A story from Zen teaching ...

Posted: Tuesday 26th May 2020

A story sometimes used by Zen teachers goes something like this: A man was walking up a road as dusk was falling when he came across another man underneath a street lamp, kicking around in the leaves on the pavement and looking perturbed. The passer-by asked ‘What are you doing?’. The man replied ‘I’ve lost my keys. I’m searching for them.’. The passer-by responded ‘Where did you last have them?’. ‘In the house.’ the man replied. ‘So why are you searching for them out here?’ the passer-by questioned. The man responded ‘It’s light out here.’

Stories used in Zen teaching are famously puzzling. And deliberately so. Many offer a paradox; a device used to frustrate the mind into breaking through to a new way of understanding, outside of the original frame.

In this particular one however, there is no such paradox, the message is plain and simple. It offers a friendly challenge to a mistake many of us commonly make. We look for solutions in the light; the already known, easier, more familiar places. We sometimes do this even when the nature of the problem is one that occurs in the dark, where we feel less sure and things aren’t as clear. It isn’t easy to explore in the dark, but we know for sure that the man from our story isn’t going to find his lost keys underneath the street lamp, so the easy route is futile. Knowing this encourages us to explore the dark despite our misgivings and discomforts.

In MyST, we often need to take this approach as the problems we are trying to address are very rarely those that are amenable to solutions that are already clear. If they were, by definition, the problems would have been solved before being referred to a specialist service for complex problems like ours. Given that our practice often involves being like a man searching for keys in the dark, we have constructed a variety of supports to aid this way of working. These include having regular team reflective practice sessions in which we scrutinise in close detail both our work and the ways of thinking that are driving it. We also have a very high level of emotional support for every member of our teams, to help people to cope with the feelings that arise when certainty isn’t present, and to help people to notice how their own selves can sometimes obscure seeing things clearly and discovering the way forward.

This way of working can be extremely rewarding, generating new solutions through a process of discovery. But to do it, the infrastructure must be really strong and reliable. We stick like glue to those things that allow us to let go into new territory.

Jen & Jael

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