“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck!”
The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
I love searching through old boxes in the basement, though it’s never planned. I’m usually in a hurry, on a mission to find some important component to a musical instrument, an instruction manual, or perhaps a piece of documentation. I am hyper-focused, goal-oriented, a bit feverish. But what’s interesting is that more often than not, I find much more than I was looking for: a box of old photographs, a favorite book, a compact disc from a band I used to love. I am waylaid. Squatting uncomfortably on the basement floor, I pore through the photographs, I start reading the book, or I start off in search of a CD player. I can’t remember what I was originally looking for and what’s more, I’m no longer aware that I was ever searching for something. I am lost in discovery. Later I come back to the original task or I don’t, but either way I have found something more interesting than what I had set out to find. My meditation goes the same way.
When I sit with this koan, often the theme of “lost and found” bubbles up. Sometimes I am immediately met with something precious I feel that I have lost–an opportunity, some self-esteem, free time–and yet sometimes there’s just a more generalized feeling of lack. It may appear as a sensation of craving or grief–an absence, though I don’t know what of. I remember one day feeling quite uneasy while holding a group meditation with this koan at work. I had begun the period with a sense of ease and comfort, feeling pretty good about my introductory talk and confident that people would enjoy the meditation. A few minutes in, I suddenly lost all heart. I doubted my ability to lead the meditation. Then I doubted whether I had really ever done my job with any success. Then I began to doubt meditation practice altogether. Who am I to be teaching people meditation? Does this stuff even work? I felt fear, panic–how was I going to continue on with this exercise in the face of this tremendous deluge of doubts? I noticed my stomach muscles were so tight that I was doubling over; clenched in my fists were palms slick with sweat. I checked my watch: how much longer do I have to do this? I wanted to run from the room. I tried for a while to keep my head above the flood, but that didn’t seem to be doing anything useful. Submerging myself seemed like the thing to do. I stopped thrashing around in the currents and something shifted. I noticed that all of this–the fear, the doubts, the clenched muscles–was my river, flowing through and around me. My ideas about being good at meditation were no more true or helpful than my ideas about being bad at meditation; they were very small answers, all loose and wrinkly like an ill-fitting suit. The belief that something amiss was just a dream and what I found was me, right where I had always been: here. I had never been anywhere else. The torrent didn’t subside, at least not right away, but instead of feeling life-threatening it felt life-affirming. Here was a sense of aliveness which, unbeknownst to me, was actually what I had been looking for.
I’ve noticed that answers to the Important Questions of life tend to come in a different form than the questions themselves. I think in black and white, but the universe prefers to paint in technicolor. In a classic exchange, someone asked the teacher Zhaozhou, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Zhaozhou gave the frustrating answer, “The cypress tree in the garden.” He wasn’t trying to be difficult (well, maybe just a little), he just knew that Bodhidharma’s travel plans weren’t really what the student wanted to know about. Zen’s history is filled with scores of people asking questions like, “What is the Way?” or “What is Zen?” (A favorite from my own inquiry repertoire is simply, “What the hell?”). Whether he knew it or not, the student was asking about something much bigger. The universe seems to be infinitely compassionate with us in the same way that Zhaozhou was. We can begin the search from any point, for any reason, and we are guaranteed get more than we asked for. If we really throw ourselves into the search itself, we might lose our reasons for searching. If we lose our reasons for searching, we might find ourselves in a vast, interesting place not far from where we started. And then we might find something quite precious that we even hadn’t known to look for.
There’s something about physics and the law of conservation of energy that keeps coming to me with this koan, too. The mind seems to want to explain experiences in terms of loss and gain, but there are no holes in the universe (not any that I’ve seen, anyhow). There is a completeness in each moment, whether we can see it or not, and there just might be room in there for absence as well. In fact, if we lose something it might just be a door opening.
What comes to us doesn’t have to be pretty or make sense. When we’re truly, respectably lost, we’re not supposed to know what the hell we’re doing anyway. That’s an exciting moment: when our pretenses of knowing what it’s all about fall away, we find out what’s really true in our lives. We may find an ache or an unease there that we want to banish but it is not something we suffer alone–it is the ache of those who came before us and those who are with us now, and with any luck it will not stop with us.