You’re having a bad day.
Chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff,
you scramble over and grab hold of a vine.
But now there’s another one prowling below,
and two hungry mice heading for your lifeline.
You take a deep breath,
adjusting to how things are,
and notice some wild strawberries
dotted with flowers
and tiny red fruit.
What else can you do now but reach for a berry?
What else can you do now?
You may recognise this parable or koan. I think I first came across it in the collection Zen Flesh, Zen Bones many moons ago. And it has always stayed with me. Like any good story, it seems to have a way of becoming a touchstone to difficult life events as they crash down upon us. This version of the fable was turned into a poem in the middle of the last century by Chio Nakamura, who I discovered in Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi’s anthology Women Poets of Japan. It’s a great poem to have around when our minds go, as they often do: Blimey, I thought I was struggling before, but now this?!
Consider the biblical Job turning his face to the heavens, after all his servants and livestock have been slaughtered by the Sabeans, his camels stolen and “the great wind from the wilderness” blowing down his eldest son’s house where all his children had gathered for dinner. Now imagine yourself covered with boils from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. What to do when tragedy strikes. Who to blame, who to call on for consolation? At the beginning of The Book of Job, after all of this has befallen him, we hear in his anguish, our anguish had this happened as it might to us:
“Let the day perish wherein I was born and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.
For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.”
I open Twitter with these words still on the screen, looking for content I can escape the discomfort of this slightly too on-the-nose Biblical passage.
“I am 22 and tested positive for COVID-19,” tweets Amy in Madison Wisconsin. “The first couple of days of symptoms were manageable. I had a fever, a mild cough, chills, headache, runny nose….By the third day, I couldn’t keep anything down. I was vomiting constantly. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat….4th day, things got worse. I developed shortness of breath. It’s scary, it feels like your lungs are shallow and you can’t take a proper breath. I was weak and had a 102 degree fever and rising. 5th day. Things go worse and worse. I had neer this ill in my entire life. I was genuinely afraid that I would die. By the 6th day of symptoms, I was so weak I couldn’t even walk. I crawled to the bathroom to vomit. I became so dehydrated I called 911 and they took me in an ambulance to the emergency room. 7th-11th day of symptoms: ER again. I had never been that weak or fatigued by fever in my life. I either violently shivered in bed all day, or would wake up in a literal puddle of my own sweat. I couldn’t eat for 9 days. I was completely miserable. Right now, I am on my 12th day of symptoms, and I have my appetite back, but the end is nowhere in sight. I still have all my major symptoms. Please vote Democrat. We need medicare for all more than ever.”
I think we can all relate to these searing monologues of misery, even if they lie thousands of years apart. Whether we have lost what Job has lost, or have been taken by Covid-19, as has Amy to the very brink of death’s door there is something in us that responds with sympathy as well as horror to these reports from the frontline of human sickness, aging and death. Because at some level we recognise in their cries of desperation, something which there but for the grace of God (?) go I, go we? And maybe sooner than we might have imagined.
And yet of course, we try not to imagine, this being our most reliable defence against the terror of sickness and death. Fighting against the imagination is sometimes called repression, or denial. The mind releasing subconscious antibodies against the part of itself that fears.
Which is why lots of people, of all sorts of ages, will tell you that they don’t have a problem contemplating their own mortality (the tiger in this poem). When someone tells me they don’t fear death, don’t fear the extinction of their consciousness, their selves, I take this with a pinch of salt. I also wonder why they/we end up working ourselves to the bone for our children, or maybe for our “legacy”, trying to build a portfolio of creative work or something which we hope might outlive us in some way.
If we were to truly assimilate at a bodily level our impermanence, our fundamental insignificance, would the head-trip that stands for so much of what we call our lives wind us up in its coiling to the extent that it does? Would we continue to get uptight, as we do, about someone cutting into a line in front of us, or our partners not saying the right words in response to something we’ve said? Or all the other stuff we suffer through and sweat over. Perhaps this koan is asking us: if we really take on board the existential given that our lives are always, at all times, literally hanging from a thread, what else can we do now but reach for that berry?
