Falling on the ground seems to be essential—babies trying to walk, dogs chasing tennis balls, hobos who sleep on paper under bushes, the daring young girl on the flying trapeze, people who get caught in scandals, people who get a frightening diagnosis, people having doomed love affairs, people getting divorced, actors who freeze on stage, mothers with post partum depressions, people who one day wake up crazy, people from Sonora sneaking across the night desert into Arizona with plastic water bottles painted black, people in Ethiopia selling fresh baked bread made out of dirt, people who sold everything at the bottom of the stock market crash, people being flamed on the internet, people whose pension funds were stolen, people who give interviews while out of their mind on coke, people who lost their homes to the banks, people who lie on a warm rock in a canyon, people who lose their faith in life, people who pretend that they would never fall, people who get born—falling on the ground happens to all these. Falling is outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior and reality, yet you can’t have a life without it.
Helping Her Dad
Mr. Pang was selling baskets. Coming down off a bridge with his arms full, he stumbled and fell. When his grownup daughter saw this, she ran up and threw herself down on the ground beside him.
“What are you doing?” cried Mr. Pang.
“I saw you fall to the ground, so I’m helping,“ she replied.
“It’s a good thing no one was looking,“ remarked Mr. Pang.
This story shows life as an opportunity for improvisation—a chance to accept all offers. For improv, you need a certain amount of selflessness and a sense of humor, you have to step out of the way things always happen, of who you think you are, of taking yourself seriously, of managing other peoples’ impressions of you and especially of managing your own impression of you. You can’t be clever or playing for a laugh, you just join the situation. You accept the offer right here now. The territory of this koan is what helps others and what doesn’t help, what helps you yourself, and what is possible in relationship.
“It’s a good thing no one was looking,“ remarked Mr. Pang. He is not just teasing and having fun, but playing along, noting how they have moved together from an accident to a theater piece of wonder. He could have said “Thanks for not drawing attention.”
A variant of this discovery is that falling on the ground, while terrible, is also wonderful—the taste of dirt, blood, coffee, oranges, tears, sweat, the taste of life itself.
A friend had a truly frightening diagnosis and in the tsunami of advice and medical possibilities and mind altering medications and surgery and trial drugs, his wife said,
“Things are entirely alive. I have never felt so warm and embraced and so held.”
“The community is helping?” I asked, rather conventionally.
“Well that too, people gather around and bring casseroles, but that’s not what I meant; it’s like being held by enormous arms.”
I have a natural feeling for the Pang girl and her spontaneity, and at the same time, Mr. Pang’s situation is compelling. I imagine falling down and having someone throw themselves down beside me; that is a truly unusual situation, that would be shocking in a fine way. Here are a few stories about people turning into rather than away from a fall.
Smart Nurses and Improv
A woman told me this story in relation to the Pang family chronicles.
I just had a breast exam and there was some sort of question and they took me for more imaging. I’m growing afraid, following the nurse down the corridor in a hospital gown and writing my will in my mind. As we walk the nurse turns back and looks at the gown and laughs and says, “Flashing is optional.” Then I stopped being afraid.
The nurse had an empathy that brought the patient out of a world in which she was saying goodbye to her kids, into the more amusing situation of walking down the hall and being about to fall out of an incredibly poorly designed garment. The distance between heaven and hell is tiny and the nurse joining her makes one into the other.
Doing Not Saying—The Emergency Room Check In
A friend got out of bed, fell over, got up, fell again and called me. That was an offer to me, which I accepted. I drove her to the ER. It lacked the underworld interest of a busy city ER, where if you are not hemorrhaging from the mouth or suffering from a gunshot wound you might wait through the night till the change of shift at dawn—another way of falling. While neither as grey nor as dingy as expected, the waiting area was simultaneously boring and interminable.
I waited while my friend went through her exam. The nurse doing check in and triage made two nice moves—turning towards a situation.
1. A woman flung herself in a waiting room chair. She lay rigid on the chair like a log, touching the edge of the seat and the top of the back. She flopped from side to side. She moaned, she apologized for moaning and moaned louder. She yelled a little. Calmly, impersonally, selflessly, not in the least referring to the pain, the nurse walked up and tied a hospital intake bracelet on the woman’s left wrist. “There you go,” she said, indicating that the woman was now official, having an identity and a place in the lineup of this antechamber of the underworld. This soothed the woman immediately.
