28 – Stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Have you ever felt stuck between a rock and a hard place? It’s difficult to be aware while we’re experiencing difficulties and yet that is the very moment that awareness can change everything for us. In this short episode, I will share the zen story of the strawberry and explain how I view this story to be a powerful lesson about awareness.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 28. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings. Presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast, by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. Have you ever felt like you were stuck between a rock and a hard place? I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. And I think this is something that we all experience from time to time. It’s typically the feeling that we get when it seems like we have no good way out of a situation. And the situation can be all kinds of different things.

I recently experienced this, or have been experiencing this for a while with running my own company. And sometimes the decisions that have to made owning a business and deciding, for example, what to do with excess inventory. Or deciding if I should negotiate a deal with a specific chain of stores. From time to time I’ve had this feeling of feeling like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And recently I was in Germany, attending the world’s largest photography expo, called Photokina, for my work. And I’ve been working on this deal with my suppliers, the owners of the factory who manufacture all of my products. And I’ve been starting to feel more and more this feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Specifically in terms of how I negotiate a deal that I’ve been working on, with regards to: the ownership of the company, how to manufacture the products, who gets to decide who’s selling them to which distributor or which retailer.

And at times this can be a really stressful process for me. It’s probably one of the few areas right now, in my life right now, where I tend to feel a considerable amount of stress. So I’ve been anticipating this meeting with the owners of the factory for months now. And last week, while I was in Germany attending the trade show, we had the meeting scheduled. And I arrived there on a Monday and the meeting wasn’t until Thursday. So I was noticing how the level of anxiety was rising throughout the week, as I approached Thursday.

And it was kind of a fascinating process to experience this. And to notice it as I’m experiencing it. And it reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. That really means more to me now, than it ever has. And I think it’s a story that I want to share with you. And I think the basic lesson that’s generally taught with this story is one thing. But I see another level of meaning with this story. And I want to share that with you.

So this is called, the story of the strawberry. It’s a parable and it’s a Zen story. So the story goes like this: that there was a Zen master who was out walking one day. And he’s confronted by a ferocious tiger. So he slowly backs away from the tiger. Only to find out that he’s trapped by the edge of a high cliff. And the tiger snarls with hunger. And it goes after him. And his only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss of the cliff. Holding onto a vine that’s growing out of the edge of the cliff. So as he climbs down the vine and he’s dangling there. He notices that there’s danger at the bottom as well. There’s another tiger at the bottom.

So he looks up. He can’t climb up because the tiger is there. If he climbs down, he can’t go down because there’s a tiger down there. So he’s kind of stuck. And then in the middle of all that, as if that wasn’t bad enough. Two mice show up and they start gnawing at the vine. And now he knows it’s just a matter of time before the vine breaks. And then he’s going to fall. So as he’s hanging there, dangling by the vine. Death seems imminent. And just then, he looks over and notices a ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. And he plucks the strawberry. And puts it in his mouth. And supposedly, the way the story goes, he says, “What a lovely strawberry this is.” Or this is the sweetest strawberry he’s ever tasted. And in that moment, he was enlightened.

And it’s a simple story. I’ve heard it many times. And it’s so simple, it’s almost silly. And I was thinking more about this specific story, something stood out to me. That I don’t think I had really noticed before. And it’s this idea of experiencing this and having the strawberry isn’t what makes him enlightened. It’s the fact that in the midst of being between the rock and the hard place, the metaphorical experience. In his case, the literal experience of being between the tiger and the tiger and death imminent because the mice are gnawing on the vine. He was capable of doing something that most people are not capable of. He was capable of noticing something.

To me this was a parable about awareness, more than anything. It’s the fact that in that moment, the average person would look and not even notice there’s a strawberry there. Because we’re focused on the situation at hand. Right? The fact that there’s a tiger, there’s a tiger, there are mice, the vine is being chewed on. The last thing that’s going to cross my mind is, “What should I be aware of here? What am I not noticing?”

And in Buddhism, we talk about this awareness all the time. And specifically what we’re trying to be aware of is the fact that there are things that we don’t know, that we don’t know. So it’s not even an awareness of, “I need to be looking for strawberries,” in this case. Because you can’t know, in this story, that he didn’t know what he was going to encounter. But what he was capable of, is being in a moment like that and noticing something. Having that sense of awareness.
So I was thinking about this story in the days leading up to my appointment, my meeting with the factory owners. And I thought a lot about this story. And like I said, the idea of what this story means has shifted over time for me. And I feel it’s become a more meaningful and in-depth story for me. As I realize that the whole point of the story is about awareness. It’s not about the conclusion. And we don’t know what happens. That’s not the point, is to know what will happen. Did he climb up? Did he climb down? Did the vine break? You know, you can draw all these metaphors, but that’s not the point. The point is that in that moment he experienced something because of his awareness.

So on Thursday, the day of the meeting, I had been thinking about this. And I was trying to tell myself, you know, there’s no need to be too stressed. Worst case scenario is that this business deal doesn’t happen the way that I thought that it did. And the best case scenario is that it does happen the way that I thought that it would. And in a way, both of them seemed like the rock and the hard place. Because if it does work the way that I wanted it to work, then I’m bound by these new terms that we’re committing to. And if it doesn’t work, then none of it’s going to work. And I’m free to start doing something else. But that also brings its own bag of new things to worry about.

So as we’re walking out there, I’m thinking of the story of the strawberry. And thinking, okay, for me this is completely metaphorical because there’s really no tiger and there’s no tiger. But it can feel like that. Life can feel like that at times. And I thought, if I were the person hanging on the vine right now. And I’m nervous about what’s going to happen. Am I going to climb up, am I going to climb down? Is the tiger going to get me? Are the mice going to gnaw through the vine? You know, when you’re in that situation. And I was thinking what am I, what could I look around and see that I didn’t notice that I wasn’t noticing?

