Once upon a time there was once a man who wandered through the wilderness. He was unfortunate enough to stumble upon a ferocious tiger. Not giving much thought to the situation the terrified man began to run until he came to the edge of a cliff. There was nowhere else to run. Desperate to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there was a tigers’ liar below him with even more tigers waiting for him to fall. Worse even, two little mice began to gnaw on the vine to which he was clinging. He knew that there was no way out. Any moment he would fall to a certain death. And that was when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth. He savored the fruit and realized that he never knew a strawberry could be as sweet as this one.
The Zen parable of a cliffhanger is probably one of the most eye opening Buddhist parables. It teaches mindfulness. It teaches us to be present in the “here and now” and to savor the moment.
The vine in the parable represents our reality, the present moment that often goes unnoticed unless we are forced by some unusual circumstances to face it. The tiger symbolizes our fears and worries that make it impossible for us to enjoy our walk through life that is represented here by the wilderness. The tigers at the bottom of the precipice are the fears of the future, the disasters yet to come. The mice may be interpreted as symbols of our doubt and indecision constantly gnawing at the fabric of our being. The sweet taste of the wild strawberry symbolizes our awakening, a spontaneous realization of the true nature of existence.
A constant distraction and the unnecessary preoccupation with the past or the future makes it impossible for most people to stay really centered and “conscious”. As their minds wander, they appear to be doing things almost unconsciously as if they were on an auto-pilot. They experience their reality as a projection from the past or the vision of the future and neither view allows them to enjoy the life for what it really is.
Fear and anxiety are strong emotions that prevent us from experiencing joy. We may think that this is an affliction of the modern mind, but it seems that people have always spent a lot of time wandering around with their minds. They wandered everywhere but seldom spent a moment in the now never really living their lives.
Nothing will change unless we consciously stop in our tracks and decide to stay in the present without wasting our time and energy on things that happened in the past and cannot ever be undone; without wasting our time speculating about the future that might never come the way we feared or hoped for. Some of us even manage to “write” a whole book about things that may never occur without realizing that our personal fiction not only prevents us from living consciously in the present, but that it stops us from taking any necessary action out of our imagined fear.
But just like in the parable, life sometimes forces us to face our worse fears. I moments of real or assumed danger we sometimes manage to open our eyes and see the things for what they really are. When we are desperate and think that there is absolutely nowhere else to go, we may unexpectedly gain a deeper understanding. Suddenly we are able to “see” for the first time and enjoy the beauty and value of small, insignificant things – a value that is not appreciated until we are forced out of our habitual blindness. This blindness, however, is acquired characteristic. As children, most of us were able to get completely lost in the the moment and forget the world around us. We could see magical things and were curious to explore exotic places even if they were only the backyards of our homes.
This childlike mind withers as soon as we grow older. Suddenly we are overburdened with our duties and there are things to be done and responsibilities to be taken. We become distracted and life is passing us by. Very often we are unconsciously busy, distracted, unaware of the beauty that surrounds us, unaware of the deeper sense that a single moment can carry. And unless we confront ourselves we will never be able to appreciate what the reality has to offer.
As someone once said: Enlightenment can be found in distraction from our daily distractions. Life happens now. And wild strawberries are delicious…