'Search' stories help us find the way

Zen and art of searching

Zen has a wonderful, 900-year-old pictorial story, which, in modern terminology, would be called "no bull."

It’s actually called the Oxherding Pictures, and since Zen essentially teaches without words, it’s appropriate to depict man’s search for himself in illustrations.

The ox is a metaphor for the mind, which refuses to conform to any discipline and the oxherd is the Zen practitioner trying to find his true self.

The mind was compared with a wild ox because it had to be captured, tethered and broken, a long, slow process. Following the example, the Zen student is encouraged to directly experience his own mind through meditation, subdue anxieties and desires, experience oneness with all, and find peace.

But it isn’t just in Zen, all literature is rife with search stories, variations of the oxherding story: Prometheus, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Knights of the Round Table or a native American on a vision quest; it’s about anyone who confronts adversity, is changed in the process and then brings back something to his community. Fairy tales are a variation of the search motif.

“The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth,” mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand.”

The process is always the same: departure, initiation and return.

All the stories are really the story of all of us, on a personal search for fire, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the bull. Once we start on the path of self-discovery, there’s no going back. We might never discover who we are, but we’ll never be content with who we were.

“The journey begins as an exhausting search for an elusive quarry,” Timothy Freke writes in Zen Wisdom. “The seeker is pictured in search of himself, but all he can find is rustling leaves and singing cicadas and he does not yet realize that these are the very clues he seeks. During this stage, the student is often confused and discouraged. He doesn’t really know what it is he is looking for.”

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the bull only appears lost because the oxherd thinks he is alone, separate from others, from the world, which both religion and science argue is an illusion.

So the oxherd, the searcher — us — seeks, reaching crossroads, uncertain which one to take, going one way, doubling back, taking another until he discovers a teaching, a method that works and he sees the bull’s footprints everywhere. He sees through the illusion and realizes everything is a reflection of himself.

“Better keep yourself clean and bright,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “You are the window through which you must see the world.”

While the seeker accepts that point intellectually, he still has trouble living it; he has found the path, but has not yet passed through what Zen calls the “gateless gate.”

The oxherd captures the bull, but it refuses to be tamed, just like our restless, monkey mind. After a lifetime thinking what it likes, it doesn’t want to submit — just as we find excuses not to meditate, go on a diet, exercise or spend more time with our kids, our spouse or our parents.

The student must train his mind so it doesn’t conjure fantasies or watch movies in his head and begins Zen training until the mind is tamed and he accepts that it is not other people who cause his anger and angst, but himself.

With practice, vigilance and discipline, the mind is calmed and the oxherd is no longer concerned with success or failure, or what the world thinks or demands.

“He realizes that the bull has only been a temporary subject of his quest,” Freke writes. “His search has led to the realization that the separate self, that he previously took himself to be, is not his true self. The seeker knows his Buddha-nature — his deeper identity.”

With that comes the realization all is one, that everyone and everything is but a reflection of a deeper reality, the Absolute.

“Although the vision that the seeker has been seeking has finally been attained, there is no self to glory in this achievement. Mind, clear of all limitations. Confusion is replaced by serenity. Ideas of holiness are irrelevant,” writes Freke.

That brings joy, which encompasses sadness and happiness, but is greater than both. With joy comes acceptance of the self and the world.

The search is often portrayed as something outside ourselves, a heroic quest that summons physical courage and mental strength, but essentially is a journey inward. The searcher goes “into depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world,” writes Campbell.

“The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the “king’s son” who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power.

“From this point of view, the hero is symbolical of the divine creative and redemptive image, which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.”

The final word goes to Zen: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Even the enlightened have to pay the hydro and cell phone bills.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Looking at ourselves through our dark sides

The shadow knows

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

We will never be completely whole until we accept the invitation that Darth Vader extended to Luke Skywalker. “Come to the dark side.”

Star Wars director George Lucas learned his mythology from Joseph Campbell, the world’s foremost authority on the subject.