2. A woman was in her late thirties—blond, statuesque, agitated; her skin had a kind of glaze and tightness, like an attractive sausage. Her fear expressed itself as anger. Her left leg jiggled and her heel tapped, she looked ready for a fight, looked as if in a fight, she might be happy, relieved of her anxiety. She addressed the check in nurse from some yards away.
“I need a private room.”
“The consulting rooms are private and we’ll take you next. You’ll be the only one there.”
“I’ve got to have a private room now. You don’t understand, I need a private room.”
“That space over there is private,” the nurse pointed to what was indeed an open, dead space a couple of yards behind the woman.
“I didn’t say I needed a private room I need a private space,” said the patient undertaking a small face saving operation, but winding down, moving over into the space, not obviously different from any other square of the floor.
I have my own story that makes me wonder about the way koans can get inside you. Without noticing it my body stepped into this koan.
My daughter who was an early teenager at the time was in battle with one of the demons who beset her world. One afternoon she came running into the kitchen and flung herself down at full length upon the lotus flowers painted on the wooden floor. She groaned and sobbed. Before I could think, I threw myself on the floor beside her.
Our eyes met. We began to laugh. We got up and cooked dinner.
The koan wasn’t consciously in my mind and it is almost disappointing that the story is so literally imitated, but perhaps the incident shows how koan moves can become part of a kind of grammar of response to situations. Not setting yourself against a situation can lead to laughter, even where grim sorrow seems likely to win the day.
How to Improve People
I think of another example of this grammar. For some years I hung out with Dick Auerswald, who pursued the transformation of consciousness as a psychiatrist and was one of the founders of family systems thinking. When a family was in trouble Dick liked to do home visits. I remember walking into a house with him, where one of the kids was in what seemed to them to be deep trouble. There were cousins and cousin’s girlfriends, the whole family was gathered. Everybody was sitting on the edge of their chair trying to look like someone who wouldn’t do it again, whatever it was. As we walked in, Dick stumbled and fell. Everybody rushed to help him up and afterwards they weren’t sitting on the edges of their chairs and they began to talk to each other. Perhaps they felt that they had stumbled and that he was saying, “It’s alright I stumble. Then I get up.” Without thinking about it, he acted out the feeling in the room and that opened a door.
The Koan’s Shadow
This koan has a shadow too, which is to bring up the way we can imprison ourselves in a situation, feeling only the pain, embarrassment and effort that unfold with the story. The shadow of this koan might be something like this: “I’m always down on the ground helping people and it never helps them.” Or “When I fall I’m pathetic and it’s embarrassing.” The daughter could have spent her time picking up baskets and telling her father not to be such a duffer. It’s good to notice what reading your mind goes to, and how much you believe that reading. Perhaps we are most alone when we set ourselves apart from the falling, as though we know a better way it should have happened.
Sometimes you don’t need to know why something isn’t a problem. Here is a story someone sent to me that goes in that direction.
“I was on a very narrow two way street heading home from preschool with my kid and the baby in the car seat when a college kid in a big SUV turned the corner looking over his shoulder talking and coming toward me. I leaned on the horn, he saw me in horror, slammed on the brakes and just missed us. I started laughing and he started laughing too and all was well. Afterwards I had thoughts about why it was funny and about how I had been at that age, but at the time it was just pure laughter.”
The thought that something shouldn’t have happened is never true. When we are falling there is no alternative, there is only falling. Falling and laughter.
Questions To Save All Falling Bodies
- How have you fallen down in your life, physically or otherwise? How was it for you? Did you have opinions about yourself?
- Has anyone ever tried to help you? What worked? What didn’t? When you try to help someone else, what seems to work? Not work? Does play have any part in that?
- Do you think it’s important to “pick yourself up” when you’re down? Is that hard or easy?
- Remember a time when something brought you down, not a physical fall, but something difficult. What movement in your body would describe that time for you? Did your body change when you got over it?
- What does the instruction to “accept all offers” mean to you? How would that be? What would it change?
- Are there mistakes?
Pang Lingzhao was the name of the Pang girl and she is known as a Zen master in her own right.
Keith Johnstone’s books on Improvisation in theatre and story telling are examples of books that have a lot to say about Zen without mentioning Zen. The phrase ‘accept all offers’ comes from him.