Zen Tigers and Strawberry Moments
Living in the moment is easier said than done. Here’s a practical process to support that important aim.
(ZEN TIGERS AND DALE CARNEGIE – OR HOW TO DEFEAT STRESS BY LIVING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT)
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne and Renata Taylor-Byrne, 2010/2011
Updated and amended on 13th October 2018
The gender of the Zen master (mistress?) in this story is irrelevant. So you can choose to read the story as if it was about a man or a woman, to suit your preference.
One day, a Zen master/mistress went into the jungle. S/He was enjoying the scenery: trees, vines, flowers; and listening to the sounds of the birds chirping, and various animals moving around and calling to each other. Suddenly s/he saw a tiger. Unfortunately, the tiger also saw the Zen master. S/He ran for his/her life; but s/he ran so fast that s/he ran off the edge of a cliff. Falling, s/he grasped for a tree root which projected from the face of the cliff, and ended up hanging from this root with his/her left hand. The tiger reached the top of the cliff, and stared down hungrily at him/her, but could not reach him/her.
The Zen master looked down to the foot of the cliff, and saw another tiger, looking up hungrily. Then, a couple of feet above his/her left hand, s/he noticed two little mice gnawing through the tree root, and s/he realised that before long s/he would (theoretically) go crashing down to the foot of the cliff, when the root broke. Then s/he noticed, to his/her right, a small strawberry bush, with a large, ripe, wild strawberry. S/He reached out and plucked the strawberry with his/her right hand, and popped it into his/her mouth. It tasted delicious.
Explanation: A Zen master does not concern themselves with the past (the tiger up above); nor with the future (the tiger down below). S/He is supremely centred in the present moment (the ‘strawberry tasting’ present moment). The strawberry flavour is intended to communicate the blissfulness of being in the present moment, with no distractions from the past or the future.
Clarification: Zen Masters do not ignore things that need to be done. If there is something that can be done (or controlled) about probable future threats or dangers, then s/he does that. If something can be done to clean up a past loss or failure, then she does that. But once controllable actions have been taken, the Zen master returns to the present moment. Why?
Because: “Only in a hut built for the moment can you be free from fear!”
Or, as the Buddha is said to have said: “One hair’s breath difference between what you want and what you’ve got and heaven and earth are set apart”.
So, we have to focus our mind on the present moment, and accept the things we cannot change, and only try to change the things we can!
Back to the illustration of the tiger as the threat in the future, and the upset in the past.
|The past||The present moment||The future|
|The past no longer exists, and therefore cannot harm you. (However, it does still influence you from non-conscious levels of mind!)
The ‘tiger’ is up above, and cannot reach you.
(The tiger in the past cannot come into the present and harm you, but your habits from the past come into the present and control your current behaviours!)
|The present moment is a razor-sharp moment of blissful being. (We never experience it. We make up our ‘individual moments’ from the previous ten seconds or so, and extrapolate from there into the [imagined] near future).
There are (normally, or most often!) no ‘tigers’ in the present moment. So if you can centre yourself in the present moment (as in meditation) then there is nothing to worry about (for the duration of that bout of meditation!)
|The future is difficult and hard to know. It has not arrived yet, and its shape is unknown. (It’s good to try to take account of the ‘probable future; to plan to protect yourself; and then let your expectations and projections go!)
The ‘tiger’ is down below, and cannot reach you.
(No amount of worrying will get rid of all potential tigers from the future. Life is difficult, now, and [most likely] in the future; but it can [normally, and most often] be coped with!)
In his book entitled ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’, Dale Carnegie, also deals with the past, present and future. I have extracted just three of his strategies, and related them to the Zen Tiger story, as follows. They are listed as quotations at the top of each of the three columns in Table 2:
|The past||The present||The future|
|“No use crying (endlessly) over spilled milk”. (See clarification about ‘Human Tears’, below).
It would be a mistake to say, “I should not have gone into the jungle, then I would not be in this mess, hanging from this tree root, with two tigers to worry about!”
Why would it be a mistake?
Because you cannot change that reality now. You cannot choose your options retrospectively!
There is no point lamenting this kind of reality (and especially endlessly!). Some realities need to be lamented – such as the death of a significant other person; or the loss of a job; or some such highly significant loss or failure).
Whatever happened actually did happen, because of all the little steps that had already been taken, by you, other people and the world.
|“Live your life in day-tight compartments”.
The only time that really exists is now. The past is dead and gone. The future is just a dream. So enjoy the present moment.
If you can get your mind out of the past and the future, you will find that the present moment is blissful.
Practice daily meditation to get your mind into the present moment.
Write about your current problems – your old losses and failures from the past; your current worries; and your worries about the future – in your ‘Daily pages’ – which you should write every morning (or evening. Morning is best!)
|“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”. (But I’ll also do whatever realistic forward planning that I can!)
If the tiger is there when you fall, it must be there when you fall, but you have no way of knowing that it will be there, since all kinds of things may have changed by the time the ‘future arrives’.
The tiger may have gone home for lunch, or a missionary might have happened along the lower trail, and the tiger might be busy eating the missionary when you fall.
Or you might fall on the tiger, and accidentally break its back – putting it out of action!
Clarification about Human Tears
By Jim Byrne and Renata Taylor-Byrne, October 2018
The more we try to simplify our philosophy of life, the more we are in danger of over-simplifying it! And an over-simplified philosophy of life – like the extreme Stoicism of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT); or the emotion-denying theory of CBT – will just lead us into misleading others.