“The self is the totality, and if you think of it as a circle, the centre of the circle would be the centre of the self,” Campbell wrote in Myth and the Self.

“But your plane of consciousness is above the centre and your ego’s up there above the plane of consciousness, so there’s a subliminal aspect of the self which you do not know. And this is in play constantly with the ego.”

Campbell’s circle metaphor comes from Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist who used the word shadow to describe those dark parts of ourselves we don’t like and refuse to acknowledge.

“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate,” said Jung. “That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.”

We are controlled by beliefs and urges we don’t know and until we shine a light down into our own abyss, we’re doomed to dance to a tune we might not recognize. When we were young, we assimilated just about everything our parents, priests and peers told us. Because we wanted, needed, to be part of the tribe, we accepted societal norms and dictates. The qualities that didn’t fit were thrown into the dungeon of ourselves.

As children, we were told not to lie, not to steal, not to be selfish. But what child doesn’t, so we were punished or ostracized when those “bad qualities” emerged. Even now as adults, when they climb up from the psychic basement like an unloved relative, we lock the door and ignore the knocking.

We project those aspects onto other people. The jealousy, anger, greed, fear, envy, sloth, lust, laziness we don’t like and/or don’t acknowledge in ourselves we see in other people.

The show-off in the weight room, the know-it-all in the classroom, the inconsiderate driver on the highway, the nosy neighbour wouldn’t annoy or upset us if they weren’t exhibiting repressed parts of ourselves.

When we react — over-react — to something our children or co-worker did, we’re responding to some unheeded part of ourselves.

The world really is a reflection of us. We look in a mirror darkly and see the monsters and then project them onto other people. That which we fear will, like Job, come upon us unless we bring it into consciousness.

“If one sees only unloveliness in others, it is because unloveliness is a strong element in himself,” Ernest Holmes wrote in Science of Mind.

“The light he throws on others is generated in his own soul and he sees them as he chooses to see them, He holds constantly in his mind a mental equivalent of unloveliness and creates unlovely reactions toward himself.”

If we are to fuse our splinter parts, we have to acknowledge that they exist. Pretending they aren’t there causes us problems and embarrassment because they’ll show up like a broke brother-in-law or a tiresome school mate.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves,” Jung said.

Poet Robert Bly wrote that we all drag a long, black bag behind us into which we stuffed the aspects of ourselves our friends and family didn’t like. By the time we reach middle age, the bag is long and heavy and some people start thinking about lightening the load.

“Your shadow self includes emotional and psychological patterns that come from repressed feelings that you do not wish to deal with consciously for the fear of the consequences.” Caroline Myss writes in Sacred Contracts.

“Your shadow also contains the secret reasons why you would sabotage the opportunities that come your way.”

It requires great fortitude and resolve to admit that we are what we vilified and abhorred, but now’s the time to reclaim our rejected majesty. If we don’t, we stay in the wasteland, adhering to the dictates of the tribe, forever reciting the mantra of don’t.

“It takes a tremendous act of courage to admit to yourself that you are not defective in any way whatsoever,” Zen master Cheri Huber said.

It isn’t just the negative trait we deny and project onto others. When we tell people what we think about them, when we think they are bright and funny we’re seeing positive aspects of ourselves in them.

“If you admire greatness in another human being, it is your own greatness you are seeing,” Debbie Ford writes in The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. “You may manifest it in a different way, but if you didn’t have greatness within you, you wouldn’t be able to recognize that quality in another person.”

Yet if we own our positive traits, we don’t have any more excuses for not realizing our potential, for being as good as the people we admire. So we prefer to exercise what Abraham Maslow called the Jonah Complex, setting low standards and evading our potential growth with an ah-shucks mentality. Oddly, it’s much less fearful than aspiring to greatness.

“Within our ourselves, we possess every trait and its polar opposite, every human emotion and impulse,” Ford writes. “We have to uncover, own, and embrace all of who we are, the good and bad, dark and light, strong and weak, and honest and dishonest.

“It is your birthright to be whole: to have it all. It only takes a shift in your perception, an opening of your heart.”

