of this meal he had become routinely accustomed to each day. With a silence that weighed her own life - she never looked away, never flinched in her empowered stance for even half a second. The tiger turned away and headed back to his cave. Almost stupefied by the relief of tension, and suddenly full of electric tingles throughout her body, the woman turned and walked back.
For another week she left at the new time, with the moon in the sky, walking in awe, alone on the path that no other villager would dare walk upon. She would get to the mouth of the cave and meet the tiger, place the bowl on the ground and back away, allow him to eat, he would proceed back to his cave, then she would take her bowl from the day before and return home. You may wonder if this part was hard now that the risk was so extraordinary. The truth is, the woman began to run towards the cave as if she was meeting some forbidden lover. Although the tiger could very possibly take her life, there was something that gave her immense pleasure of standing before such power and surviving. It felt like a special secret that no one would believe, that was hers alone to enjoy.
Then after two weeks and a day, once again the tiger approached, she placed the bowl on the ground and backed away. Once again she stood her ground, watching her feline friend approach and eat. She noticed a sense of ease in both of them now. She could see that the hairs on his neck no longer stood up. She not only felt the absence of fear but a notable sense of being more herself as she stood there watching him. This time, as the tiger ate she felt called to take a step toward him. He looked up and gave her a look that seemed familiar now. And suddenly, instead of turning away from her, he casually approached her. A tense fear bubbled up at that moment, but it was perhaps overpowered by the feeling of being joyfully thrilled. Before she could even react the tiger brushed his massive body against hers, knocking her off balance a bit. To her shock and delight, the beast began to make a purring sound. She laughed at this with tears in her eyes. Without thinking, as if this was merely some house cat making the same gesture, she reached down to pet the tiger. His fur was remarkably smooth and silky. Seemingly enjoying this contact, he dropped and rolled exposing his white belly. And so the woman knelt down and petted the man-eating tiger’s belly, finding it especially soft.
She began to laugh and cry some more at the delirious exhilaration of this moment. Truly she had never felt more alive and happier than right now. She began to pet near the tiger’s head. She rubbed his face and neck, which he seemed to like, so he rubbed his head toward her, purring more loudly. And seemingly without planning it, she reached for a whisker right by his mouth. And as she gripped the whisker, he moved his head and the whisker popped out, easier than she could have ever imagined. She looked expectantly at him, but he was seemingly unfazed and wanting the attention to continue. With this, she really allowed herself to weep as she came to full realization of what she had just done. She knew that this moment had just changed her entire life, and oddly her husband barely came to mind. She allowed her tears to fall upon him, and eventually, she stopped rubbing and allowed her hands to simply rest on him feeling his powerful breaths. A short time passed in this place. As a wild beast is prone to do, he suddenly got up and began to walk away, proceeding steadily off into the woods, as if he had some important task that he had suddenly remembered. The woman looked into her heart at that moment to see if she felt sad. The truth was, she felt whole, as whole as her new friend. And in that wholeness, she too turned away and headed back down the mountain.
Returning in the moonlight, she found herself singing and dancing with childlike abandon as she strolled down the path. She lifted the whisker into the moonlight feeling wonder and curiosity for the world like never before.
She proceeded straight to the cave of the sage. Once again she stepped into the darkness of the cave and followed the flickering light to the back of the cave where the sage sat by the fire. As they met eyes, with excitement she exclaimed “I’ve just had the most marvelous night of my life. I have retrieved the tiger’s whisker!” She waited for the sage to speak and was surprised to only see her smile and hold out her hand. Some part of her realized she was attached to the whisker itself and had some remorse for having to hand it over.
The sage stood by the fire silently, only smiling. Then the woman watched with horror as the Sage held the whisker over the fire. The woman held her breath, and with horror watched as the Sage suddenly unclasped her fingers. Time seemed to slow as the whisker dropped into the fire. The precious whisker, the cure to her heart and her husband, slowly drifted down through the smoke and into the flames. In an instant, it was consumed and turned into ash.
The woman suddenly became an erupting volcano of rage. “HOW DARE YOU?!” she railed at the sage. She proceeded to release all of her pent up anger and frustrations, yelling her heart and its truth with no restraint, initially laced with sharpness that suddenly turned to tears and choking despair at thinking of simply going back to the life with her husband.
At last, sounding exhausted she asked “Why did you put me through all of this?”
