There is an ancient story about tigers that was re-told by the contemporary Buddhist teacher and ordained Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön that is as relevant now as it was eons ago.
The story was one of a woman being constantly chased by tigers. Everywhere she looked there were tigers. She ran to the edge of a high steep cliff that had vines hanging down to the ground. The vines offered her escape, but there were mice eating their way through the vines and it would have been inevitable that the vines would have broken when she was halfway down. To make matters worse, when she peered down the ledge to where the vines ended, she thought she saw tigers lurking down there as well!
As she was trying to decide what to do, she looked down at her feet and saw that growing through the thick grass were big, delicious looking strawberries. She reached down and plucked a strawberry, put it in her mouth, and savored the incredibly sweet taste. The strawberry made her forget about the tigers above, the tigers below, and even the halfway eaten vine.
There are many ways to interpret the story. I would just say that with apologies to the strawberry farmers of America (if there is such an organization), it is not about strawberries per se, though it could be useful to the executives at that organization!
The story is much more relevant to interpretations of the past, present and future. Tigers chased the woman in the past – and she was convinced they were out to get her. They never did, I might add, they were just chasing her. The gnawed vine and the possibility of tigers ahead, were worries about the future.
“What if the vine breaks? What if the vine isn’t strong enough? What if there are tigers down there? What if the tigers catch up to me?”
The strawberries represent the present, and it is there that we need to focus. The trick of that focus is to ask ourselves “How?”
Let us bring the story forward to modern times. Instead of being stranded on a cliff, imagine being the vice president of a hi-tech company in Denver or San Jose. Imagine the executive coming to VIM Executive Coaching because she was overwhelmed with pressure. She complained of being pressured by past mistakes, afraid of future problems and “tortured” by decision making in the present time. Does it sound like a typical, modern day dilemma? It does, and we hear it all of the time from executives and entrepreneurs alike, men and women, and of all ages.
Pressures in the workplace have gotten worse, not better. Clutter is enormous. In addition to what comes at us – in the office alone, we are inundated with the constant flood of digital clutter. Whether our computers, smartphones, iPads or other devices; whether email, social media, texts, or calls, we are under a barrage of communication woes. Our offices, themselves, are not just physical anymore they are also virtual. An executive in Denver might have contractors in Hong Kong, Romania, Australia and Germany. The pressures to keep up and maintain are enormous. We feel chased by those tigers, we feel worried about the tigers who may appear below and even inadequate to handle all of the pressure, the thousands of “mice” who are gnawing away at us.
Enjoying the Strawberries
There is a solution to handling these pressures, of course, and it is learning to be more in the moment, to be “present” and available. The present is all any of us have if you think about it. Yes, we can learn from the past and we can appreciate and even honor the past, but those “tigers” are long gone. They can no longer chase us unless we allow them to chase us. As for the future, we may image there are tigers ahead, but how do we know for sure? Is there nothing we can do about the future? Yes, there is, we can “be present” in the present.
The future is an illusion. We think there might be tigers ahead, we imagine or worry about the tigers ahead, but suppose they turn out to be kittens because of what we are doing now?
One of the techniques we like to employ at VIM Executive Coaching is mindfulness meditation, learning to be present in the moment, learning to respond to problems rather than to react to them.
Think of meditation techniques, and what we learn about ourselves in those moments, as strawberries. They are moments where we can push away imagined threats and even past mistakes and allow ourselves to respond to the problems at hand without panic, regret or fear. In those moments we are authentic, real and effective. There is no sweeter fruit than that.