A very dear friend of mine named Joel is going through a rough time right now. His mind spins yarns of impossible worry so mercilessly that it sometimes drives him home in tears in the middle of the day, unable to work. This is not something new, but it has been particularly bad for him lately. His mind is working overtime just to maintain, doing whatever he can to make the next moment bearable. He feels really stuck and doesn’t know how to get free.

"Set Upon By Creatures", from "Paradise Lost," John Baptiste Medina.

“Set Upon By Creatures” from Paradise Lost, John Baptiste Medina.

The other day, over dinner, some friends and I were discussing Joel’s woes. I seemed to know everything about his difficulties and had very reasonable solutions for all of them. As we talked, I noticed myself growing more and more agitated at what I thought was Joel’s inability to take effective action on his own behalf. The more I solved Joel’s problems for him, the more worked up I became. By the end of dinner, I was sick and tired of talking about Joel. I felt worn out and a little ashamed about how callous and arrogant I had been.

Earlier that evening, my koan group had started to work with this koan, which appeared of its own accord:

Layman Pang was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. When his daughter, Lingzhao, saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself down.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw Daddy fall to the ground, so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao.
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

One of the wonderful things about koans is that they don’t need me to turn a crank or flip switches in a certain order—they operate on their own. I had no intention of spending time with this koan outside of my group, but later that evening something interesting happened. I imagined Joel lying on the ground, struggling and failing to get up. I was bent over him, pawing at him and shouting like the ornery drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, “You gotta move your legs like this, son! You gotta get your legs under you and pick yourself up and fix it! No, no, like this!” I suddenly realized how unhelpful my whole approach had been. I felt myself diving toward the ground to be next to Joel, the years of my own worry and hopelessness washing over me, as fresh and welcoming as ever. The drill sergeant, now supple and weepy, was bathed in a sweet, golden syrup.

(Luckily no one was looking.)

Needless to say, my interactions with Joel have been different since then. I no longer experience his suffering as a problem, and as a result I am no longer personally invested in what I think he ought to do. I feel a kind of spaciousness when I talk with him—I am interested in what he is saying and it touches me. I do not feel a compulsion to do or say anything in particular, helpful or otherwise, and I do not experience his suffering as a burden.

I’ve been noticing other things, too. Someone I usually try to avoid is having a really good day, and I find I feel so happy for her that I notice my heart swelling and my eyes tearing up. A friend is so anxious and agitated after spending time in the hospital for heart trouble that he cannot sleep for days, so I offer to just sit up with him. My fiancée is preparing to leave on a trip and when she mentions that she’s anxious, I notice that I’m anxious too, as though I were the one preparing to leave.

If we’re not believing our own stories about needing to fix things, we might notice that falling down–our own and others’–is not a problem. The scraped elbow, the broken relationship, and the shattered china plate belong to all of us, are felt by all of us. They are one segment of the crimson thread that stitches us all together.

– From Jesse’s blog, “It’s Alive“.