A small town in Vietnam has large plots full of flowers of all kinds. The land is so fertile that the flowers grow in great abundance there. At first glance, it is an ideal place to walk by, admire so many assorted flowers, and relax and enjoy the sublime floral fragrance. However, anyone who travels that land full of flowers without care and caution may not tell the story. Because under the flowers—also taking advantage of the many minerals and nutrients that make the soil fertile—there are thousands of nests of small poisonous snakes. A bite of these snakes could cause the immediate death of any unsuspecting visitor.
This is often the case in our lives. Going unprepared, as we are looking for flowers, we could eventually encounter snakes. And that metaphor can have several meanings; such as the following three examples:
Interpersonal relationships. You interact with people who seem nice at first (flowers), but then they show negligence—or even rotten intention (snakes).
New projects. You start a project that you've first found attractive (flowers), but then it turns too heavy or exhausting and much less motivating than at the beginning (snake).
Self-awareness. You start the process of knowing yourself very motivated, perhaps obnubilated by the wisdom of a teacher or at least after reading a self-help book or watching a motivational video. So self-knowledge seems fascinating (flowers). However, there are not only flowers in the field. Suddenly you are facing yourself more and more honestly, looking at your ego in the eye—your fears and old wounds that you assumed as already healed. And then you feel threatened by the darkest aspects of your own mind (snake).
What should we do with the snakes we find along the way?
An old Vietnamese man less interested in flowers than snakes is dedicated to hunting them, eradicating them from fertile soils so that those plots can be destined for different uses, and those who work on them can walk there safer. He proceeds as follows:
«There are baby snakes nestled in snake holes. When I pull them up to the surface, they wiggle and die. Then there are grown snakes. I have to be careful when I pull them out, because if I am not strong enough, they will bite and kill me. You must know yourself, and you must know the snake. You must know when you have enough strength and when you don’t. When you manage to pull up two snakes at the same time, the best thing to do is to let them fight each other.» (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996; p. 149)
Applying these tips to the three cases mentioned above, we have what follows,
Interpersonal relationships. You distinguish whether the negligence or harmful intention that you have observed in others implies little or a lot of danger or discomfort for yourself (small or large snakes?). And then you decide if you are willing to use your mental, emotional and physical energy in trying to resolve the conflict with them or if you prefer just to step aside and go your way. You can always choose to participate in a battle or let it go (How strong do I feel this time? What do I really want to do about it?).
Projects. You discern whether or not you really want to continue with the project you have started, regardless of what others think. You clarify what your true motivations and goals are (Knowing the snake and knowing thyself).
Self-awareness. It will never be an easy or quick task to face your own ego, those most rigid and immature aspects of your personality. It is common to feel shame, anger, sadness, or anxiety... when those 'weak' aspects of yourself become evident to others that we love or just to our own self-observation (snakes come to the surface). The Mindfulness practice invites you to look at others without judging or getting discouraged, with acceptance and compassion. This is the only way to really transform your own shadows into the light.
«In the depths of our consciousness dwell the seeds of our potentials, including poisonous snakes, phantoms, and other unsavory creatures. Though hidden, they control our impulses and our actions. If we want freedom, we must invite those phantoms up to our conscious mind, not to fight with them, like the old man fishing for snakes, but to befriend them. If we don’t, they will trouble us every day. If we wait for the right moment to invite them up, we’ll be ready to meet them, and eventually, they will become benign.» (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996; pp. 149-150)
That's right. As we illuminate with the light of consciousness what underlies the shadow of our mental automatisms, we can begin to make the passes with the least pleasant aspects of ourselves, treat each other with kindness, and according to that correct attitude of non-judgemental observation, we become more sincere and compassionate with ourselves. And from there, the possibility of an authentic, not feigned change opens up for us; not a change to please and satisfy the expectations of others, but a real change whose only purpose is our authentic well-being.
Let's not be afraid to find snakes on our way! If the soil is fertile, there will surely be flowers and also snakes. Nor should we give up looking for flowers and enjoying their fragrance for fear of snakes that we could eventually encounter. That doesn't mean that we should be so naive as not to observe carefully where we put our feet, hands, and heart.
Mindfulness, as a lifestyle, invites us to cultivate attention, compassion, and gratitude for everything that the universe offers us. Sometimes they are flowers; sometimes they are learnings disguised as snakes. Let's intelligently take what best contributes to our well-being. Thus, if we feel at peace, grateful, and happy, we will transmit the same to the world.
Until next time,
Thich Nhat Hanh (1996). Fragrant Palm Leaves