Stepping Forward from the Hundred-Foot Pole

Stepping Forward from the Hundred-Foot Pole June 26, 2009

Stepping Forward from the Hundred-Foot Pole

Commenting on the forty-sixth case of the Gateless Gate

James Ishmael Ford

The Gateless Gate Case forty-six

Master Shih-shuang asked, “How will you step forward form the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Commenting on this, another ancient master said, “Even though one who is sitting on the top of a hundred-foot pole has entered the way of awakening, it is not yet authentic. She must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest her whole body throughout the ten directions. He must step forward from the top of that pole and manifest his whole body throughout the ten directions.

Wumen’s commentary

If you can step forward and reveal yourself fully, there will be no place where you are called dishonorable. So, right now, tell me. How do you step forward from the top of the hundred-foot pole?

Wumen’s verse

Making the eye blind, You cling to the mark on the scale; Throw away body and life, And one blind person leads all the blind.

It is my experience that having an awakening experience isn’t the problem for people on a spiritual journey; it is what we do with it that causes most of the trouble.

Here’s an assertion. Just about everyone has had some kind of awakening experience. Actually, I’m moderately confident even those who can’t make the report, have had that experience. They just never believed it, and gradually forgot it. If my tradition teaches correctly that we are in fact all already awakened, then various glimpses, indeed, wholesale Damascus Road encounters should be the common currency of our human lives. And it should happen to people of every religion and none.

As a spiritual director on the Zen way this has been my experience. In the dokusan room I ask people if they’ve ever had an experience they might describe as feeling like they and everything are one, or maybe that their sense that things are separate has fallen away, and most can pretty much immediately describe something that happened somewhere along the line.

Commonly it has something to do with nature. I recall many years ago sitting beside a creek in Oregon and witnessing a snake capture and eat a frog and after a moment of fear, a moment of awe, and then a moment of just “is.” Or, maybe “is-ing.” My “is,” my “is-ing” is just a for instance. I’m pretty sure you can tell your own story. Frequently it happened in adolescence, sometimes in childhood. Occasionally, last week. Often their attempt to explain it is a confused story. Usually. Not the experience, but their explanation of what happened.

The problem is the story we tell ourselves about our experience. We get a glimpse of our deep connection with everything, or we catch a glimpse of how our ideas about things are just ideas. And in a heartbeat we tell a story. This is as common as a sneeze. Many religions are about the stories that have followed an experience of unity or dropping away of ideas or of “is.”

Probably the most popular trap that people fall into, although hardly the only one, is that everything happens for a purpose. This ideation happens all the time. It is found in every religion one way or another. We see the connections; we see connections between ourselves and the whole of the cosmos. We are one. Or, we are zero.

There is a just is.

And the stories follow in a heartbeat.

There are fairly obvious origins for this in our biological make up as the meaning-making animal. While some animals are strong and some are fast, we’re the smart ones. Our minds can discern pattern. And this ability is a great one. It has given us the world on a platter, poor world…

The problem for us is that we feel we must find pattern. And if we don’t, we will manufacture it. The consequences of this unfortunate inclination to go beyond what we can actually discern and use are many. Those who are looking for a plan, or more properly, a Plan, and even worse, those who have found it out of their experience, are the various ways it allows us to shift what we’ve been doing and distract us from the next step. Our precious moment of awakening is turned to other purposes, to comfort us in a very large and very dangerous universe. Instead of continuing on, we create a safe nest and we guard it with all our energy. And doing this we fall into the oldest of games, blaming the victim.

So, in some forms of Christianity, if you suffer it is because you aren’t saved. In forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, your unfortunate situation is the result of your actions in a previous lifetime. In contemporary New Age thought your cancer is the result of faulty thinking.

Now if this were the truth, we’d just have to live with it. But in fact it is just a story that has followed that sense of connection. We have found ourselves at the top of a hundred-foot pole. And we are clinging as tightly as we can to it. We had an experience and we want it to mean something. We need for it to mean something. You need for it to mean something. I need for it to mean something.

But all we are doing is clinging to a hundred-foot pole. We have experienced a truth and we are making it a lie.

Like many of the worst lies, this one of meaning has a base in truth. The truth is everything is connected. Everything in the universe exists within a flow of causal relationships. The catch is two-fold. The first catch is that most things happen for a multitude of reasons, few things, including my fingers resting on a keyboard, happen because of one or two reasons. So, while everything has cause, or more correctly, causes, trying to sort them out into specific this happens because of that quickly brings one to a mind numbing multiplicity. The second catch is attempting to project our human ability/need for order onto the universe itself. In fact the universe is a seriously weird place. And the patterns we seek only run for so long. And in the spiritual quest, the sooner we let go of our ideas of how things should be, the better.

So, someone sits on a bench in the park. She sees a child walking with her father hand in hand. The child looks up and asks, “Daddy, is yank a dirty word?” And the very non sequitur of it gives pause. And the woman sitting on that bench doesn’t even notice all her opinions slipping away. But for just a moment, the play of shadow and light, the preciousness of a child’s skin, the hair on the back of the father’s hand, the smell of popcorn from somewhere.

And then. Just this.

And then the stories flood. Why this? Because of that.

And there we are on top of the hundred-foot pole.

What now?

Well, we need to let go of any idea of meaning, for sure.

That’s just one more trap. Just one more story.

But then what about meaninglessness?

One more story. And I could give the meaninglessness trap just as much time as I just gave to meaning. Let it suffice here for this moment, that this is just the next trap. Just another way to cling to the pole…

Not meaning.

Not meaninglessness.

Just this.

Just is.

Of course, not just this and not just is, either.

One more step.

Just take one more step.
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