And again, I’m in Germany. I’m experiencing a really cool vacation, tied in with work. Because it’s a new place I’ve never been. And as we’re walking to where we were going to have the meeting, I paused. And I thought, “What have I not noticed here?” And I just looked around. And as I looked around, this flock of birds flew right over my head. Probably 30 or 40 birds. And it was just a really powerful moment to pause for a second.

And to realize, here are all these birds who are just flying. And they’re completely oblivious to my stresses. The things going on in my life. The fact that I’m walking to a meeting that’s stressing me out. And they just do what they do. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds and thousands of years. In this same little city. Where people are walking to and from the town square. Probably with stresses and moments of failure, moments of success, with all kinds of things. But to them, it doesn’t matter. They’re going about doing their thing. And for some reason that experience for me, really clicked with the story of the strawberry.

And I took out my phone and I started filming. On the iPhone, you can do slow motion video. And I was filming them fly. And I filmed it in slow motion. And then I sat down and I watched the birds flying in slow motion. With their wings flapping and all of it in slow motion. And it just, it hit me with such a strong sense of awareness I think, in that moment. To realize there’s so much that I’m not aware of in a moment like that. When I can feel stress or anxiety, that feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place can limit my ability to be aware of all the amazing beauty that’s happening all around. And in that moment, it happened to be birds.

And I know that there are other things that I’m not aware of. You know? Maybe there were also ants crawling around. Or aside from the animals, just the other people in that same space. You know, somebody was probably walking with excitement in their step, because they had just gotten engaged or they just got a new job or they just bought a new car. At the same time, someone else was walking through that plaza, disappointed because they just lost a job, or they just crashed their car or they’re going through marital problems. I don’t know. And I think that’s kind of the point is, like with the Zen story.
It’s not about the conclusion because we don’t know the conclusion. We don’t know what happened. But it was never about what happened. It’s about what can we notice in the process of just being. And this was really powerful for me because from that moment on, I kind of felt like it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. But what can I notice in this one moment. What can be my strawberry. And my strawberry was seeing those birds. And watching them fly. And I think a part of the reason that stood out to me so much is because I have a fascination for flying.
Flying is a big part of what I enjoy in life. And flying, ironically, was also a big part of why I was there in that moment, having that meeting. Because at one point in my life, I thought I was going to be a pilot, a helicopter pilot. And I spent a considerable amount of time and money to pursue that career. And it just turned out that, that wasn’t the career that worked out for me. Life events changed my plans. And instead of graduating from the school I was going to, and becoming a helicopter pilot. The school closed and went bankrupt. And stole my student loans for my flight money. And propelled me down this whole new path that was unplanned, unanticipated. And here I was in that present moment, the culmination of my desire to be a pilot. Had me standing in a square, in Germany, watching birds in slow motion. And it was just kind of a cool experience.

To me that’s the essence of this story. The story of the Zen master who was capable, in the moment of being between a rock and a hard place, of noticing something. And having a sense of awareness. So that’s what I wanted to share with you this week. Is the topic of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I know you’ve all felt that. I’ve felt that. And if you haven’t or you’re not right now. You will at some point again. It’s part of the experience of being alive. And when that happens, I would invite you to think of this story. Think of the guy dangling by a vine. And looking and realizing, oh there’s a strawberry. And tasting it. And like I’ve said before, this sounds like such a simple silly, almost, story. But it carries a very powerful message.

And it’s the message of our ability to be aware. And I think it’s this person’s ability to be aware in a moment like that. Is what makes that person enlightened. It’s not the fact that he ate a strawberry and that made him enlightened. That would be silly. So think about that. And if you’re going through a situation like this in your life, pause for a moment. And just ask yourself, continually ask yourself, “What am I not aware of not being aware of?” Or “What am I not noticing that I’m not noticing?” And pause for a minute. And look around. And try to capture something going on around you. That can get you out of that sense of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Because there’s always something else. And I’d love to hear your story or your interpretation of this. What this parable means to you. And the comments on the blog or on the Facebook page or in the Facebook group, Secular Buddhism. So, SecularBuddhism.com or Secular Buddhism on Facebook. You can find the study group and the Facebook page. So that’s the story I wanted to share with you this week, the story of the strawberry, being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And remember, awareness is one of the key teachings in Buddhism. And there’s a big reason why. Because wisdom is what we’re after. And the only way to obtain wisdom, in this sense, in the spiritual sense, is learning or becoming aware of the things that we’re not aware of. And it’s with awareness that we can have acceptance. And with awareness and acceptance that we can experience change. Or enact change in our lives. And that’s why awareness is a key part here. And this is why this story, to me, is such a powerful story when you think about it and relate it to a teaching about awareness. So, ask yourself, “What am I not noticing?”

And again, I want to thank you for listening and being a part of this podcast. I’ve mentioned this before, but the podcast is growing at a rate that is quite incredible for me. And is still hard to believe. And I want to thank you all for that. Because it’s because of you that the podcast gets shared and continues to grow. And if any of you are interested in doing any humanitarian work. I’m going to remind you again, of the humanitarian trip we’re doing to Uganda, January 26 through February 4th of next year, 2017. And you can learn all about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

So that’s all I have for this week. Thank you again for listening. And if you have time, please write a review or give the podcast a rating in iTunes, that really helps. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can be reached on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Facebook page. And thanks again, for your continued support. And, until next time.