Master Kyogen said, “Its like a man up a tree hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won’t reach one. A man under the tree asks him, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” If he does not respond, he goes against the wishes of the questioner who will take his life. If he answers, he will fall to his death. At such a time, how can you respond?”
I met a Vietnam Veteran who was enrolled in a PTSD program at a VA hosptial in Augusta, Maine. He was in his mid sixties at the time and seemed somewhat reluctant to fully participate in his treatment. He told me his story during intermittent breaks in the program schedule.
At one point he said to me that he could not stand being around civilians. He had spent his entire career in the military and apparently had no use for anyone other than soldiers, preferable combat soldiers. During his service in Vietnam he was on a Swift Boat. The Swift Boats were made famous by the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry. Swift Boats were small Navy gun boats which patrolled the in-land waters of Vietnam. One of the most dangerous jobs of that conflict.
This old salt still carried several pictures of the Swift Boat he served on in Vietnam which he kept on his person at all times. He shared them with whomever he encountered – showing them off as if they were pictures of his beloved grandchild. He told me that he was divorced and estranged from all his children whom he had not spoken to in years.
When I asked him what he did with his free time when not in the hospital he said straight up, “Most days I drive around in my pick-up with a case of beer and a loaded shotgun deciding whether or not to kill myself.”
Life can be an incredibly hard and unforgiving teacher. She can serve up experiences that are deeply traumatizing – terrifying beyond conception. So traumatizing that the memory of these events becomes permanently seared into the minds of those who experience them. It’s as if these memories are fused so tightly with the mind that those who have them can no longer experience them just as memories. Rather, they become reified as permanent characteristics of their personal identity.
Rather than experiencing a traumatic memory by saying to themselves, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am a baby killer,” they reframe the thought as, “I am a babykiller.” Life can become a dark and deeply troubling endeavor when one is walking this earth condemned by the belief that “I am a babykiller.”
Once this conceptual slight of hand has gained preeminence in one’s thinking a continual lifelong struggle often ensues. This struggle takes the form of guilt, self-loathing, depression, anxiety, etc., etc., etc. The individual is now engaged in a psychological tug of war with their very own personhood.
In time, the struggle intensifies and a negative sense of self permeates one’s consciousness. The person begins to feel as if they are living their life confined to a phone booth of their own making: shut down, closed in, isolated, and alone with no hope for relief or escape. They become the man hanging by their teeth in Master Kyogen’s tree.
They find themselves in a psychological tug of war with themselves they can’t win. It’s as if they are on one side of the rope and their negative self evaluations, judgments, condemnations, etc., are on the other end of the rope trying to pull them into an unfathomable pit of despair. The more they pull on the rope to resist being dragged into the pit, the more their negative mind stuff pulls them toward the pit.
This struggle with internal negative experience can go on for years, decades, the rest of their lives. Those who live life stuck to their negative self stories can not see a way out of this trap; ergo the beer, the pickup and the shotgun.
Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn was known for his pithy Zen sayings. Often when a student of the Way would ask him a question about life he would respond by saying, “Put it all down.”
There is a way to be free of this struggle with our own internal experience. Can you see it?