“If a tree falls in the forest with no one around, does it make a sound?”Zen kōan
We all know this famous question. It’s a Zen kōan, a paradoxical riddle designed to open your mind. Another famous one is, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
And here’s my favorite kōan:
“When you climb to the top of a 100-foot pole, then what?”
Do you cling so tightly to your progress that your muscles strain and your fingers turn white, only to finally lose your strength and crash to the ground? Or do you relax your hold slowly, sliding inch by inch back to your starting point? Or do you simply let go, letting gravity do with you as it will?
Kōans, like life, have no answers. But they’re interesting to think about. Especially when life is busy screwing you over.
Here are some other kōans I made up:
- When a loved one is ripped away by a tragedy, then what?
- When your marriage and family disintegrate before your eyes, then what?
- When your child suffers a near-fatal accident, then what?
If you’re like me, you cling desperately to everything you’ve fought for, cursing the Universe for its indifference, raging against your fate. You do anything at all but release your hold. Until you have strained until you can strain no more. Until you have no other choice.
Then you let go. And when you do, something amazing happens.
You fall, yes. The ground rushes at you like an angry demon. You fall and you are shattered, lying face down, flayed, broken, bleeding. And in that moment, the universe issues you a challenge.
“I dare you,” it says, “to find meaning in this. I dare you to stare into the infinite abyss and discover the cruel jewel at its center. I dare you to use your last breath to humbly beg, ‘Give me faith that I am more than this pain.’”
If you take that dare, if you surrender in the moment and scream into the abyss, eventually an echo comes back to you. “You are more than you think you are,” it says. “There is meaning and purpose here. Your deepest pain is a miraculous moment of growth.”
And in that clarity, perhaps for the first time in your life, you begin to wake up. You recognize this moment as the gift it is. You understand that, despite your anguish, you are exactly where you need to be.
Then you begin to rise. Like a flower seeking the sun. Like a salmon seeking its birthplace. Like a phoenix from the ashes of your former self.
Our world is imperfect. It’s dark and painful and dangerous. Relationships wither and fade. Loved ones die in sudden and tragic ways. Children slip and fall from great heights. But in letting go and accepting the shadows, we can find behind every tragedy the glimmer of an unexpected miracle.
For me, the danger was never in letting go. The danger was in clinging so tightly I could never be free.
The trick, I’ve learned, is to embrace the shadows, to accept each moment as it comes, and to recognize that every scar on your heart is a line in a poem of grace.