Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Diving Board Dharma

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte

Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out, and waiting for a pole to show up. Not the worst thing in the world, but I think I'm finally getting tired of doing things that way after all these years.

Which brings me to the famous koan that has floated around with me for several years now.

The Gateless Gate Case forty-six

Master Shih-shuang asked, “How will you step forward form the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Commenting on this, another ancient master said, “Even though one who is sitting on the top of a hundred-foot pole has entered the way of awakening, it is not yet authentic. She must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest her whole body throughout the ten directions. He must step forward from the top of that pole and manifest his whole body throughout the ten directions."

Wumen’s commentary

If you can step forward and reveal yourself fully, there will be no place where you are called dishonorable. So, right now, tell me. How do you step forward from the top of the hundred-foot pole?

Wumen’s verse

Making the eye blind, You cling to the mark on the scale; Throw away body and life, And one blind person leads all the blind.

How will you step forward? When I reflect on it, I've been sitting with this all autumn now. There's a fear of losing control. Of manifesting in a way that completely exposes me to the world. In some ways, we are always exposed, no matter how much we try and hide. And yet, there's something seductive about hanging out on the diving board, being able to see it all, but standing apart from it. I remember my mother accusing me of having a fear of commitment when it came to an old romantic relationship that was crumbling at the time. She was right. I did have a fear of commitment, but it wasn't really about that relationship per se. It was about living completely this life, searching for a certainty that wasn't going to come.


Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, How well I know this one too! I suspect we all do. But it brings to mind something that one of the senior monastics said to me when I was telling her about how I sometimes resist doing things out of self-centeredness (and isn't it always this??). She told me to notice when I feel resistance throughout the day, even the little things like not wanting to sweep the floor or do the dishes sitting in the sink. Notice it and then get up and DO IT! I think it is easy to get stuck in the the notice part and then forget about the the DO IT part.

As I have repeatedly now gotten up and done things that I resisted, I am better able (sometimes) to expand that to larger things and, most importantly, large or small, I almost always find that none of these things turn out to be as bad or difficult as I imagined they would be.

That has been my experience. I look forward to hearing more from you about this.

Nathan said...

Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. It fits with the Shantideva line about "putting up with little cares" I have been using for the last three years. I seem to hit a wall with the decisions/actions that feel "large" or potentially "life changing." Of course, that labeling itself is often a story because sometimes some seemingly insignificant act turns into a life changing one. So, I have some work to do around clinging to such stories.

zendotstudio said...

Nice diving story. Isn't that it for most of us? Letting go and taking the plunge!

Was discussing it from a slightly different angle yesterday: "I will be happy when".... And the mind can always find something. Still the same contingency plan! And then my partner and I reminded ourselves that happiness (equanimity) comes from inside. In the contingency plan you talk about, it is taking the fearless plunge (and it seems it always feels good when we do) Until that point in a process I always feel a restless agitation.

Mumon said...

Jump in the pool, and deeply appreciate the absurdity of it.

That's what I did in the only-tent-covered-and-not-yet-warmed pool where I swim at 5 in the morning in the middle of a nasty, almost freezing cold, wet, windy (gusts to 35mph blowing under the tent, storm.

"I can't believe I'm doing this."

And I did it.

Nathan said...

I have a lot of "restless agitation" in my life right now.

Jumping time is coming again soon I guess.

Kyle Lovett said...

Congrats Nathan on Blogisattva nomination! :-)

Algernon said...

Congratulations on the nominations and honorable mentions in more than one category. It's good writing, Nathan.

Nathan said...

Thanks guys. Bows, Nathan

Sophia Wright said...

Congrates....Once you try 8 ft diving board