Tigers Above and Below (blog version)

So often in life we are faced with situations that seem to have no positive outcome viewed from our current perspective.  As we are perched precariously between difficult situations in which we feel like we have lost control we are actually a place in which we can actively choose to shape our experience instead of being along for the ride.  Our day to day lives are often a series of bumping along from one crisis or stress or activity that absorbs us in its drama.  We build stories around why it “this”  so important, what will happen if we don’t do something, and what might happen if we do.  We willingly, although without realizing it, give up our power by making decisions based on how our lives are happening TO us instead of based on how we WANT to live our lives.  We operate from a place of fear instead of from our own inner wisdom.

We can pause and see this as an opportunity to call the shots instead of sitting passively while stuff happens to us.  We can actively choose how we want to use our precious time and energy. Even when all outcomes seem dire, there is beauty around us that will help us free ourselves from the grip of the negative and shine a light on ways to stay present  in the moment and make decisions based on what is true for us.

There is a story in Zen Buddhism that goes like this….

A man crossing a field encounters a tiger. The man flees, the tiger pursues. Coming to a cliff top, the man grabs the root of a vine and swings himself down below the tiger’s reach. The tiger waits. Looking down the precipice upon which he precariously swings, the man sees another tiger looking expectantly upwards at him. As if this were not sufficient cause for peril, two mice begin to chew the root from which he hangs. As he digests his unenviable condition, the man sees a ripe strawberry within his reach. Releasing the vine with one hand, he gently picks the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

When we are asked to choose between the lesser of several evils we often sit in a place of turmoil while we struggle with our sense of powerlessness.  We can spend our time fretting about the inevitable tigers and how fast we are going to fall or take a moment to be present in the moment and hear the inner voice that guides us towards our highest good.  When we wrap ourselves in fear over potential outcomes, we let go of our ability to receive .  It is simply not possible to accept a gift with a tightly clenched hand. The man in the story had to release the vine in order to pick the strawberry.  The possibilities for us are endless when we let go of our fear about what MIGHT be.

In the pause we take to “digest our unenviable condition” we open ourselves to seeing beauty, to hearing our inner voice, and to be available to small miracles.  We can choose to focus on the tiger or on our lifeline breaking and in a place of fear never let go to experience the sweetness of the strawberry.  What if the man in the story never paused, what if he never took the risk and found the joy that small gift? What do we stand to lose by focusing on the “good” around us and let the “bad” take care of itself?  We frequently take risks when we are in the active state of problem solving, but how often do we take a risk in order to have a beautiful experience, or one true to who we really are?  How often are we allowing ourselves to choose our experience based on our desires  instead of our fears?

It is easy to see difficult events as something that happened to us and  to feel as if we have  to act  now in order to regain control.  We make decisions based on what we think others want or see as “right” instead of listening to our hearts or we angrily make decisions because we feel we have no other choice.  “THIS (insert your drama here!) happened to me and now I have lost control “ is frequently the underlying feeling even when we put on a positive face for the outside world.  Fear paralyzes us and we do not see that we are the ones in control over our destiny.

Challenges are  another opportunity to come to terms with how closely are aligned with what our heart really desires and who we truly are. Challenges hold a mirror up to us and shows us where we are and asks  “is this where you want to be”?  Difficult times teach  us to take the reins in our lives and begin making decisions for what is in our own highest good based on the inner voice we give room to by taking a moment to pause in the middle of our own story.

As a breast cancer patient diagnosed suddenly without having had any symptoms I underwent dramatic and difficult treatment options immediately.  For some reason, maybe because I had no time to think about things, I sat in a place of acceptance that this was what was required to save my own life. But when the day came that I was asked to keep taking a drug that I wasn’t sure was right for me, I felt like I had run from the tiger only to be sitting on that branch looking  at more potentially bad options.  I had done what I was told, I had fought the good fight and yet I had to take a drug that made me feel sick, out of control and not like myself in order to increase my chances of staying well.  I was angry and frustrated and felt like cancer had screwed up my life.  I felt I only had decisions to make that made me unhappy and sick and that cancer had taken control of everything – even long after the diagnosis.

After much discussion with my family, it was universally decided that being okay NOW was infinitely better than continuing to act out of a place of fear.  I spent much time talking, reflecting and creating how I really wanted my life to be.  I decided that I wanted to be the one in charge – not cancer –  and while the tigers may not totally go away, there was a place for me to make a decision that resulted in a future I chose.  I created space to listen to my heart and make decisions based on how I wanted to LIVE.

I could have come to this decision from the other direction as well…. I could have chosen to keep taking the drug in order to reduce the questions about whether I am doing enough to care for myself. It doesn’t matter what the decision is –- it only matters that you make the decision having paused and listened to your heart and what was true for you . We must take the risk to experience our life in this moment for what we CHOOSE it to be, regardless of all the tigers growling around us.

As a cancer survivor I know the truth of the statement “How sweet it is!”  Moments  of joy are so often infused with an extra saturation of beauty that stems from having to fight for so much.  I cry easier, love more deeply and pause more often because of those tigers that reminded me of how dear this life is.  But we are all  human and get wrapped up in the drama that unfolds around us  in  our daily lives and forget the lesson taught by that strawberry dangling within reach.  Take time to stop worrying about what might happen, or how to get yourself out of the moment. Listen to your heart and to what it is telling you.  Pause for a moment to ponder instead of act or respond.  Take a risk to give yourself the gift of being true to your highest good.  There are always tigers so why not enjoy a strawberry when you can?

(This article appeared in the  January 2011 edition of Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine in a slightly different version)

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