Once a poor miller was summoned to meet with a king. The summons itself must have filled him with terror. Evolutionary biologists tell us that we fear public speaking and other ways of being on the spot because we are all wired to link survival with acceptance by the tribe. And this king was the absolute ruler of the miller’s tribe. He held the power of exile and even of death.
No one knows the official purpose of the meeting. A good guess is that it was about how things were going down at the mill. A king wouldn’t ask a miller to tea or to ask his opinion about foreign affairs. At some point in the conversation, however, he must have asked the poor man about his family. We know this because all subjects were trained never to speak to kings and queens unbidden.
But what an answer! It reverberates through the ages. The poor miller boasted that he had a beautiful daughter who could spin straw into gold. In some versions of the story the miller first spoke of a beautiful daughter with golden hair. Probably, this sparked zero interest. Possibly, the poor miller felt like no one in those cold, royal eyes, and as if his daughter was no one too.
What we know for sure is that the miller spun out, as we say these days. He left the earth of his living, moment-by-moments experience and thought of something that he thought the king would find more fantastic. This is perfectly natural, of course. Our brains are well equipped for flights away from our immediate embodied reality. And our egos and personalities are built to help us survive and be someone special in this world. Imagining, especially in children but not just, can be a way of exploring the world.
When I was a little girl, for example, I used to pretend that was a jungle princess in primordial India, padding around with an invisible panther consort named Striker. Striker was super intelligent and super strong. We both had powers of telepathy and teleportation, which helped us when we were dispatched on various spy missions in the capitals of Europe. In reality, of course, I was an ordinary child playing in a backyard in Northern New York. Yet imagining I was an amalgam of Mowgli and James Bond, helped me run and climb trees and hide behind bushes in a way that helped me play and explore how wonderful it was to be in a body.
But as fun and natural and bolstering as our fantasies can be, they can also take us away from the real magic of being alive on this earth. When we get pulled into an orbit of thought, we can forget the real grandeur and scale of seemingly simple things: breathing, walking, being part of life. We can get so caught up in the fantasy world of thought that we forget how good it is to be alive. We forget who and what we truly love.
We can only imagine how the poor miller felt when he came to his senses and remembered his love for his daughter and how much he valued her life on its own terms. By then the damage was done. She was imprisoned in a dungeon in the royal palace, sentenced to spin straw into gold. I can’t think of her plight without remembering what it was like to sit up at night in college, writing papers. I remember the pressure I felt to spin the straw of my own impressions into gold. I remember layering my papers with learned quotes from far more distinguished people, demonstrating my learning but also something not so good: I left my essence, my native impressions and heart and mind, for a shinier, wittier version. The practice of coming home to the experience of being in this body in this moment, opening up to the life inside and outside, is a way of turning all that acquired gold back into the straw of what I really am.
Sometimes we remember what is really essential and precious. In the wake of a loss, we feel the true size of the presence of a person. In a time of famine or calamity, we remember what really has value. Milling grain, for example, is an ancient human occupation. Even hunter-gatherer societies had millers. I once visited Gandhi’s ashram in the heart of India once. There is a big mill wheel on the porch of his humble dwelling. The great leader and everyone else on the ashram spent time every day turning the wheel, which I couldn’t budge. But I understood the value. Feeding people is inherently finer and even more magical than spinning gold. Just think of how it feels to eat when you are really hungry. It can feel as if life itself is pouring back into you and supporting you. It feels like love.
The miller’s beautiful daughter was thrown into a royal dungeon piled high with straw and given until daybreak to spin it all into something shinier. Most of us know how it feels to believe that our parents and culture need us to be more than we are, faster, smarter, better in every way. How radical it feels to let go for a moment and just be. I gently encourage you to try this. No judgments, no notes to self, no to-do-lists in the mind. Be like the lilies of the fields, as the saying goes. Be straw.