The shadow knows.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Learning to slow down on the road of life

Lesson learned...wait!

From the moment of my birth,

To the instant of my death,

There are patterns I must follow,

Just as I must breathe each breath.

Like a rat in a maze,

The path before me lies,

And the pattern never alters,

Until the rat dies.

— Paul Simon, Patterns

The tread marks of my stupidity, my pattern, are visible on a street near my home.

Those events are so common, I’ve even turned them into an equation
— I + I = S. Impatience plus impulsivity equals stupid.

In the latest incident, the skid marks were laid down on a pleasant, sunny day. I had just finished a cool-off drip in Okanagan Lake after a hot workout at the gym.

I was chill, and a little chilled, while driving the two kilometres home when I saw a pick-up with its left blinker on. As I got closer, the blinker kept blinking, the truck moving glacially along. It was still blinking when I accelerated pass and absently noted the driver’s arm waving as if to say, WTF. Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately notice the tractor turning left in front of the truck.

Fortunately, my brain turned off as my body took over. The brake pedal hit the floor as tires screeched 20 metres along the pavement; the steering wheel was yanked left so that if the car hit the tractor, it would be sideways. But the Universe, the Lady and her armada of angels, was ready. The Lady expects stupid things from me; she has been watching me do them for 68 of my 72 years; OK, 69.

The tractor driver, who was older, and probably a lot smarter, cranked his steering wheel to the right while the pickup driver hit the brakes, leaving tread marks in stereo.

If I were bigger, psychologically not physically, I would have stopped, apologized and suffered the wrath of both drivers. Instead, stoical and still quite chill, I waved and drove on. Just another stupid event in the life of Ross. The remorse set in later. In spite of my efforts to be more mature, I am, to paraphrase the Eagles, still the same old boy I used to be.

Eric Butterworth, a former Unity minister in New York City and prolific author, wrote that people don’t change, they just change the way they see themselves.

The writers of the first John Wick movie appear to agree.

“People don’t change,” Viggo, the bad guy, tells a tussled and tied-up John Wick. “Times, they do.

“You’re still very much the John Wick of old. You’re lying to yourself that the past had no sway over the future. This life fills you, clings to you.”

The vengeful John Wick was guided and controlled by patterns laid down in his past.

My patterns don’t involve killing people, but I am governed by old ones, by impatience and impulsivity, which often lead to stupid things. Thus, the equation I + I = S. Its effect on my world has been as far-reaching as Einstein’s equation, E = MC squared, has on the larger world — mine in a negative way and his, positive.

Impulsivity and poor judgment are hallmarks of bi-polar (I was diagnosed with the mildest form). Like the tread marks on my street, my poor judgment is also in stereo — it’s a side effect or consequence of a childhood brain leaping, falling and hitting a big rock.

The lesson in all this? Of course, there is a lesson I want to share; otherwise it would just be another dumb action of a guy attempting to escape his patterns.

The lesson is Wait! (I’ll toss in look and listen for free.) I know, I know. You expected more, something profound, something insightful and all I have is fortune-cookie wisdom.

Wait is not even the world’s favourite four-letter word, but imagine how our lives, and those around us, would be better if it were. If all of us, not just the impatient and impulsive, used it as much as we use the other four letters.

The world and its best teachers have been preaching that wait philosophy since our ancestors fell out of the trees in Africa.

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching.

That’s my work: to wait, to slow the hammering drumbeat that compels me to hurry when logic says wait. I’m working on it.

Every time I get in my car, I say wait. When I come to a Stop sign, wait. When I am fuming at a roundabout or a merge lane, and the people ahead think it’s a Stop sign, I remind myself to wait. And, of course, in the line-up at Tim Horton’s with the slow, but friendly, service.

As my impatience and impulsivity rise from my tightening stomach and chest, I watch it and say, wait. And loosen my jaw. It’s akin to training a puppy, which is done with care, attention and patience. Full disclosure here: I’m a cat guy, which might explain the impatience and my inability to learn, and why the patterns repeat.

