Last updated March, 2020.
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Wednesday is our traditional "weekly quotes" day - we examine quotes or a story related to mindfulness, meditation, living in the present moment, happiness, and similar topics.
This week we are going to discuss a popular Zen parable:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him.
Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.
Only the vine sustained him. But, two mice - one white and one black - started to gnaw away at it.
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
You can attribute many different meanings (or lessons) to this story.
The most obvious is enjoy the present moment. In the case of the man hanging from the vine, if he is caught up in his mind, habitually chasing after experience he believes will deliver pleasant feelings and running from experience he believes will deliver unpleasant feelings, he will be oblivious to the strawberry before him (i.e., he'll never be content with here and now).
It goes deeper than this, however.
The tigers represent self-imposed suffering. The man is trying to escape the suffering he perceives in the first tiger and, in his attempt to do so, encounters more suffering in the second tiger. We all do the same thing every day - it doesn't matter what we are trying to "escape"...
...we spend most of our time running from here to there in an attempt to avoid the "tigers" in our lives. But, it's impossible to avoid them.
That doesn't deter us, though. We try to escape by changing our external circumstances. We constantly attempt to arrange our lives so we're surrounded by what we like, and protected from what we dislike. And, failing those efforts, we choose to distract ourselves with things like entertainment (games, tv, music, activities), food, relationships, drugs, alcohol, or a new purchase from the store.
At best, these things provide temporary relief. At worst, they create more tigers.
We also turn things we label "pleasant" or "good" into self-imposed suffering. Why? Because we don't realize the truth of impermanence (ceaseless change is the basis for reality!). Even if we do realize it, we ignore it. Instead, we cling to the good things. We try to keep them from ending. And, when they do change or go away, we attempt to replace or replenish them.
These efforts also create more tigers, because nothing stays unchanging over time.
So, we endlessly chase after "this" and run away from "that." We try to control experience, and make it conform to what we want. These constant attempts to arrange our lives in such a manner leave us in a precarious position - just like the man hanging there. The next unfolding moment can't be stopped; the mice are gnawing on the vine. Bad news will come, problems will arise, we don't always get what we want...
Our attempts to control will eventually fail, just like the vine will eventually give way.
The strawberry, on the other hand, doesn't represent an escape from reality - it represents reality itself. It's what exists beyond the mental constructs that condition our behavior and keep us running from the unpleasant and chasing after the pleasant.
And, the good news is, we can be content with reality even if the external situations in our lives aren't always as we want.
Joy, sadness, pleasure, pain - it all comes and it all goes. Instead of trying to surround ourselves with what we like and protect ourselves from what we dislike, we can learn to recognize the transient nature of experience. We can understand that it's impossible to control - all we can do is have wholesome intentions, make skillful decisions, and take appropriate actions.
We can realize there is no permanent state of comfort or discomfort. And, the stories our minds tell us about the things that are happening cause us to suffer more than what's actually happening.
In short, the sweet taste of the strawberry (reality) can be experienced if we stop getting caught up in our minds - if we stop allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the next thought, emotion, or urge that pops into our heads.
How sweet reality tastes without the self-imposed suffering!
Does this quote resonate with you?
We are continuously held hostage by the next thought that pops into our heads. We spend most of our days like this — lost in mental activity, swept away by emotions, habitually reacting to the stories our minds are forever telling us.
If so, click here to read about our 15-day course, "Your inner narrative."