Atop a hundred-foot pole, how do you step forward? —Zen koan
I’ve gotten stuck many times in my life, and the times when I emerged most successfully were the times when after fussing for a very long time, I gave up, changed the way I was looking at the problem, and let the path forward reveal itself. I don’t think I ever did that as gracefully as I’ve just described it. Rather, it seems to have happened only after I’d tried everything else imaginable, nothing has worked, there didn't seem to be anywhere else to turn, I had complained bitterly to everyone who would listen, and I was in deep suffering. At that point I have sometimes, somehow been able to shift my perception of the situation and see that I had been locked into a way of viewing the situation that in fact did not have a workable out, but that that was not the only way of viewing it. Those were moments of surrender. Those were moments of freedom. Those were moments of enlightenment.
A few of the times I’m thinking of are when I needed to accept being gay, once when I needed to change careers but felt certain that wasn’t possible for many reasons, and once when I needed to resolve an unresolvable conflict in a relationship that was important to me. Each time I tried to figure out what to do, and as my efforts failed one after the other, my search became desperate. I was sure there was a way to come up with a satisfactory path forward, and I rejected the advice I got from so many people. In hindsight, some of that advice was good, some was not good, but the key is that I was so certain I was right about the situation—where I was, where I wanted to be, what was possible, what was not possible, what the risks were, what I would feel if I took one path or another, etc.—“yeah, but” always on the tip of my tongue—that I really couldn’t even hear the advice I was getting. I was stuck in a closed loop, not that different from the person stuck atop a hundred-foot pole.
A Zen koan is a kind of riddle designed to shake us out of the closed loop we’re all stuck in that’s created by our minds. It’s the loop that tells us that we know how things are and how they have to be and that makes it extremely difficult to see things otherwise. It’s the loop that interferes with our ability to live in lasting peace and contentment, because it rarely lets up on the wanting and needing and avoiding and worrying. A koan poses a question that literally cannot be answered using the mind no matter how smart, insightful, or experienced we are. Atop a hundred-foot pole, how do you step forward? No answer we come up with mentally will work. Just do it? But then we’ll die, and Zen is not about suicide. Just sit there? Okay, we won’t die from a fall, but we will from hunger and thirst, and in any case, how is that stepping forward? Try it—if you come up with something promising, by all means let me know. I haven’t been able to, and that’s the point. Delving deeply into the koan, exploring it from levels beneath the mind, we break the mental loop we’re caught in, and we free ourselves a bit. It’s like lateral thinking, or thinking outside the box, but instead of it developing another part of the mind, it’s developing access to another level of being, entirely separate from the mind.
I have never done formal Zen practice and certainly never done formal koan practice, which is usually reserved for advanced Zen practitioners. And while there are many books that describe and analyze the standard koans, I have avoided reading them, as compelling as I find them. The answer to the koan is not the point, and knowing the answer does not produce any transformation or freedom. It’s only the contemplation of the koan, through which we find our way out of the bondage of the mind and into a perception of ourselves and the world around us that is closer to reality, that has any power. It is difficult work that requires patience and determination, but the payoff is huge.
I went to a talk on koan practice about 15 years ago, and the abbot who gave the talk posed a koan: How do you stop the temple bell ringing? People in the audience called out many possible answers, all of which were rejected. Just after she posed the koan and people starting throwing out answers, I heard a word inside me. It made absolutely no sense whatsoever, and I ignored it. Like everyone else, I sat there trying to figure out some answer to this riddle. I could tell that everything I came up with was wrong, but I couldn’t tell what was right. But that word kept showing up inside me, and I kept pushing it away. And the abbot kept saying, “you have to become the koan,” whatever that means. After about 20 minutes of this, something clicked in me, and I suddenly knew that the word I had been hearing and ignoring was the right answer, even though I still had no idea how or why or what it meant. I then had to screw up all my courage to call it out, because it really made so little sense I was sure I’d be laughed at. But the longer I held off, the stronger the sense that it was right became. Eventually, sweating and almost shaking with self-conscious anxiety, I called out the word, and the abbot immediately shouted, “BINGO!,” and everyone in the room turned to look at me. The abbot asked me how I came up with that, and I told her what had happened. She just nodded. After the talk, feeling super proud of myself and very, very big, I went up to the abbot under the guise of wanting to say “thank you,” but really to get all the praise and admiration I knew she would lavish on me for being the best and closest to enlightenment of anyone there. But she just smiled and said, “you’re welcome” and turned to the next person. To this day, I still can’t explain why my answer is right, since explanations come from the mind, and the mind cannot comprehend a koan, but I continue to know in my body that it’s right. Likewise, I cannot describe the change in me that came from solving this koan, but I know in my body that I did change. I can feel it, though we have no vocabulary for that feeling.
The life situations I’ve faced are like koans, though I didn’t recognize that until after I had resolved them, or in one case, until shortly before I let go enough to see a resolution. And like with koans, once I shifted enough to see the path forward, I never looked back, never doubted that I had made the right decision. This kind of shift is permanent. I doubt there’s any way to significantly shortcut the process of breaking out of the closed loop of the mind, but being aware of the loop and the need to shift the paradigm entirely can help. And so can practices that train us to detach from identification with the mind.
I have some ideas about how to step forward from atop a hundred-foot pole, but I’m not looking for an answer. I will just continue to let the koan sit there in my consciousness until my mind gives up trying to figure it out, and the answer reveals itself. And that process will serve me well the next time I find myself in an unresolvable life quandary.