The berry being here perhaps those things, in any given moment, we continue to find meaningful and enriching. With the world seemingly crumbling around us, what use to write another poem, or sit talking into a microphone so as to create a podcast? In fact, what’s the point of any of these things, unless, unless, they offer themselves to us as berries?
Fairy tales often have in them scenarios where young defenceless children like Hansel and Gretel get abandoned in the wilderness by a guardian and are suddenly exposed to creatures, not just animals, but other humans who literally want to eat them alive. This is the way we tell the youngest beings entering our world, and through them remind ourselves, that for all our social and cultural mollifications, we are and continue to be intensely vulnerable creatures. Just like Freud and Darwin respectively and with equal unpopularity made clear in both the 19th and 20th century. We are as vulnerable as the blue-tit or robin cheerily hopping around our gardens at the moment before one of them gets pounced on by someone’s cat. Or the mouse that ventures out for a nibble of peanut butter or cheese and gets her neck snapped in two (if she’s lucky) by some other animal’s trap. Her body thrown in the trash. Her presence an inconvenience to us.
If mice could understand poetry, they would perhaps appreciate this koan, as I have no doubt they too bear some awareness, wordless, conceptless, but written into their nervous systems as it is written into ours the fact of their inherent fallibility and vulnerability. And yet a mouse, indeed any other animal lives out the “message” of this koan in every second of its 12-month life. “Everything except language knows the meaning of existence” writes Les Murray in the poem of that title. “Trees, planets, rivers, time,” he tells us, “know nothing else”.
They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.
For they are alive, and not having language, manage we might surmise to live in the very depths of their being alive. Most animals are always alternating between running from tigers, or other mouse-appropriate predators, whilst at the same time trying not to forsake the good stuff, the berry-nibbling good stuff. Without language, they are blessed with languageless worries, doubts, and perhaps even intimations of mortality, which perhaps flicker through their consciousness like we might feel a momentary itchiness in an ear canal or the fold of skin just above your left nostril. God bless the other animals, who are always in the process of extending a beak or a paw towards that berry, even as their killer swoops in. This is the payoff for not having language, not having what we might call thoughts. Imagine the bliss of that. Or the terror. No one knows. And yet the robin doesn’t seem terrified as it hops around in the sunlight. At least not to me.
Charles Tomlinson in his poem How Still The Hawk sees the bird hanging “innocently” above its native wood, “intent with beauty”, but recognises in this immaculate vision, a purity distilled through a perspective filter. For when “the doom drops”, it can only be perceived as a “plummet of peace”:
To him who does not share,
The nearness and the need,
The shrivelled circle
Of magnetic fear.
The magnetic fear perhaps that which draws together death and the living creature soon to be clawed up into its talons.
Even when we are more directly implicated in this, there is a still a part absent from painful reality, a kind of inner-god, with a mind, or a soul, that can “soar out to speculate about atoms and infinity, that can place ourselves imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly our own planet” and maybe even our own bodies (Becker). And yet, we are not Gods, for we carry at all times, as much as we try not to think about it, the body-mind duality within us.
The richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos, has done very well out of Covid-19. Not only does he own one of the few businesses that hasn’t and will never close down, but he recently made a few billion dollars selling off some shares from his own company after the stock markets had tanked, and then buying them back again when another rich man, who also happens to be the President of the United States, bailed out the economy out with his $2 trillion stimulus package.
But even Jeff (Bezos) and Donald, and all the other multi-millionaires quarantined on their yachts and islands, will find themselves at some point in the earth as inert material, a few minerals released from what’s left of their ashes, a few shreds of flesh eaten by worms, making way for the next iteration of our species who too will be gifted or burdened with this thing we call “life”.
This fable about a man hanging from a vine on the edge of a cliff, with a hungry tiger above him, and one below, and two mice nibbling away at his only hold, may seem like an extreme scenario, one dreamt up for a horror film, but [whispers] don’t let onto your mind, that this is how we always find ourselves if we take a moment even to consider the substructures of our existence. Which is to say: this is how our bodies are always living their here-and-nowness. They know the score, even when the mind is off on one of its flights of fancy. Which is perhaps why spiritual traditions, especially buddhism, have always asked us to contemplate life through our bodies rather than through our minds. Our minds are immensely entertaining and sometimes scary, but our bodies know the score in ways that the mind never will.
