The priest Xiangyan said, “It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?”

Life is fundamentally fraught.  To open our mouth is to invite argument and to make any decision is to risk regret. To take a step in any direction is to put our life – or at our least ego – in danger.

Day in and out, we are nibbled or gnawed at by crises large and small. A trauma survivor agonizes over the question of how, and whether, to put words to her experiences.  A professional struggles to decide between the stability of the job she hates or the risk of plunging into an exciting new career field. A dear friend asks if you like his appalling new haircut.

Crises are agents of transformation. They present the possibility of new life, but like all changes worth making they also bear the dangers of the unknown. In order to step into this new life, we must wager safety and familiarity for the prospect of freedom. One woman described it like this:

“I grew up around water. We were always going to the beach, going to the lake, always swimming. But right now I feel like I’ve swum out too far. I’m on a sandbar so I’m safe for the moment, but I don’t think I have the strength to swim back to shore and I’m afraid to go any further.”

Photo by Byron Young

If we are in a place like this, it means that something deep within us has shifted and cannot be put back.  There is no way to un-know what we have discovered or undo what has been done, yet we also may feel we lack the strength or skill to carry out the tasks that lie ahead. Sometimes movement is impossible and all we can do is wait for a door to appear.

It is tempting to refuse a crisis because the tension they generate can seem unbearable.  Our thoughts appear racing and confused, or abandon us completely, and we become inhabited by emotions that are seemingly at odds with each other and reality. We might attempt to return to familiar ways of being, swimming backward only to find that the shore recedes from us. We can try to slip through unnoticed by wearing a mask of nonchalance or create a smoke screen of chaos to distract from the situation. But there is something reassuringly inevitable about a crisis–even if we do not face it this time, it will call again and again with different faces until we no longer refuse to greet it.

I recently had a dilemma.  A contractor we hired to repair some rotted siding on our house broke a few unrelated (and rather expensive) things in the process.  For weeks, we were locked in a cold war of suspicion and accusation via text message and heated phone calls, arguing about responsibility and reparations.

My default strategy in situations like this is to accept, forgive, and avoid conflict at all costs, but when I groped for my trusty playbook I instead found defensiveness, suspicion, and self-righteous anger. Over the course of several days, I watched myself vacillate wildly between various positions in the argument.  I would entertain revenge fantasies, then sympathize with the contractor, then feel desperate to pay him just so it would all be over, all in the span of an hour.

In the end, it all worked out fine. We got new siding, the contractor got his check, and what needed to get fixed got fixed. But in a way, the most important thing about a crisis is not whether the outcome is in our favor, but how sincerely we have inhabited our experience of the situation as it unfolds.

How we respond to our inevitable difficulties is a reflection of who we think we are, and in some way informs how life will respond to us.  While there is nothing wrong with trying to prevent, avoid, outsmart, deny, escape, ignore, con, bully or buy our way out of a crisis, we starve some part of us when we do. If we make a habit of this, we become like an aging Pinocchio, not quite real because we haven’t done the soul-making work that occurs when we are forced to confront the depths of our own life.

There seems to be a correlation between our capacity for joy and our ability to be present with the pains that come with being human, and meditation is a way of increasing both.  And so while most of us come to Zen in the hopes of having more moments of peace or wisdom or great compassion, we come to value the times where we cannot seem to find any resolution at all.  Like figuring out how to end a blog post.

Some questions, if you’re interested:

1. What is a dilemma or crisis right now, in your life, that just won’t seem to resolve? If you take a few minutes to imagine it in detail, what sensations do you feel in your body? Just notice that.

2. Do you tend to favor one position or the other, keeping your mouth shut to save your skin or speaking to help someone else? What might be a way to experiment with the other side?

3. What is your Big Question that can’t be answered simply or easily? What is it like to live inside that question without knowing the answer?

4. Has speaking about this matter caused me to fall to my death? If it has, would you be willing to tell me?

Photo Credit: Person on the dock photo by Byron Young.

It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas

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