A man is chased by a tiger. Suddenly, he encounters an abandoned well. He jumps in, hoping that the tiger can’t reach him there. But then, he realizes that there’s a poisonous snake at the bottom of this dried out well. Before he reaches the bottom, he grabs a root poking out of the wall and holds on. The tiger looks at him from the top, waiting for him to get out, and the snake is waiting at the bottom for him to fall down. Shortly after, two mice appear from a hole in the wall and start chewing on the root he’s holding on to.
Now, what to do next?
This is part of a Buddhist story about the state of life that many of us find ourselves in from time to time: a state in which there doesn’t seem to be a way out.
It’s no secret that life can be very difficult and painful. And sometimes we’re running from our problems only to run into more difficulties. And when our sense of security is stripped away from us, we come to realize that we are at the mercy of an uncontrollable and terrible fate: everything is falling apart and there’s nothing that we can do about it.
When we’re hanging onto a root that’s chewed away by mice with a hungry snake below and an even hungrier tiger above us, what can we possibly do to get out of this situation? What is the best course of action when there seems to be no way out?
When life falls apart, we might want to remember that everything changes all the time. Like night turns into day, bad fortune turns into good fortune, and a curse turns into a blessing. So, could it be that, eventually, life doesn’t fall apart but… into place?
1) An act of rebellion
What should we do when life falls apart, we’re in a miserable situation, and there’s no way out? The first thing to consider is that it’s not the circumstances that make us miserable, but the way we perceive these circumstances. Even though the man hanging between a tiger and a snake is powerless when it comes to his external circumstances; it’s his perception that decides his mood.
Knowing that this is a Buddhist story, it’s probably no surprise that this man has been practicing at his local temple, and is pretty aware of what the Buddha called the ‘eight worldly winds’, which are pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute.
Most people are controlled by the eight worldly winds. When they’re in pain, they suffer. When they experience pleasure, they’re joyful. When their reputation goes down the drain, they become depressed. But when they’re famous and loved, they’re ecstatic.
The problem with this way of life is the slavish relationship with the environment that goes with it, as external things decide our mood, while these same external things are not up to us. So, when our happiness depends on the behavior of the eight worldly winds, we’re in a very unreliable position.
Without a doubt, an average person would probably be frightened when hanging between a snake and tiger, waiting for the only sense of security to be eaten away by mice. But as an avid practitioner of Buddhism, this man calmly observes the situation. Then, he suddenly sees honey that is dripping from a beehive sitting in a tree above the well (10). He smiles and starts licking the honey.
Now, in the face of misery, finding such joy can be considered mutiny against the system. Because when even the most terrible circumstances won’t stop him from enjoying what the present moment has to offer, he has claimed true freedom from the fickleness of a universe that enslaves most of its subjects; the poor souls whose lives are nothing but the suffering of its whims.
This is the freedom that philosopher Albert Camus was talking about when he claimed that the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that our very existence is an act of rebellion.
The man in the well knew that he shouldn’t panic or burst out in anger, as the situation he’s in is to be expected. The occurrence of unpleasant or even life-threatening events is an unavoidable part of life. So, the best thing he could do is to find joy in his darkest hour; something that, as opposed to his predicament, lies within his field of control.
But, there was something else that made him decide to stay calm and collected while hanging between the tiger and the snake. During his Buddhist practice, he had learned the truth about existence, which he reminded himself of when life goes well, and also when life falls apart. (I could re-use a clip, or just add something else)
2) The future may surprise you
That change occurs is certain. We just don’t know where change will bring us. But when we’re finding ourselves in dire straits, and there seems no way out, it’s essential to always remember that things change. The worldly winds are unpredictable. One moment they provide us with delight, the other moment with agony.
Once upon a time, there was an Eastern king who was overjoyed and overconfident when times were good, but depressed when times were bad. So, the sage handed him a ring with a simple sentence engraved in it: “This too shall pass”.
The ring reminded him every day of the transient nature of life. So, when times were good, he prepared for bad times, and when times were bad, he was certain that how permanent and unescapable these moments might seem: they too shall pass.
However, the power of change is often underestimated because we’re unable to foresee the future. When we’re stuck in our perception of the current situation, it’s difficult to conceive how the future may play out, as there are so many variables and so many possibilities.
People in despair commonly believe that their misery is never-ending, as the light at the end of the tunnel has yet to present itself. They’re stuck in a mere perception of what’s happening at a particular moment, without taking into consideration that change is occurring in the background.
This means that this ‘reality’ we base our assessments on is shifting. Thus, what we perceive as our life falling apart, may actually be our life falling into place – oftentimes in ways that we don’t expect.
We do know by experience that, in most cases, the future plays out differently than we had previously expected. Moreover, it’s not unlikely that the future unfolds in ways that are nothing less than surprising.
This happened to the man in the well, whose fate seemed to be sealed, but was caught by surprise when the tiger, hungry as it was, leaned too much to the front, fell into the well right past the man,, squashed the snake, and broke his neck by the fall. And so, the man was able to climb out and survive.
Therefore, no matter how miserable things seem at the moment, the solution may be at our doorstep, as the course of the wind changes to our advantage. So, again, when life seems to fall apart, it may actually be falling into place.
But regardless of how things play out, we’ll never know beforehand what Fortune will bring us. This means that it’s futile to hope for a certain outcome. As the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus put it: “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”
Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do about the circumstances we’re in, no matter how painful, which was the case with the man in the well. But we can choose the position we take towards these circumstances. Pain is certain. Suffering is optional.
So, do we give unpleasant circumstances the power to make us miserable, or do we enjoy some honey instead?
Thank you for watching.