Every day, although our minds work hard to cover this up, there is a tiger licking its lips a few feet away in the shape of disease, conflict, unemployment, and all the other uncertainties of our environment. Every day, another predator called foreclosure, or interpersonal conflict, or sexual difficulties, or mortgage payments, or changes in working hours or conditions either chases us to a cliff or prowls at a distance waiting. And the list continues. Some of the above calamities were taken off the website of The American Institute for Stress which offers the opportunity to assess how close the the tiger of torment is in your life at the moment through what’s known as the Rahe Holmes Stress Inventory.
Our greatly appreciated self-awareness, reason and imagination, Erich Fromm reminds us in his book The Sane Society, also makes us a bizarre anomaly in the animal kingdom, a “freak of the universe”. This is due to this inherent duality as perceived by our minds:
“We are part of nature, subject to her physical laws and unable to change them, yet we [believe that we also] transcend the rest of nature. We are set apart while being a part; we are homeless, yet chained to the home we share with all creatures. Cast into this world at an accidental place and time, we are forced out of it, again accidentally. Being aware of ourselves, we realize our powerlessness and the limitations of our existence. We visualizes our own end: death. Never are we free from the dichotomy of our existence: we cannot rid ourselves of our minds, even if we should want to; we cannot rid ourselves of our bodies as long as we are alive – and our bodies also make us want to be alive….Human existence is in a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium. Our lives cannot “be lived” by repeating the pattern of our species as other animals do; we as individuals must to some extent work out what it means for us to “live” everyday. Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can feel evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal who finds his own existence a problem which his mind tells him has to solve and from which he cannot escape.”
Fun, eh? So is it any wonder that our minds spend most of their time avoiding this truth, and choose, although that is not the right words because this mechanism is largely unconscious, largely outside free-will, to focus on more mundane issues: someone speaking badly of us, not getting a thank you text after offering some help with a friend’s dilemma, or whatever it is you’ve got your knickers in a twist about right now.
Is it any wonder that we turn all the imperfect, uncertain stuff of our lives into tigers when there are actual tigers, not giant catlike predators, but viruses and organ failures and mortal accidents, and starvation (especially if we live in a developing country) at all times ready to flower into our worst nightmares. And is it any surprise that those people, perhaps the very people we feel most sad for, those individuals who are always aware of death knocking at their door in some way, are also paradoxically happier, which is to say, living whatever span of life they do live with fewer neuroses?
There is a wonderful scene in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal that plays out this zen tale in its own unique way. It comes exactly half-way into the film, and so hangs, as does this figure from his vine, as we all do, right in the eye of the lifedeathstorm. The Knight, played by Max von Sydow, who is returning home from the crusades through a plague-ravaged and apocalyptically-devastated Europe meets a young couple, Jof and Mia as well as their young child. Jof and Mia are a two-person travelling minstrel show, literally living on their wits and faith or trust in freedom and creativity that seems to straddle both holiness and foolhardiness. But what can they do now but reach for a berry, what can we do now?
At this point in the film, the tigers that these individuals are facing are acutely apparent: a precarious career path, no state-administered welfare or health care system, and the plague, the vaccineless-flu, the Covid-19 of their day, nipping at their heels.
And yet, they are happy. Happier than most. And this happiness seems to be based on three factors. Their personalities: both have a sunny and hopeful disposition. Also: no matter how brief or uncertain their lives, they are using their minds and the language bequeathed to our species to express themselves in ways that feel meaningful and stimulating. For Jof and Mia are artists. Creatives. The third important factor is that they are givers not takers. Although they have little or no food, they share their bowl of wild strawberries and fresh milk with the knight, and soon another two guests who pass by.
“I will remember this moment,” the Knight says to Mia, “the stillness and the dusk. The bowl of wild strawberries, of milk. Your faces in the evening light. The baby Mikael lying asleep, Jof with his lute. And I will carry this memory between my hands, as carefully as if it were a bowl brimming with freshly milked milk.”
