“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
– Yogi Berra (for those who don’t know, not an Indian guru)
I’m a movie buff and sometimes there are moments in films that just capture the essence of some major archetypal issue of life, expressing and encapsulating, sometimes wordlessly, the essence of a human conflict, truth or wisdom. I find such a moment in the opening scene of the film Yojimbo, by master Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. In the scene, a 19th century ronin, or masterless samurai, acted by the magnificent Toshiro Mifune, dressed not in classical samurai finery and armor, but dusty and worn simple clothing befitting his now anchorless and impoverished status of unemployment, is walking down a path that forks. He stops. He looks at this choice confronting him. Which path to take? Then after a pause of consideration he casually picks up a stick and tosses it in the air. The stick lands pointing towards one of the paths. He nods his head, then rolls his shoulders, and proceeds decisively down that path. A choice has been made.
The path leads to a world of trouble (or there would be no movie), but he never, not for a moment, demonstrates any ambivalence about the path he now walks. Moment to moment, he simply steps into whatever the moment presents and does what is necessary to be in honor and courage with what presents itself. The beauty of the scene to me is in the willingness to allow that, despite our delusion of personal choice, basically fate (and a samurai would say Karma) is the actual determiner of our path, and then it is our willingness to give that path every ounce of our life energy that gives our life meaning. To a samurai, this is the code of Bushido, and it seems to me an excellent guide to a life deeply and well-lived; a willingness to say “yes!” to life, not “maybe – only if it seems comfortable and safe.”
I believe Americans suffer from a malady of too many choices, or to be more specific, we suffer from a delusion, for some, an obsession, that there are “right” choices for us to make on this vast buffet of choices that is American life. Believe me, I know there are better and worse choices for us to make, and that some people repeatedly make just awful choices, but that’s not the point I want to explore. I want to point out that a very big problem for many is often in the second-guessing and hesitation we bring to the choices we make. We fail to bring commitment, honor and courage to our choices. We fail to say “Yes!” to life. We are plagued by ambivalence and self-indulgence concerning whether a choice brings maximum benefit to us. Our problem isn’t in making wrong choices; it is in bringing inadequate commitment to the choices we make.
The great Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, is known for the koan, “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” He is not placing conditions on the moment. He is not saying this moment if it is exactly as I wish it to be is my refuge; he is saying THIS MOMENT – exactly as it is. How can this be? What if this moment is dealing with a difficult person being unreasonable and ugly? What if this moment contains conflict and disappointment? What if it contains physical or emotional pain? What if this moment upends all the plans I have for my life? What if this moment is just boring?
We are here entering into the secret of Zen. We are entering into the secret of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, of Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, of mysticism, of Stoicism, of wisdom traditions of every culture. 12th Century Zen Master, Rinzai famously queried, “This moment, what is lacking?” Again, no qualifications. Is this some philosophical/spiritual trick? Well, if “trick” means skill, yes, and it is a skill for which we are all completely and naturally equipped. It is a trick we have all pulled off successfully many times.
Every time we have struggled with some difficult aspect of life, we continue to struggle and struggle until there comes a realization of the uselessness of this struggle with whatever the “it” is. There comes a moment where we choose to just get on with life, to do whatever is needed by the circumstance of the moment and incorporate whatever the “it” is into our normal experience. In that moment we have done the trick. Our problem is we don’t pay attention to the power of this trick. Unlike the Zen masters who are paying very close attention to every nuance of life in its unfolding, realizing life IS moments unfolding, we don’t notice this power, that all there is in this life is THIS MOMENT, and the skill, the “trick” of life is to live fully each moment, but we keep forgetting how good this trick is. We keep slipping back into living in the delusion of a “me-in-time” where we have a story of me, a fairy tale of the way we want life to be where any interruption in this story is reason for great upset, consternation, suffering.
We have all had difficult challenges, setbacks in the “story of me.” These were times of suffering in our lives, and we have all come to the moment where we let go of the story of our affliction and moved on. In that moment, we pulled off the trick of letting go of our resistance to what is, allowing it to be our “perfect moment, our refuge.” Zen encourages us to pay attention to these moments and gain skill with this trick so we gradually may go from taking two years to recover from some injury or setback in our story, to two months, to two weeks, to two days, to two hours, to two minutes, to two seconds where we realize, “This moment, what is lacking?” We discover the power of Now, of Being Here, Now – of taking the fork in the road. It could be said that developing proficiency at this trick is what “practice” in Buddhism is all about.
Often, in retrospect, we can look at times in our lives that were filled with suffering and see them as times that brought our greatest personal growth, or took us in an unexpected direction that gave new and deeper meaning to our lives. Many have been baffled by a person who describes some seemingly terrible calamity as a gift in their lives. We fail to realize that every person has the power to do this trick, and everyone has done this trick. It is the remembering and applying this trick that is the challenge when we are so accustomed to staying stuck in being the victim of adversity.
In fact, a useful way to understand neurosis is to see how people find specialness through attachment to their suffering and just stay stuck at the fork in their road, pacing in circles of anxiety or anger or despondency. If they would just make the choice to take the fork, any fork that allows them to get on with their life, and give it every ounce of positive intention and gratitude they have, they would be cured of their neurosis. The false specialness they invested in their neurosis would fall away into the true specialness, the wonder that is life, every moment – as a matter of fact, this moment.
No, there are not right choices for us to agonize over; there is only taking the forks in the road that life puts in front of us and giving our full life energy to whatever is on the road. Then it will be a right choice. And remember, there will always be more forks – and we are always free to take them.