Friday, July 10, 2009

Letting Go Of Safety

There is an old story about a monk who, finding himself stalked by a tiger, does what any unarmed human would do in similar circumstances--he runs for his life. His escape is halted abruptly when he comes to the edge of a ravine. He decides instantly to make the risky climb down.

Clinging to the steep wall, he realizes there is a second tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the ravine.

Tiger above, tiger below--certain death awaits our monk. What does he do?
He spies a strawberry growing in a crevice within his reach. He releases his grip to pluck the most perfect, sweet fruit he has ever tasted...

The story has multiple layers of meaning, although it generally points to the wisdom of living in the moment as it is presented. It has the feel of the ultimate Zen shrug...ah, well. Under the circumstances, one can panic and go out screaming in fear, or eat the Strawberry of Enlightenment. No regrets.

Unlike our best entertainment action flicks, this story has no happy ending (unless you are a tiger!). There is no real resolution. Death is not managed or escaped. But the quality of presence is noted.

Although lunging tigers are perhaps an extreme example of our greatest fears, we face them in one form or another all the time in our personal legends. I grew up with a regular and distinct sense of unease, anger and fear in both my household and society at large. Peace was found in the arms of an oak tree or under the stars in the desert; the "motivations" for violence in the natural world made sense to me, unlike the things people did to each other for no apparent reason. Rather than getting to the bottom of fear, people just seemed to cycle through endless expressions of frustration and a sort of hopelessness.

Even when times were relatively good and stable, and my mother was optimistic in her assertions that God would provide and things would work out, the subtle threat of loss was always communicated in her actions. I understand that this was not her fault and that she did the best she could with what she had; but insecurity was the default program for living. She called it "common sense". Varying degrees of fear, I grew to understand, are indeed a sense shared by most of us.

Being steeped in a culture of defensive thrift and idealistic history has its benefits, I suppose. I learned to actively scan my environment for resources like food, shelter and clothing, never assuming that what I had was permanent. I learned to believe that "something better" was always just around the corner (because things better had existed in the past, somewhere, for someone, often American). My job was just to work. Very. Hard. Tough things out. Get up and do it again. Cling to the face of the cliff.

I noticed strawberries early on in my practical career of eternal vigilance, and they were very tempting. But letting go was somehow equated with irresponsibility, hedonism, and luxury, if not downright stupidity or insanity. Letting go would make me some sort of deviant. I was already pushing it by insisting that I was an "artist".

Of course I let go. I got very tired of hanging on.

In the process of falling down through strawberry fields (yes, forever), I continue to learn. I am always surprised at the cellular depth of the "steepage" I underwent in my formative years, at the degree to which even my physiological self wants to cling to the handholds of the world. It is initially dismaying to watch the psychosomatic knots wanting to persist and the habitual tendencies to tie new ones, even while consciously paying attention.

But, onward into the depths...and the knots are seen as contractions toward an idea of security and safety, a place of eternal lack of loss. Gripping and letting go of myself, I see that I have no control of this process, and that the very sensation "I" is just another knot in the weave. Hanging on is one religion and letting go another, but reality is That which is doing both.

There is a perfect freedom in falling, a crystal clarity in which there are no absolute answers, but only appropriate questions. Would I do anything differently if physical, mental or emotional safety were not a concern? What am I afraid to lose, and what do I believe is to be gained? Is this a dance I am interested in, or can I step out? And who cares? Am I going after the strawberries because I love, or because some monk told me it would save my apparent life? Is fear another form of love? Am I even real?

All the questions are appropriate, because followed fully, they arrive back in the questioner and become a kind of strawberry that one doesn't have to leap through tigers for! The sweetness, it is discovered, arises with the tongue, the body, the capacity for fear and desire and asking. The sweetness is a self-fulfilling, timeless "event" we tend to refer to as This. Tigers are optional.

Even options are optional. :)

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