He then pauses to drink with slow mindful pleasure and gratitude.
“And this will be a sign for me”, he then says, passing the bowl to another member of the group, “immeasurably fulfilling”.
“Man’s evolution,” writes Erich Fromm, “is based on the fact that he has lost his original home, nature-and that he can never return to it, can never become an animal again. There is only one way he can take: to emerge fully from his natural home, to find a new home-one which he creates, by making the world a human one and by becoming truly human himself.”
What is this becoming truly human?
Is it about living through and out of the narratives of the mind? Which are often focused on lack, and loss, and blame towards ourselves or others for this. It would be natural for Job to blame. Blame his country, blame fate, blame God, but incredibly he doesn’t do that. He is not even sure if his Creator, nature as I understand it for I am not a deist, can even hear or sees what he is struggling with:
“Hast thou eyes of flesh?” he asks his God, “or seest thou as man seeth?
Are thy days as the days of man? are thy years as man’s days,
That thou enquirest after mine iniquity, and searchest after my sin?
Thou knowest that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of thine hand.
Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me.
I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction;
For it increaseth. Thou huntest me as a fierce lion: and again thou shewest thyself marvellous upon me.”
It is this ability to see “the marvellous” that strikes me when I read this passage again. This is the wild strawberry growing in the darkest depths of Job’s suffering, and this is the mythical wisdom of Job which is able to fully comprehend the truth, to see it, and be grateful for it, even in the midst of his most profound suffering. I marvel at this, I am utterly humbled by this. As I am of that person reaching out to take a berry from the plant and put it in his mouth before plummeting to a quick death, or worse.
Interesting, Job has glimpses of his salvation in a more pagan reckoning, which his religion doesn’t perhaps allow him to fully acknowledge:
“For there is hope of a tree,” he recognises at one point deep inside his mourning, “if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.”
Job does not believe that this is available as salvation to man. He focuses on how different we are to trees, failing to recognise, that the life he talks about residing in the tree, we carry as a community together, and if one tree falls, others continue to grow.
But this is a deep challenge to our self-focused egos. In the midst of despair, or suffering, especially after the death of a loved one, if someone were to tell me that at least life in other quarters, in other bodies, lives on, I’d very likely feel murderous intentions toward this person. So we don’t say this kind of thing, at least not aloud, to those who are struggling, even if at some level this is true. If one of my parents is carried away by the “great wind” of the coronavirus, I doubt that I would find much consolation in knowing your parents were spared. These parables ask a lot of us.
Perhaps what we are talking about here is the ultimate reckoning with what-is:
“One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet,” marvels Job.
“His breasts are full of milk, and his bones are moistened with marrow.
And another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eateth with pleasure.
They shall lie down alike in the dust, and the worms shall cover them.”
So basically: damned if you do (which is to say struggling to surrender, to accept our lot, and so acquire some peace of mind even in the midst of pain and suffering). But also damned if you don’t. So you might as well take the damned-if-you-do option? What else can you do now but reach for a berry, what else can you do now?
I started writing the script for this episode almost a month ago. Coming up to the end of April, I am eager to get it recorded and move onto something else. In the last 24 hours I have been coughing and headachey and profoundly hypochondriacal. I’m sure it’s just a cold, but perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps you too are feeling your mortality today, the mortality you very rarely feel, insulated as we usually are by the indemnity of antiobiotics and all the other privileges of living in an economically developed-country. Taking Mr Max, my canine companion, for a walk around the block an hour ago, I recited the poem to myself over and over, testing it out against today’s mortal fears.
That did the trick: soothing and edifying me in a way that is hard to put into words. Especially those final lines “What else can you do now but reach for a berry / What else can you do now?” These have become a constant background mantra in the last few weeks. I take them to mean: when your mind takes you on a rollercoaster ride, come back, come back, to this here and now, and refocus on whatever or whoever it is you want to give your heart, mind, and voice to. And then, like the Knight, Jof and Mia, and all the doomed souls in The Seventh Seal, holding hands whilst singing and dancing their way to death, do try and savour your next breath, your next worthwhile sentence or action or thought. Enjoy your self. Even now, especially now.