A Zen master saw his students fighting over a cat. The Zen master grabbed the cat and a knife, and told his students, “Quick, tell me something of the truth of Zen, or I will cut this cat in half.” No one spoke. The teacher killed the cat. Later, the teacher told the story to one of his most revered students. Upon hearing the story, the student immediately took off his sandals, put them on his head, and left the room. Later, the teacher told him: “If only you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”
So often in life, as we run around, we approach the world brain-first. We cut the world into good and bad, right and wrong, two plus two equals four. Our brains are endlessly concerned with how to manipulate the world. What is the next step to take? What is the right thing to say? How can I succeed? Over the last (crazy busy) month, I was often in this mode, cutting and chopping, thinking and planning. This type of analytical brain-first thinking is helpful. It allows us to plan things and accomplish goals.
But our brains are always one second behind life.
Our brain always pauses to ask, “What is the correct answer?” “How will this other person respond?” “What do I need to do next?” “What will this other person think of me?” In this split-second time-lag, the immediate moment is gone. The resulting action is a response to a dead past.
Meditation cuts down this mental time lag. It gets you closer to what is actually happening right here and right now, by getting you out of your analytical mode of processing the world. How do you get out of your head and cut down the time lag? Hint: do not tell yourself: “Stop thinking!” That is just about guaranteed to have the opposite effect. It is praying for what you do not want.
Instead, practice reversing your usual flow.
Instead of YOU going OUT into the world to accomplish things, practice LETTING the world COME to YOU.
This might sound like rather fuzzy practice until you try it. Try finding all the subtle ways that, even as you sit there, totally motionless, you are still trying to hold the world up, thinking of what else you need to take care of. Then recognize you have nothing to do. Find the ways you are trying to rush to meet the world. Slow to meet its pace. Find the ways in which you are hiding from the world. Slowly release these contracted parts, and feel whatever arises fully. Find the ways in which you are worried that you are not doing things right. Then forgive yourself and recognize that everything is just as it should be.
Find the ways in which you keep pressing the “Pause” button on life because you want it to stop, for just a second, so you can wait, stop, reflect, get things “right.” Then get your mental finger off that button, and let life wash over you. It should make your toes tingle.
When I stop trying to process life in bite-sized thought chunks, I feel like I keep on just catching the glimpse of something much larger than me that is electric and alive. It is constantly coming into being, and exists before thoughts and words. It is life, whole and complete and unfiltered (to quote a poem I wrote, it is where form and formless unite).
The Zen cat-kiler story (for lack of a better term, and also because this makes me laugh) at the top of this post is about acting from this unfiltered place. It is about participating in life directly, without any judgment or analytical time-lag. The student did not pause to consider what the correct response to save the cat might be. Instead, the potential death of the cat travelled straight to his defenseless heart, and he acted straight from that vulnerable place.
In this direct interaction, things might not make “sense.” Why did the student feel compelled to put his sandals on his head? Who knows. And he probably could not explain it to you, because it arose from a place before analysis. But that action “fit” the moment. Both the teacher and the student sensed that the act carried within it some larger truth. It was alive. And because the story operates outside of the bounds of logic, it reaches us–like all great art–at the deeper level of direct experience.
The next time you sit down to meditate, or even just next time you are rushing around, practice letting life come to you. Let it arise and be full and complete, and as crazy and as heartbreaking as the act of cutting a cat in two. Stop trying to figure it out or make it be small so you can be comfortable. Instead, start wearing your sandals on your head.