Jungian analyst James Hollis has written books about these repeating patterns, which Freud called the repetition compulsion.

“Only when we recognize this reflexive claim upon us from the past can we access the resolve to break though into the growth the soul is asking of us,” Hollis wrote in The Broken Mirror: Refracted Visions of Ourselves.

“Start with your patterns, especially those you find troubling, perhaps self-defeating, injurious to self as others. We do not do crazy things; we always act logically if we understand the intrapsychic premise or ‘idea’ that has been activated.”

Hollis said we don’t look in the mirror every morning and tell ourselves we’re going to make the same stupid mistakes today that we did yesterday, the day before and the day before that…

I don’t know about you, but that seems to be my pattern; I don’t tell myself I will make the same mistakes, but I do, unless I can stop the pattern before it possesses me.

In the final verse of the song, Patterns, Paul Simon sings:

And the pattern still remains,

On the wall where darkness fell,

And it’s fitting that it should,

For in darkness I must dwell.

Like the colour of my skin,

Or the day that I grow old,

My life is made of patterns,

That can scarcely be controlled.

The important word is scarcely, which offers a sliver of hope in the darkness. While patterns can’t be undone or erased, they can be controlled — if we have the patience and discipline to figure out what they are and interrupt them before they cause us, well, me, to do stupid things.

“The reading of our life patterns tells us much about the formative stories to which our lives have been in service, brings them to consciousness and proves an opportunity for larger, better stories to enhance our journey,” Hollis wrote in Living Between Worlds. In other words, know thyself. Socrates told us that 2,300 years ago.

It was also inscribed near the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi where the oracle had been dispensing cryptic wisdom for hundreds of years before she set the father of moral philosophy on his path.

It’s a path former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama walks. “I tell my mentees, I tell my daughters that our first job in life as women, I think, is to get to know ourselves,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “I know who I am.”

“Knowing who you are is the journey,” Winfrey agreed.

It is equally true for men, for everyone. In order to grow, to learn, we must become scientists of the self (SOS), astronomers predicting the unknown from the known, finding unseen planets from their effect on the objects around them.

Someone is reputed to have asked Socrates how to get to Delphi.

“Let every step you take be in that direction,” was his reply.

Let every step we take be in the direction of finding out who we are, and the first step might be knowing our patterns, and the triggers that fire them.

If nothing else, it might prevent us from writing our signature in rubber on a city street.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Going into the cold

Icy blades sliced my skin as I plunged into Okanagan Lake.

As the oh-so-cold water swallowed me, the image of mercury dropping in a thermometer forced its way into my freezing brain.

It was Jan. 31. The water was three degrees Celsius.

It was my New Year’s Day swim – just a month late. In spite of my 71 years dancing with time, I haven’t grasped that it won’t flow the way I want it.

A few minutes later as I shivered my way out of the lake and into my clothes, I envied the hawk floating high above it all. I felt like the gull tossed to and fro by the wind, shrieking its rage as it was buffeted by elements beyond its control.

In my effort to be more hawk-like, to escape the prison of comfort, I go into the cold, to voluntarily embrace pain, to accept what life offers with open arms. Without whining. That’s the hard part

Since that initial icy flagellation, I’ve been doing a daily polar bear swim — well, the Reader’s Digest version of a swim, more like a three-minute flail.

My belated New Year’s aspiration had been to do a monthly dip.

But after talking with my son, Ryan, who was doing the Wim Hof Method — cold showers every morning, a special breathing method, and commitment — I added a leap into the lake every day.

The method is named after the Dutch extreme athlete, the Iceman, who has run an Arctic marathon and climbed Mount Everest, or most of it, in shorts; no shoes or shirt. He also ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water.

He claims that he isn’t special and that anyone can do what he does.

He has been poked, prodded and needled countless times in scientific studies. The conclusions back up something he learned 45 years ago when he was 17 — that commitment, embracing the cold and his breathing method are good for the body and mind.

