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Is your head on fire? I’m guessing it is not. However, do you really want to end your suffering here and now? I’m guessing you do, but generally we don’t believe it can be done and we may end up settling for coping with suffering. Meanwhile, the happiness of the present moment continues to elude us.
So, the Zen Masters out of compassion for our circumstances throw at us extreme statements like “practice as though your head were on fire” to get our attention. It’s like we are wandering through the jungle anxious and lost for weeks with no signs of civilization. Then, suddenly, we begin to hear a car off in the distance. We get excited and start to run in the direction of the sound. Finally, there is a chance we can get out of this predicament, we think. Once we find the road where the sound came from, we can catch the bus, get oriented to where we are, and find our way back to our home.
The initial sound of the car is like the statement, “practice as though your head were on fire.” You run as quickly as you can to get to a place connected to what is familiar. In the same way, when we are suffering and we hear about the way out of suffering, we need to do everything we can to end our suffering without delay. We need to take seriously that there is actually a way to proceed that gets us out of the mess we’re in.
Finding the road in the wilderness is like finding the Noble Eightfold path, or the way out of suffering according to the Buddha. Once you get to the path, there’s no need to continue to “practice as though your head were on fire.” That’s just the initial inspiration we needed to get to the road. Once there, however, we can begin to slow way down and start our practice in a calmer state. Our heart rate decelerates because we know for sure that we are no longer in the jungle and that there is a clear road to get us back to our home. In the same way, when we find the 8-Fold path and begin to walk it we can begin to soften our steps and have confidence that we are going to where we need to.
We must be careful about not confusing our initial attitude to practice (as though our head were on fire), with our engagement of practice. If we try to practice calming our mind down when we are disoriented, confused, anxious, or fearful, we probably won’t get very far because we don’t see the path (or hear the car) yet. If we understand with our intellect that there is a path to follow, but then act with our body like we’re totally lost while engaging practice, then we are being dishonest with ourselves. That fiery attitude will only make us crazier, and the path will continue to evade us.
Once we cross our legs and sit down, lower our eyes, and place our hands in the cosmic mudra, then we practice as though the fire on our head is completely out, and we have faith in the path set out by the Buddhas and Ancestors. We begin to employ the various methods such as lengthening our spine upright, counting our breaths, or listening to sound.