We are standing on the slope of a grassy hill overlooking the ashram. Our yoga training now involves balance postures. The instructor points out, “In order to find our balance, we must first overcome our fear of falling. When we can fall gracefully, we can find our balance.”
That was in 1983. I had immersed myself in a month long yoga teacher certificate program. I was not sure I liked where the training was headed on that grassy incline. But I soon realized the importance of falling down. Sometimes it is said that walking is simply a controlled fall. We lift a leg and before we lose balance, we place it down—repeating as necessary.
This also applies to our spiritual development. We must fall down frequently, otherwise the ego will get out of control. Eventually, we learn to gracefully fall down and laugh at ourselves in the process. We get up, brush ourselves off, and begin again. This is why it is so important not to view spiritual practice as having an end point, something we can attain. The Heart Sutra states, “Since bodhisattvas have nothing to attain, they rely by means of prajnaparamita (transcendent wisdom). Without obscurations of mind, they have no fear.”
Obscurations are the habits of mind developed as we experience life and invent strategies to cope. We develop control issues and think this will prevent us from falling down. The habits become so ingrained they begin to define us. But when life throws us a curve ball, we cannot always rely on old habit patterns. We need to have greater flexibility to learn something new. Sometimes the most precious experience is gained when we fall and recognize transcendent wisdom on the way down.
Here is a very famous ancient Zen koan:
Once upon a time, as a man was walking through a forest, he saw a tiger peering out at him from the underbrush. As the man turned to run, he heard the tiger spring after him to give chase.
Barely ahead of the tiger, running for his life, the man came to the edge of a steep cliff. Clinging onto a strong vine, he climbed over the cliff edge just as the tiger was about to pounce.
Hanging over the side of the cliff, with the hungry tiger pacing above him, the man looked down and was dismayed to see another tiger, stalking the ravine far below. Just then, a tiny mouse darted out from a crack in the cliff face above him and began to gnaw at the vine.
At that precise moment, the man noticed a patch of wild strawberries growing from a clump of earth near where he dangled. Reaching out, he plucked one. It was plump, and perfectly ripe; warmed by the sunshine.
He popped the strawberry into his mouth. It was perfectly delicious. The End.