There is a story that has kept popping up in my work over the years that embodies much of what I have learned about how people change. It is a story that has served a number of different functions as I have wrestled with the sometimes competing worldviews of Buddhism and psychotherapy, but it ultimately points the way toward their integration. It is one of the tales of Nasruddin, a Sufi amalgam of wise man and fool, with whom I have sometimes identified and by whom I have at other times been puzzled. He has the peculiar gift of both acting out our basic confusion and at the same time opening us up to our deeper wisdom.
I first heard this story many years ago from one of my first meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein, who used it as an example of how people search for happiness in inherently fleeting, and therefore unsatisfactory, pleasant feelings. The story is about how some people came upon Nasruddin one night crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamppost.
“What are you looking for?” they asked him.
“Ive lost the key to my house,” he replied.
They all got down to help him look, but after a fruitless time of searching, someone thought to ask him where he had lost the key in the first place.
“In the house,” Nasruddin answered.
“Then why are you looking under the lamppost?” he is asked.
“Because there is more light here,” Nasruddin replied.
I suppose I must identify with Nasruddin to have quoted this story so often. Searching for my keys is something I can understand. It puts me in touch with a sense of estrangement, or yearning, that I had quite a bit of in my life, a feeling that I used to equate with an old reggae song by Jimmy Cliff called “Sitting in Limbo.”
In my first book I used the parable as a way of talking about peoples attachment to psychotherapy and their fears of spirituality. Therapists are used to looking in certain places for the key to peoples unhappiness, I maintained. They are like Nasruddin looking under the lamppost, when they might profit more from looking inside their own homes.
In my next book, I returned to this story obliquely when I described locking myself out of my running car while trying to leave a meditation retreat that I had just finished. I knew I had locked my keys in the car (it was idling away right in front of me, for goodness sake!) but I still felt compelled to look on the ground for them just in case I might somehow be miraculously saved. Being locked out of my car,with it running on without me, seemed like an apt metaphor for something akin to the title of my first book, Thoughts Without a Thinker. Something like a car without a driver, or, in this case, a driver without his car. Humbled by my own ineptitude, I felt closer to Nasruddin in my second pass through his story. Rather than seeing him simply in his foolish mode, as a stand-in for psychotherapists looking in the wrong place for the key, I now felt sympathy for Nasruddin, allied with him searching in vain for what he knew was not there.
But it was not until some time later, when I came upon the same story in someone elses work, that I could appreciate it in yet another way. In a marvelous book entitled Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence Shainberg told how this same parable captivated his imagination for ten years. He, too, thought that he understood it. The moral, he concluded, is to look where the light is since darkness is the only threat. But he determined one day to ask his Japanese Zen master (who is a wonderfully engaging character as described by Shainberg) for his interpretation.
“You know the story about Nasruddin and the key?” Shainberg asked his master.
“Nasruddin?” the roshi replied. “Who is Nasruddin?”
After Shainberg described the story to him, his master appeared to give it no thought, but sometime later the Roshi brought it up again.
“So, Larry-san, whats Nasruddin saying?” the Zen master questioned his disciple.
“I asked you, Roshi.”
“Easy,” he said. “Looking is the key.”
There was something eminently satisfying about this answer; besides having the pithiness that we expect from Zen, it made me look at the entire situation in a fresh way. Shainbergs roshi hit the nail on the head. Nasruddins activity was not in vain after all; he was demonstrating something more fundamental than initially appeared. The key was just a pretext for an activity that had its own rationale. Freud evolved one way of looking, and the Buddha discovered another. They had important similarities and distinctive differences, but they were each motivated by the need to find a more authentic way of being, a truer self.
Somebody vs. Nobody
I love this story because it connects me to something fundamentally true about my own process of self-discovery. I had the sense very
early of feeling lost and cut off from myself. This feeling motivated my spiritual and psychological search, but it also had the potential to make me feel terrible about myself. In my discovery of Buddhism, I found a method of cutting through the self-estrangement that so bothered me. I found a new way to look at myself.
In the 1970s, there was a saying in Buddhist circles, “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” This was a popular statement because of how clearly it summed up a very obvious phenomenon. Many of the people who were drawn to Buddhism were attracted by the ideas of “no-self” and “emptiness” that are central to the Buddhas psychology. But these are difficult concepts to understand; in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, monks often study the scriptures that explain them for years and years before even meditating. In the West, people who were suffering from alienation or from spiritual and psychological distress often mistook the Buddhist descriptions for an affirmation of their psychological emptiness. “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” was a way of telling them that their psychological work of raising self-esteem or creating an integrated or cohesive self had to precede efforts at seeing through the ego. In many cases, this was indeed sound advice; but the categorization of people into the two categories of “somebody” and “nobody” created another set of misunderstandings.
When the Buddha taught his middle path, he had the temerity to suggest that both “somebody” and “nobody” were mistakes, that the true vision of who and what we are involves looking without resorting to the instinct of intrinsic reality. “Somebody” was the equivalent of clinging to being, while “nobody” was the same as clinging to nonbeing. In either case, the minds need for certainty was shortchanging reality. The correct view, the Buddha perceived, lies somewhere in between. The self-centered attitude is as much of a problem as the self-abnegating one. We can be proud or empty; in either case the problem lies in our sense of self-certainty.
Rather than blaming my upbringing, or other people, or instincts beyond my control, this view offered an approach that taught me to work first and foremost with my own reactions to things. When I thought I was somebody I reacted one way, and when I thought I was nobody I reacted another. In either case I was obscuring my own awareness. Removing these obstacles opened me to myself-not as something or nothing, but as a unique, singular, and relational process. I learned to live more in the moment-not putting up a false front and not focusing only on what was expected of me, but in touch with a more spontaneous, creative, and responsive self. As Nasruddin indicated, I was indeed searching for something. Learning to look, instead of react, turned out to be the key.
Meditation was the vehicle that opened me up to myself, but psychotherapy, in the right hands, has similar potential. It was actually through my own therapy and my own studies of Western psychoanalytic thought that I began to understand what meditation made possible. As compelling as the language of Buddhism was for me, I needed to figure things out in Western concepts as well. Psychotherapy came after meditation in my life, but it reinforced what meditation had shown me. Change did not come from trying to get rid of my problems or from going into them more deeply. It came from accepting what was true about myself and working from there. In exposing me to my chronic ways of reacting, psychotherapy showed me where my blind spots were. It sometimes took the interaction with another person to reveal them to me, but the results were similar to what I had glimpsed from sitting on the cushion: As I learned to question my own identifications, I came to be able to live more fully in the moment, and I felt closer to who I really was.