Once upon a time, I (Jim) subscribed to the over-simple statement: “There’s no use crying over spilled milk!” It came with the territory of having parents who lacked empathy for the suffering of children. And that is where Dale Carnegie and Albert Ellis got it; although it was already there in Greek and Roman philosophy – from a time when you could be taken in slavery to clean the homes of the Athenian ruling class – or thrown to the lions to entertain the bored populace of Rome. Spilled milk seemed supremely unimportant in the context of slavery or death by being savaged by a lion. But in the modern world, we have more sense of entitlement than people had in ancient Greece or Rome. (Though we often are no more secure than they were – in a neoliberal world of immoral bankers!)
Anyway, back to human tears:
Extensive research by Dr William Frey (a psychiatric biochemist), in 1949, demonstrated that crying is an essential way of eliminating stress hormones under conditions of sadness and grief. Here’s the most relevant point: “Human tears, unlike the tears of any other animal, contain a substance called ACTH, the hormone that actually sets off the stress response and is literally washed away by a good cry”.
 Frey, W. H., Hoffman-Ahern, C., Johnson, R. A., Lykken, D. T., & Tuason, V. B. (1983) Crying behaviour in the human adult. Integrative Psychiatry, 1, 94–100.
So there is a very good point to ‘crying over spilled milk’, or any significant loss or failure, such as the death of a close relative or love object; or the loss of a job, career, or part of your own body, or a valued asset!
Therefore, the quotation should now be amended to this: “There is no point crying endlessly over spilled milk – though you should do whatever grieving is necessary to complete your experience of losses and failures, including symbolic losses and failures”.
More on living in the present
Dale Carnegie teaches many ways to get yourself into the present moment, including this quote from Sir William Osler:
“Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand”.
He is clear that ‘living in the past’, is a waste of emotional energy. This is his advice:
“Shut off the past! Let the dead past bury its dead …”
He is also clear that ‘living in the future’ is an unnecessary burden:
“…the load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest (person) falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past… The future is today. There is no tomorrow. The day of our salvation is now. … Prepare to cultivate the habit of a life of (living in) ‘day-tight compartments’. …”
If you think of something that needs to be done tomorrow, write it down in your diary, or on an action list, and then return your attention to this moment now. This is the only moment that exists.
If you think of something from that past that worries you, write it out (in your Daily pages); learn what you can from that experience, and then move on.
Once you have trained yourself to live your life in day-tight compartments, then what? Then you are faced with how to live well in the now:
“Think of your life as an hourglass”. If you don’t know what an hourglass is, it is like a giant egg timer, made of two glass compartments, connected by a narrow tube. Sand flows from one compartment down into the other, and measures the passage of time: three minutes for an egg-timer; one hour for an hourglass.
Dale Carnegie writes: “You know there are thousands of grains of sand in the top of the hourglass; and they all pass slowly and evenly through the narrow neck in the middle. Nothing you or I could do would make more than one grain of sand pass through this narrow neck without impairing the hourglass”.
“You and I and everyone else are like this hourglass. When we start in the morning, there are hundreds of tasks which we feel that we must accomplish that day, but if we do not take them one at a time, and let them pass through the day slowly and evenly, as do the grains of sand passing through the narrow neck of the hourglass, then we are bound to break our own physical and mental structure”.
Therefore, Dale Carnegie’s advice to us all is this:
“One grain of sand at a time… one task at a time”. Pace yourself. (If anybody uses the concept of ‘multi-tasking’ in your presence, call the local mad house and have them dragged away. Multi-taking is a Big Lie! We must do One Thing at a Time!)
One thing at a time! If we tackle our work life in this way, then we can go on and on, healthily and productively. And if we deal with our personal problems, our worries, in this way, one at a time (in written form – in your journal or notebook – so we can see them clearly, and think about them clearly) – then we can worry constructively (and much more briefly!) To illustrate this point, Dale Carnegie presents this quotation:
‘Anyone can carry his/her burden, however, hard, until nightfall. Anyone can do his/her work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, till the sun goes down. And this is all that life really means’. Robert Louis Stevenson.
Don’t try to live your life a week or a month at a time:
“Each day is a new life to a wise person”.
Don’t waste your life dreaming of tomorrow. Live your life today:
“One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon – instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today”. (Dale Carnegie).
Or we are worrying about some dreaded nightmare up ahead, which, despite never arising, drains us of our vitality today, and spoils the only life we have: this precious moment, Now!
Live your life in day-tight compartments, and enjoy the moment:
“Most of us are…stewing about yesterday’s jam and worrying about tomorrow’s jam instead of spreading today’s jam thick on our bread right now”. Dale Carnegie.
At this point the two stories merge. The Zen master’s life was supremely centred in the present moment, and therefore s/he could reach out and pluck the wild strawberry of the present moment. And Dale Carnegie equates this present moment with the sweet taste of jam. If you do not know why the beautiful taste of the strawberry, or the sweetness of jam, is used to describe the present moment, you have never meditated. Try it and see. When you come into the present moment, life is beautifully sweet. 🙂
Teach yourself this philosophy of life, by reviewing this page over and over again, day after day after day. The rewards that you reap will more than compensate for the effort of learning to live your life one day at a time.