Let’s start with a very short story. Please bear with me, it will only go for a minute or two:
Imagine you’re walking on a nice, warm evening, by the beach of some calm sea. It’s not dark yet, but it’s not full day light either. You hear the sound of the waves, breathe the fresh, salty air, feel the breeze on your face and walk gently. At some point, you see something in front of you. Lying down on the beach, all coiled and shining, it’s a white snake. You approach gently, trying not to scare the snake, but when you’re just two steps away from it, something happens. You realize it’s not a snake, but a rope. A coiled rope, probably left there by a boat, shining because it got wet by the waves. But, for a few good seconds, you really believed it’s a snake.
That was the story. Toldya it’s gonna be short.
Now, I want you to stay in that space, where you realized what you thought you saw was completely different from what you actually saw. Try to imagine that moment, try to feel it, try to have that realization in your mind.
What made you realize that it wasn’t a snake? If you would have stayed at the same distance, if you didn’t approach, that thing would have been a snake for ever. But when you approached the thing, when you confronted, when you engaged with it, you saw it for what it really was. Just a coiled rope. And a coiled rope just doesn’t function as a snake. If you have a direct experience of it, it will function as a rope, not as a snake.
As long as you stay disengaged, as long as you don’t verify directly the functionality of that object and you take for granted your initial perception, it will be a snake. And that’s such a shame.
Because we do the same with almost everything in our lives. We have a glimpse of something and then put a label on it and then we expect it to function according to that label. We seldom go and directly experience that object. We take it for granted.
Relationships, The Coiled Rope and The Snake
Now try to remember when has the last time you had some disappointment in one of your relationships. Professional, or personal, doesn’t matter. When was the last time you felt like you interacted with a specific person, only to realize that, in fact, you were talking to a completely different one. On the surface, at some superficial, shallow level, both persons had the same appearance. But when you started to interact, to engage, the appearance changed. Usually, for the worse.
What we do when we realize that? Most of the time, we blame it on the other person. Look, how mischievous, how false this person is. How he or she is trying to play me.
As hard as it may be to internalize it, this is not true. It’s not like they were in some way before and now they changed just in front of us. They were always like this. They were always just a coiled rope. It was us who saw them as a snake. It was us who projected a mental label onto their appearance and then expected they to comply to that label. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe this, we do this all the time. That’s how we function, unfortunately.
Probably the main reason is that we don’t have time to verify all these assumptions, all these labels. Our lives are unfolding so fast that we simply don’t have time to verify them and we take the other person for granted. That’s where slowing down techniques, like meditation, mindfulness and alike can really be helpful. By slowing down the labeling process, by creating more space in this continuum, you gradually start to understand where and how deep you are mistaking the reality for your own projections.
That’s pretty much the story of all failed relationships: look at that woman, she looks so great, her body has incredibly beautiful shapes and she is so beautiful. I bet she will make for a great partner. No second thoughts, no direct experience. The label has been put, so let’s go for it. And then, after you approach more, after you engage with her for a longer period of time, you realize that, although the appearance was, to some extent, the one of a beautiful woman, that beauty didn’t continue on other areas of her personality. She simply was not like that. And she was not like that for ever. Only you, in your rush to make some sense out of this world, in your lack of patience to really get to know that person, projected that simplistic label based on a limited set of information and now you’re disappointed.
The Scarier Part
Believe it or not, there is an even scarier part of this process.
Well, what’s even more scarier than that is the situation when we have the direct experience of the object, we actually find out who the person really is, but we’re still attached to our mental image. That’s really bad.
I mean, we had a glimpse of a potential relationship with somebody. We verified that. We actually tried to make it work. And, for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. It wasn’t a “snake”, it was just a coiled rope.
But, and here comes the scary part, instead of believing our own experiencing and move away, we believe our own projections, our own illusion and hope for the things to come to life and become a snake. I mean, we tried. Maybe more than once. We saw that it doesn’t work out. But instead of moving forward, we’re coming back over and over again, kicking that rope, maybe painting it in the colors of a snake, hoping it will start to move and obey to our mental delusion. We keep that initial mental label in our hearts, we feed it with our hope and we surround the coiled rope with a lot of expectations. And we expect the rope to move and to act like a snake. And it doesn’t. And we hurt.
That’s from where our suffering comes. From this constant confusion about how things are really working. From our lack of trust in our direct perception. From our incessant attachment to our mental formations. Based on what the mind creates, opposing our direct experience, which says it’s not going to work, we keep saying to ourselves: “this thing is going to work, because that’s how my mind saw it”. But when I verify it, again and again, it still doesn’t function.
Oh, it doesn’t function? Let me show you it will. I’ll make it work. I’ll do whatever it takes, I’ll sacrifice everything, I’ll follow my “gut” and I’ll show everybody that I have the right to be happy, because I had a glimpse of that happiness when I saw that person, and I know it’s going to work. Just give me more time. Or more space. Or something.
Alas, it never works.
Note: the coiled rope and the snake is a very common metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism, especially for lo-jong (mind training).