Mistaking the stick for a snake

I am fascinated by the Vedas – these are a collection of four ancient Indian tomes covering a huge range of esoteric subjects, including some of the earliest known references to yoga. It is said that the wisdom that they contain was received directly from the divine by enlightened beings, or ‘seers’, and, for thousands of years, the contents were never written down, only passed on orally.  However, such is our need to record and ‘own’ information that, eventually, the written texts were created and these now form a major basis for yoga philosophy.

The reason for my fascination is partly this alluring, mystical idea that they were divinely channelled but also because, whenever I hear a teaching from them, it seems to a) come at a time that I really need to hear it and b) chime with a simple truth that resonates somewhere deep within my soul.  It’s almost as though I can feel that divine connection through the purity of the truth that the teachings contain, not to mention the uncanny timing.

Anyway, one of the teachings from the Vedas is often translated into a very simple yet hugely helpful little parable, which has been much in my mind of late.  In my own, bumbling interpretation, it tells of a man who is walking down a path enjoying the sunshine and the sound of the birds singing when suddenly he sees a snake on the ground in front of him. Like anyone would, he immediately panics, his mind jumps all over the place in fear and his body tenses, ready to fight or run.  Then, just as suddenly, he realises it’s not a snake at all – it’s just a stick, curled in such a way to resemble a basking snake.  He laughs out loud in relief. Immediately he releases all fear and tension and walks along his way, enjoying the sounds of nature once again.

This seems like the most simple of tales – something a small child would understand.  But read the story again and observe the man’s reactions.  His behaviour and attitude change abruptly and dramatically in a very short space of time – yet the external conditions have remained exactly the same throughout the shift.  The only thing that has altered the man’s behaviour is his change in perspective.  When his perspective is that there is a threat on the path (i.e. when the stick is a snake) he acts from fear and closes inwardly, ready to do battle or flee.  When his perspective changes to realise there is no threat (i.e. when the stick becomes a stick again) his fear leaves him and he opens himself up to embrace the external world with love once more.

This is of course a healthy way to behave when our perceptions are correct – we perceive a threat and we react defensively. This is what our sympathetic nervous system of ‘flight or fight’ adrenaline surges is for, and it helps us to survive, like the mammal that we are. What is supposed to happen is that we harness the adrenaline to deal with the threat by either running or fighting, then we find somewhere quiet to lie down and let the excess adrenaline burn off, usually seen in quivering muscles and shallow breathing. After a short time, the muscle contractions will fade and the breathing will normalise. You see this in animals – think of a herd of gazelle that have just been ambushed by lions.  After a brief flurry of adrenaline fuelled flight and post-threat stillness to recover, the herd is soon grazing happily again, as if nothing had happened, all nervous energy dissipated.

However, unlike other animals, we humans have grown our mind to such an extent that, instead of relying on gut instinct, our mind is now capable of creating phantom threats that aren’t actually there – most of the time the ‘snake’ is just a stick!  Instead of testing the validity of our perceptions, we usually become lost in the resultant fear and it becomes a vicious cycle, until we are so used to these phantom fears that they become our reality, and the stick even appears to grow scales and hiss! I would even say that, not only do we mis-perceive threats, but our sneaky minds also tend to perpetuate the ‘threat’, almost as if we need it, rather than allowing us to deal with it and release it there and then.  It is kind of like ‘better the devil you know’ – for some reason the mind seems to need fear to keep us on our toes, and familiar fears are far easier to deal with than unknown fears. But why do we need fear at all?

A classic example is stress.  So many people are stressed out, anxious, unable to sleep, permanently lethargic, needing coffee to get going, irritable, exhausted – sound familiar? This is often because we’re perpetuating our fears rather than dealing with them and moving on, which keeps us living in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’ until, eventually, our adrenal glands become exhausted and we collapse in a nervous breakdown or severe illness or similar. Yet how many of our perceived threats that keep us in this state are real? How many are life-threatening? How many are we blowing up into a huge poisonous snake by the power and imagination or our rogue minds?!

I was told this story from the Vedas last year by a lovely, sparkly woman in India, who was teaching a course called ‘Life in Balance’.  When she said those words – ‘the snake was just a stick!’ – it was like a lightbulb went on in my head and a weight lifted from my shoulders. I think I even shed a tear, so profoundly did it hit me. I realised that, like most people, my whole life I’ve been seeing imaginary snakes on the path ahead, and living from false fear. And when you live from sustained fear you close inwards, you diminish yourself and you don’t know your true power, you can’t shine your true light.

A month or so later, when I’d just landed back in the UK, my partner and I were on a walk and he pointed to something on the ground ahead and said, ‘snake!’. And yes, there it was – an s-shaped stick that looked just like a snake – and there was a momentary jump of fear, before I realised it was just a stick! I shared with him the Vedas story and I took the stick back and put it by the front door as a reminder for me to see every day – to remind me that most of the ‘snakes’ outside the front door are just sticks – the fears are just constructions of my mind and can be dropped in an instant through true perception. And, actually, it’s been immensely helpful – often the simplest lessons really are the best. One day a friend came round and visibly jumped when he saw the stick. “I seriously thought that was a snake,” he said, holding his hand to his heart in relief. My partner and I shared a knowing smile!

Anyway, the reason I’ve been thinking of this parable of late is because we’ve had a fair few things go wrong on this trip, to the point where it seemed like a black cloud was following us – breakdowns, adverse weather, things breaking, unfriendly interactions with the locals. I was pondering the meaning of it all – were they signs to give up and go home? Eventually, I realised it was all a matter of perspective. I had been living in fear – paranoia had been growing, I was closing inwards, not seeing the beauty and good in the world, only looking for the bad.  And, if you look for the bad (the snakes) then, sure, you’ll find them – such is the power of the mind and our thoughts that, whatever we think about our world, then so it becomes.  Yet, none of the things that had happened where that bad, and the ‘problems’ had actually led to lots of unlooked for positive experiences.

So, since that rocky start, I’ve taken the lesson and have been opening myself up to the unknown path ahead with trust, openness and positivity. And, of course, the black cloud has now disappeared! Any obstacles that come our way now are seen more in the positive light of ‘learning experience’ or ‘exciting detour’ than as gloomy threats. Bad weather like the pouring rain and sleet today is seen as a chance to hunker down in our cosy van with the woodburner on and do some much-loved writing, rather than a sign that the universe is frowning down on us! So, I leave you with a phrase from the Buddha which is also something I come back to often:

Are you sure of your perceptions?

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This entry was posted in Buddhism, Campervan life, Connecting with the natural world, Mindfulness, Road trip, Talking point, Travel, Upanishads, Yoga, yoga philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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