Do you sometimes find yourself unable to let go of the past or stop worrying about the future? When I feel that way, I recall to mind a great Daoist story:
One day, while walking through the wilderness, a man encountered a vicious tiger. He ran for his life, and the tiger gave chase.
The man came to the edge of a cliff, and the tiger was almost upon him. Having no choice, he held on to a vine with both hands and climbed down.
Halfway down the cliff, the man looked up and saw the tiger at the top, baring its fangs. He looked down and saw another tiger at the bottom, waiting for his arrival and roaring at him. He was caught between the two.
Two rats, one white and one black, showed up on the vine above him. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, they started gnawing on the vine.
He knew that as the rats kept gnawing, they would reach a point when the vine would no longer be able to support his weight. It would break and he would fall. He tried to shoo the rats away, but they kept coming back.
At that moment, he noticed a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff, not far away from him. It looked plump and ripe. Holding onto the vine with one hand and reaching out with the other, he plucked it.
With a tiger above, another below, and two rats continuing to gnaw on his vine, the man tasted the strawberry and found it absolutely delicious.
This story is all about living in the moment. Despite his perilous situation, the man chose not to let unrealized dangers paralyze him. He was able to seize the moment and savor it.
The story is full of metaphors. All the major elements in the story are representations that possess deeper meaning.
The top of the cliff represents the past. It’s where the man had been and where he came from. In terms of your personal timeline, this metaphor refers to all of your experiences and memories from the life that you have already lived.
Climbing up the vine, toward the top of the cliff, would be to revisit the past. The tiger at the top represents the danger of dwelling in the past too much. If we constantly beat ourselves up for not being able to do certain things as well as we should have, or if we wallow in regret and shame over mistakes we have made, then the tiger has wounded us with its sharp claws. If we cannot let go of negative experiences from the past that make us timid and afraid, or if we feel like victims because we come from a traumatic or perhaps abusive background, then the tiger has taken a painful bite out of us.
The tiger also represents the impossibility of going back in time to fix something. Sometimes we wish we can turn back the clock and do certain things over. Perhaps you think of the perfect comeback long after the right moment has passed; perhaps there was a special someone from high school that you should have approached but didn’t; perhaps you said something hurtful to a loved one and would do anything to take it back. Unfortunately, the pathway of time is a one-way street – the fearsome tiger guards the top of the cliff, and mere mortals may not pass.
The bottom of the cliff represents the future. It is the undiscovered country, the unwritten chapter. The future contains all of your dreams and fears, aspirations and disappointments, potential victories and possible setbacks. It is the mysterious and uncertain domain of tomorrow.
Climbing down the vine, closer to the bottom of the cliff, is to look ahead, anticipate and speculate about the future. The tiger at the bottom represents the danger of being excessively concerned about that which is yet to come — particularly at the expense of our ability to act, or to maintain peace of mind.
Many of us have had the experience of worrying endlessly about an upcoming performance, speech, or job interview. We think about all the things that can go wrong. We cannot get a good night’s sleep because we’re too nervous about the next day.
So what happens when the event comes around? Our inability to relax disconnects us from the creative genius of the Tao. We are not able to be at our best. We cannot channel all that nervous energy into effective action; instead, it turns right into tension and stress. We have climbed too low on the vine and gotten too close to the tiger, thus allowing it to cause us damage.
The tiger at the bottom also represents the ultimate finality of death. Death waits patiently for all of us in the future. It knows that sooner or later we will be within its grasp. When the tiger roars up at us, we feel the chilling winds of mortality.
The man’s position between the two tigers represents the present. Note that he hangs suspended in midair. In the same way, we too live suspended between the past and the future.
This thing we call “now” or “the present instant” can be quite an elusive concept. As soon as you point to an instant and define it as “now,” it slips past your finger and is no longer the present. Another instant, equally elusive, takes its place. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to pin it down.
The present also defies definition, just like the Tao. Even though we can measure time with great accuracy, our technical precision gives us no help at all in isolating that infinitesimal slice of zero-duration time. Although we have the technology to build an atomic clock with error margin less than ten billionth of a second, all the atomic clocks in the world cannot capture the magic of the present instant.
Although an instant of time is beyond our grasp, the paradox of existence is that the present is what we do have. Indeed, it is all we ever have. You can never have the past or the future; one is irretrievably gone and the other is yet to come. The present is here and now, and it is yours completely and unconditionally. No one can take it away from you, and you alone have the power to decide how to use it.
The vine represents life in the material world. Just as the man holds on to the vine with both hands, we too cling to physical life stubbornly. Our survival instincts compel us to literally hold on for dear life, and we won’t let go without a struggle.
Climbing down the vine isn’t an optional activity. The man, chased by the tiger, has no choice but to climb down. Similarly, once we are born into this world, we have no choice but to live out our lives from one moment to the next. Thus, the vine can also be seen as the main component of samsara – the cycle of birth and death.
The two rats represent the passage of time. They are black and white in color for the simple reason that they symbolize day and night.
The rats gnaw on the vine, making it weaker and weaker. This represents how each cycle of day and night brings us a little closer to death. When the vine breaks, the man plummets toward certain doom. In the same way, when a sufficient number of days and nights have passed, the physical life we cling to will be broken, and it will be time for the ultimate finality of death. We will have no choice but to confront the tiger.