I am much more of a wuss than the Iceman and my protocol much more subdued: Strip down to shorts, no shoes, grab a towel, and my car keys, and take a two-minute walk to the end of the dock in a public park.

Initially, I climbed down the steel ladder in my birthday suit, but since it seemed to scare the neighbours and the Canada geese, I opted for political correctness and hid the naughty bits beneath my shorts.

The geese have returned; not sure about the neighbours.

But if they did, I’m sure they are more mindful of what they look at.

Mindfulness is the rage these days and the cold helps there. I am forced to be mindful when I climb the steel ladder on a cold day after emerging from an even colder lake; I peel wet hands and feet off the freezing steel.

If my face had not been frozen, I would have smiled at the childhood memory of sticking my tongue on steel and slowly peeling it off.

If I did it too quickly, I lost a layer of skin. My parents were OK with that; it kept me from talking — for a little while.

When I jitterbug out of the lake, I meet the most interesting people, who want to chat; I try to channel John Wayne while feeling like Pee Wee Herman.

It would have made an interesting picture, in mid-February, me standing in the middle of Pritchard Drive, a stripped towel around my waist talking to three ladies, dressed like Vancouverites in an Iqaluit winter out for their daily walk.

The biggest reaction and most questions come from women.

“You’d better not get in trouble out there because no one is coming to get you,” one told me as I towelled off.

“You were swimming in the lake?” another woman asked. “You are brave.” (That was her outside voice; I’m betting the inside one said something much different.)

I got a thumbs up from another lady as she drove by. “Very impressive.”

An elderly European man wondered what I had done with my skates, while three other men refused my invitation to join me, but said they would shiver with me while sitting on the park bench in their parkas.

Wonder if they were put off by the weird guy or the cold?

I had learned about the cold on a frozen ocean long before Wim Hof, but never warmed up to it like he did.

As a kid raised on an island off the coast of Newfoundland – wood stoves, no electricity or in-door plumbing — I had frozen various parts of my anatomy many times while playing in the snow and cold. I still shiver as I think about icicles frozen to my eyelashes.

I dreaded going home because the warmth was worse, temporarily, than the cold. My father would dip the frozen parts of me in cold water — and hold them there in spite of my efforts to escape.

A lot of time has passed since Fogo Island, but warming up still hurts like it did 60 plus years ago.

The hot shower feels wonderful, except when it hits the sensitive appendages — the hot water lacerating them can be as painful as the cold.

What did I learn or re-learn doing what most people call crazy when they really mean stupid? That the body can adapt to a almost anything if the mind is willing to lead? One of the first things a would-be motorcyclist learns: the bike will follow the eyes.

So it is in life. The body will follow the mind – into cold water and through fear. Sometimes it hurts, but pain is fleeting; it only lasts a lifetime.

Full immersion in a cold lake is great training if you want to play the living dead in a movie or costume party because, after 14 minutes in the lake in February, I walked much like the zombies in The Walking Dead.

A few more minutes and I might not have been walking – if my core temperature had dropped much more, I would have dropped. Forever.

The Iceman I am not – but maybe after taking cold showers and lake dips for 45 years like he has, I will be.

Wim Hof is no longer alone; thousands have accepted his invitation to go into the cold — a growing worldwide contingent of diehards who do a daily dive into frigid water. There are some in Kelowna, and there is a club in Victoria, the Odd Balls, that has 450 members who meet in the ocean at 6 a.m.

The truly dedicated pay thousands to go to Hof’s camps in Poland and Spain for personal instruction.

Of course, they could save themselves the money and take advice from Seneca, and Tyler Durden.

“If you have passed through life without an opponent, no one can know what you are truly capable of, not even you,” said Seneca, the Roman author, and power behind the young emperor Nero (before he started fiddling). Seneca practised Stoicism, which also advocates getting comfortable with discomfort.

Durden, in the movie Fight Club, had a similar philosophy. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

How can we know what we are capable off if we never move outside our comfort zone, if we don’t learn to embrace discomfort, if we don’t go into the cold?

Join me in the lake — now or in January.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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