How Do We Decide? Perched On Top Of a 100 Foot Pole

To go to war or not to go to war? To act or to wait and see? Women’s rights or the rights of the unborn? Collaborate or challenge? Step forward or step back?

What is our real motivation? How do we decide? Where do we stand?

There is a story, a koan in Zen: “How do you step from the top of a 100 foot pole?”

I was thinking of a New York Times book review I read some time ago about the life of Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex research scientist. His research and books regarding the trends and variety of sexual practices were groundbreaking at the time. The review described the book as an exposé, highlighting the paradox and the alleged gap between Kinsey the person, contrasted with the public image of being a completely detached, non-involved, non-emotional scientist. The book describes Mr. Kinsey as a human being whose emotions were messy and whose personal life was colorful and erratic. The book points to the animal side, or the range of uncontrolled emotions and instincts; in contrast to the more scientific or spiritual side of human beings. The point of the book is in some way the scientific or spiritual is not real or solid, in comparison to the fact of our animal side.

Animal side, spiritual side; in what ways are they connected or opposed? Native American cultures and shaman traditions and many wisdom traditions have well-developed ways of integrating the so-called animal and spiritual sides. Each of us, particularly we as westerners, steeped in the scientific tradition, when we hear these words, has our own spin, history, opinions, conditioning. It is easy to get caught by these words and ideas, to think and believe, and fight wars over these ideas and distinctions.

From a Buddhist view, all emotions that keep us from seeing things as they are, or emotions that unnecessarily push us out of equilibrium can be called destructive. Our practice is to become intimately familiar with our so-called animal side and spiritual side, to go beyond these labels and return to our authentic, free and un-nameable natures. This koan says that in order to do this, to be genuine, we must be willing step from the top of a pole. That is, to step outside of our usual safety, to go beyond our comfort zones.

What are you really feeling? What’s under that, and what’s under that? It is so easy to hide from our real feelings and to obscure our feelings and emotions.

This is one reason why working with a teacher and working with a community is so important. All of us, no matter how much effort we make, are not always capable of seeing clearly. We are like fish in our own tank. Little by little the water can get dirty, and since it is just a little bit each day we don’t even notice it is dirty. Then our friend or teacher comes into our space and it is so obvious – hey, the water here is pretty dirty. Even though we may be working hard each, with the intention of cleaning the water, we may not notice the subtle leaks, the ones we can’t see, that may be obvious to those around us.

Stepping off the 100 ft pole can be as simple as paying attention, truly investigating reality. It may mean really listening to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes this means inquiring deeply about our feelings and emotions. Sometimes it means being open to a friend or teacher; being willing to be open to the perceptions and perspectives of our friends and teachers.

Destructive emotions can be summarized by five negative emotions: hatred, desire, confusion, pride, and jealousy. The more you examine, the deeper you look into the source of the human mind, the more these emotions appear, and the more they fade and disappear. At the core of these destructive emotions is actually a core of clarity, and brilliance, something not in any way harmful.

These obscuring emotions can be on the surface and they can run deep, getting in the way of how we see the world, the nature of things, our view of permanence and impermanence. These emotions actually cause us to lose our freedom. Thoughts become chained in a particular way, affecting how we think, speak and act

Meditation practice is another way to work with negative emotions. Sitting practice allows us to investigate the reality of our minds, feelings and emotions, to just watch. At a subtler level we can begin to allow some space in our thinking and feelings, to undo some of our conditioning; the embedded way that our feelings and emotions are part of our bodies. We see that the emotions themselves are not the problem; it’s the attachment to the emotions, the way they take hold of us and the gaps between our emotions and what really is.

Some practices:
1) If you are feeling hatred, practice love and compassion.
2) If you feel jealousy, practice kindness and joy.
3) You go first:
If what you want from your friend or spouse is more openness, acceptance and love, then you go first. You practice being more open, accepting and loving of the other person. If you want and need more vulnerability, sharing and risk taking; then you go first – be more vulnerable, more disclosing and more risk taking. Your actions, your going first is the antidote for whatever it is you find lacking in others. You have the courage and skill to take these actions because through your meditation practice you have a taste of impermanence and a taste of emptiness, – you come to know that everything is empty of being separate.

Since our lives are so short, everything we do is quite significant. And, the fact that we are not separate from others doesn’t mean that therefore we don’t have to take things personally. Again, just the opposite. Everything is personal, everything is important.

The koan says that you step from the pole. It doesn’t say that you wait for someone else to step from the pole.

Stepping from the pole is being willing to enter new territory, to say things that are not rehearsed, not safe, not part of our conditioning. The term “beginner’s mind” is easy to mention, especially when talking about others. But what really is beginner’s mind? How do we practice beginners mind not only on our meditation cushions but in our lives – with our spouses, lovers, children, parents, co-workers.

Stepping from a 100 foot pole is to step out from behind ourselves and our habits. This doesn’t mean to step away from our pain and confusion, and our messy, unpleasant emotional life. Instead, stepping from the 100 foot pole is just the opposite – we step directly into our feelings and emotions, our motivations and condition. We step and embrace whatever is most messy and difficult. We inquire. Ask others – Is there a way that my words hurt you? Have I done anything that causes you pain? Please tell me. Please let me know how I can support and be there for you. How can I express my love and care for you?

Why is it so difficult to talk with those we love in this way? What kind of armor do we have on that prevents us from being real and disclosing? What is this treasure we are protecting, this idea that we need to keep things safe?

The case:
You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And the entire universe is in your eye