Just as the man tries to shoo the rats away, we try to forestall aging and keep disease at bay. We have entire industries devoted to various measures to keep us young and healthy or, at the very least, to maintain the appearance of youth and health. Consider all the vitamins, supplements, treatments, health spas, hormone replacement therapies, face lifts, liposuctions, hair transplants, all manners of implants… the list goes on.
But just as the rats keep coming back, time marches ever onward and slows down for no one. Despite our best efforts, our time in this mortal plane remains limited.
The strawberry represents the astounding beauty, bliss, energy and vitality of the present moment. It is always there, always available for those who have the ability to see it and experience it.
For instance, at this very moment you can reach out with your awareness and feel this miracle of communication that allows thoughts and ideas to pass between us. You can feel how amazing it is that this interpersonal connection is possible at all. There is a wonder and marvelous beauty right here that we cannot easily put into words.
Step outside and place yourself in communion with nature. Bear silent witness to the genius of the Tao at work. Perceive reality as an endless interplay of natural forces, swirling around you as well as within you. From the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, sense how natural processes go about their business, regulated by an intrinsic intelligence far beyond our grasp.
There is so much beauty and goodness in each present moment and the infinite instant, that if you were to take in too much at once, you would be hopelessly overwhelmed. In the language of our story, we might say that the strawberry is full of incredibly delicious juice.
To pluck the strawberry is to seize the moment. When you do so, you are being mindful of the present, directing your attention to the flow that moves through you, and choosing to immerse fully in the river of the eternal now.
To taste the strawberry is fully savor the flavor of reality. When you do so, you begin to appreciate the miracle of existence and notice a beauty that is ever-present no matter where you look. This fills your heart with gladness and gratitude.
Plucking and tasting the strawberry may be much easier said than done. Most of the time, most of us have trouble tapping into the powerful state of mindfulness that allow us to seize the moment and savor reality. There are obstacles that get in the way.
The first obstacle, which most Tao cultivators have overcome, is the lack of awareness. Many people live each day mired in the past or worried about the future, unaware of the treasure of the present that they already possess. In terms of the story, it is as if the man is so busy looking up and down that he never notices the succulent fruit right next to him.
The second obstacle is more difficult, and most of us encounter it from time to time. Consider a scenario where the man sees the strawberry, but because he’s too concerned about the tiger above and fearful of the tiger below, he has no appetite. Although he knows quite well where the strawberry is, he has no interest in getting it.
Someone who’s faced with this obstacle may say, “It’s great to understand the metaphors in the story, but there’s a difference between that and putting the understanding into actual practice. I can see now that my goal should be to live in the moment, but how exactly do I do that?”
The story offers a clue. When the man saw the strawberry, he held onto the vine with one hand and reached out with the other. This action incorporates two essential elements: letting go and reaching out.
The man could not pluck the strawberry if he insisted on holding on with both hands. With both hands gripping the vine tightly, all he could do would be to stare at it. In order to get the prize, he needed to relax one hand and detach it from the vine.
It is exactly the same with life. The vine represents our physical existence on this material plane. Holding on to it tightly is equivalent to having strong attachments to material concerns. With such attachments, you cannot let go. This is a sure-fire way to prevent you from enjoying the present.
It sounds simple when we talk about it like this, but think of the people you know who are so focused on making and saving money that they never take the time to enjoy life. If you observe them you’ll see that they cannot relax even when they go through the motions. For instance, when they take a vacation, they cannot stop thinking about the office. In the language of our story, such people have a death-grip on the vine.
I know of a gentleman whose attachment was the stock market. He was a day trader who watched the market minute-by-minute. When friends talked to him on the phone, they could always tell when his stock symbols scrolled across the electronic ticker tape, because his replies would suddenly become much slower as he pretended to be listening. This was a clear case where his strong attachment to material concerns completely blocked his ability to enjoy conversations with old friends – one of the best things in life.
The other element, equally important, is to reach out, to explore. The comfort zone may be comfortable, but it also offers nothing new. In order to get the strawberry, you need to venture beyond the familiar, to probe for a prize that is within sight but not quite within grasp.
The Tao manifests itself in life, and the characteristic of life is that it grows. Life is constantly exploring new territories, taking chances, and going places it hasn’t been before. If we do the same, we will quickly find that life is fresh and exciting and full of possibilities. We will see that living in the present is both easy and exhiliarating.
Thus, our story teaches that when we have trouble living fully and mindfully in the moment, we only need to ask ourselves questions like the following:
- What are my attachments? What are some things I cannot let go? What attachments am I willing to release, in order to live life to the fullest?
- Am I learning anything new? Meeting new people? Doing anything I haven’t done before? What might be some fun subjects that I can study? What might be some interesting projects I can tackle?
Your answers to questions like these will point out the path you should follow. Formulate your plans accordingly.
As you follow your plan of action to live mindfully in the moment, you will find it easier and easier to stop dwelling in the past or worrying excessively about the future. As you enjoy the present more and more, you will also find that unpleasant or even painful memories no longer affect you; concerns or even fears about future uncertainties no longer paralyze you.
You will find that the present is literally a wonderful present. It is a miraculous gift filled with peace, contentment, energy, and excitement. It is a box full of delicious strawberries.
You begin to realize that the only requirement to be deserving of such a gift is that you must accept it and enjoy it. You are amazed that there are people who cannot receive it. Some do not even realize it is being offered to them. They do not recognize it as their birthright, nor do they understand its incredible value.
You collect your thoughts back into yourself. It is time to unwrap your own present.
Namaste with Love