The sage answered her question with a question: “How did you get the whisker from the tiger?”
She told him the story of approaching the tiger day after day, going further and further into the teeth of her fears. She recalled the shock of the tiger, then the terror of the day he approached her, and the overwhelming joy and gratitude she felt to actually pet the tiger and make contact. In the heart of the story, she forgot about the whisker being burnt, lighting up as she tasted the blissful memory.
“Is the heart of a person more dangerous than that of a tiger?” The sage asked. “If such a practice had worked to approach a man-eating tiger, could it not work to approach a human heart?”
At first, the woman didn’t understand the question and felt annoyed once again. But then, as if her whole life and its purpose flashed before her eyes, the sense of it dawned on her. She felt the same awe as when she had walked down the mountain with the whisker in hand. She realized that through facing her fears she had found great courage in herself that was only matched by her desire to heal. Through that courage, she had met the beast who had opened her heart. She felt power emanating in her like she had never known and never dreamed possible. As this moment of epiphany drew to closure, she suddenly looked at the old sage smiling at her and felt immense respect and gratitude. She gave a great bow and thanked her for giving her the cure she had sought and so much more.
As the woman walked out of the cave and into the night towards home, she had no more than she started with except that now she knew her own fear, she knew her own heart, and she knew that in every soul was the capacity to heal itself.
I particularly love how some versions of the story end here and I chose to do the same. There are versions that have her go back to her husband and slowly but surely, with great patience and care finds her way back to closeness with him. But what I enjoy about skipping that part is that whether she revived the relationship or not doesn’t even matter. She has already overcome overwhelm and abandonment by facing her fears and empowering herself. I rather like the idea that perhaps she kept visiting the tiger into her elder years.
Facing the Self, wholeness, transformation, the journey of awakening, or however you want to frame the process of growth, is often overwhelming. I can sit in despair and with hope for there to be something as simple as a potion that can fix things, but the hard truth is that growth is usually more like the patient trial that the woman endured filled with many moments of overwhelming terror. Sometimes facing overwhelm leads to a kind of self-love that feeds our dignity, in turn making us know we shouldn't fear being abandoned. At the end of the story, she was whole. I actually imagine it's possible she goes back to her husband and was no longer interested. Perhaps she eventually becomes the wild cave woman herself, guiding people to wisdom as well.
What I found myself remembering when I heard this story was a renewed fascination with my edges. I am often in a position where I need to be the sage and the tiger for my clients, both setting the context and reflecting to them the things they are most afraid of. And even though I do that regularly, I forget to give the same sacred regard to these parts of my life that make me want to cower away and hide. Particularly at the times when some darkness is there, some unsure humility about whether my voice matters - those are the moments I collapse and feel particularly caught up with the idea that I will be rejected by the world. And ironically, it's in facing this fear that has me feeling the antidote of dignity once again. The next step toward what I fear is the way towards becoming more alive - to becoming more than I am. And sometimes (usually), there’s the sight of a lot more fear to overcome beyond that step. But every once in a while, we get a break, and we can dance with joy as we walk back down the mountain.
There is one more part of the story, easy to miss the significance of, that I found quite inspiring. As the woman took the final leap toward her fears and finally takes the step toward the tiger, the tiger looks up and approaches her. And when she had what she most wanted in her hands, the tiger gave it freely and seemed to not even notice. In many great myths and tales like this one, we are taught that in times like this, the thing we seek moves closer to us when we face our innermost fears. It’s as if the other world is trying to reach us. I'm not a Christian, but a quote I have always liked in the Bible (from James 4:8) says: “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” Perhaps a more accessible interpretation of this is that as we move closer to the great unknown, that seemingly inaccessible other, that unknown will move closer to you as well. Whether it’s true or not, I find myself wanting to lean into this possibility, allowing it to give me an encouraging nudge toward that which I seek.
I know that life is not the same as fairy tales. It often takes much more than one breakthrough to conquer our fears… And yet at the same time, this story still makes me feel a roar of awakening within. And that carries over into my life quite beautifully. Here I am writing a blog after 50 days of silence.
If you found yourself pulled by this story - which part of it pulls you the most? Sit with that part and examine how this piece tells you about your own yearning, your own fears, your own longing or desire to transform. If you’d be willing to face your own fears of abandonment and overwhelm - I’d love to see highlights of it in the comments below.