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The Spider and the Monk

Posted by tinako on July 16, 2009

Here is this week’s Zen Speaks.

There was once a monk who was bothered by a great big spider whenever he tried to meditate.  He spoke to his Master: “Every time I try to meditate, this big spider appears, and no matter what I do, I just can’t get rid of it.”

“Hmmm…  Next time you go to meditate, grab a paintbrush, and if that spider shows up again, draw a circle right on its belly; then you will see what kind of a monster it is.”

So the monk took his master’s advice, and as soon as he had finished drawing the circle on the spider’s belly, the spider disappeared and the monk was able to continue meditating in peace.  When he withdrew from his concentration, the first thing he saw was a big black circle right on his own belly.

The narrator speaks: We all experience troubles and worries, but it often happens that our greatest troubles arise from ourselves.

I find so many applications to this idea that it will be hard not to go on and on.  A whole blog site could be dedicated to this.  I’ll cover just a few situations briefly.  I’m sure you can think of others.

Up until I was in my early 30s, I was terrified of spiders.  I was too grossed out to squish them myself, but I would call in my hero.  I had accepted that this was just a phobia I couldn’t do anything about, until one day I overheard a coworker say, “I used to kill spiders, but I decided it’s not their fault that I’m afraid of them.”  From that day on I made an effort to imagine what it was like to be the spider.  I found that I could relate to the spider, and my fear evaporated.  I still think they’re kind of yucky, but I’m not afraid, and I can peacefully coexist with them.

The fear, and my problem, was within me, not the spiders.  Most of us are not afraid of “food animals,” but we have other ignorant prejudices about them, such as that they are stupid or filthy.  I think if we put ourselves in their places and look at them for what they really are, we can overcome these prejudices and find truth and empathy.  The change is within us.

How about health problems?  We bemoan our poor health and look to outside causes and cures.  We want the medical community to fix our problem for us, but we are often the problem.  What we are eating is killing us.  So many of our western diseases of affluence, such as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis, could be reduced or eliminated by changing our diet.  (Source The China Study by T. Colin Campbell)

One of my favorite books is How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie.  This book is not full of answers for how to fix your problems.  It doesn’t help you get your mechanic to stop overcharging you.  It won’t remove yellow waxy buildup or pimples.  This book helps us deal with our problems by changing ourselves.  The companion book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, tells us “Any fool can criticize and most fools do,” and that we should work on improving other people right after we have perfected ourselves.  He shows us the circle on our own bellies.  Google these life-changing books and you can read them online for free.

Another book I really liked was When Anger Hurts.  This self-help book showed how you can take any situation such as waiting forever in a toll booth line and turn it around in your mind to avoid getting angry.  It used various strategies such as putting yourself in the place of the other person.  The main point of the book is that we make ourselves angry, with our thoughts of what others could and should be doing.  After reading this book, when I hear people say anger is healthy, I am very dubious.  I think anger can be avoided in most situations, is very unpleasant for all involved, and I have trouble coming up with examples where it could actually help.

The flip side of the concept of assigning blame outside ourselves is seeking happiness outside ourselves.  As if the monk couldn’t meditate unless a giant spider sat on his head.  The Wizard of Oz is a well-known example of this; Dorothy travels all over Oz to discover that the answer to her problem was on her feet all along.  When I was younger, I thought it was a cop-out that the good witch claimed she didn’t tell Dorothy the significance of the magic shoes earlier because Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her; I mean, wouldn’t Dorothy just give her shoes a quick click to try?  But I have come to believe that metaphorically it is often true that people think the answer has to be “out there.”

Lastly, many people seek happiness in food.  I hear, “I couldn’t live without…”  What do you think they say?  air? water? shelter? love?  No, people usually finish this sentence with “cheese” or “dairy.”  I’ll go into this more some other time, but my reason for living is not derived from the mammary excretions of a cow.  If I find that a food no longer meets my values, I shrug my shoulders and discard it.  The alternatives are:

  1. give it up reluctantly and think about it longingly and resentfully
  2. keep eating it and be Torn
  3. change my values to suit my tastes

I found in thinking up this blog entry that I could apply the lesson of the spider to any problem in my life that I could think of, from crying babies to fear of death.  How can you put it to work for you?

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