“The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”-Unknown
This simple expression, commonly quoted from Zen philosophy, is a metaphor describing how most of us think. It points out a characteristic of human thought that often gets us into trouble and sometimes leads people to seek psychotherapy. I’ve been a psychotherapist for 17 years and can’t help but notice how frequently misunderstanding the basic meaning of this parable brings people into treatment. The entire parable goes as follows:
“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”
In all branches of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the basic premise is that the way we think about life events and interpret those events determines the quality of our life experiences. CBT challenges one to adopt a wide lens angle on the events of our lives. Seeing the bigger picture can lead to introspective reflection and a different interpretation in meaning. A disproportionately large amount of people who enter psychotherapy do so because they are struggling with the meanings that they attach to events which happened in their lives. Life throws thousands of things at us every day. Fortunately, for us, most are pretty simple and we can make sense of them. The beauty of this dynamic is that the longer we live, the more events we process, and the better we get at making sense of what goes on in our world. We learn to attach meaning to these events that are consistent with our values and our world view. Occasionally, something will happen in the lives of everyone that they struggle to interpret.
I often tell my clients that, “The meaning of events is more important than the events themselves.” Often, the therapeutic challenge is to allow time to process what has brought them into therapy. A wait and see attitude is often helpful and is illustrated in the following Zen tale:
Once upon a time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
All of us have to decide what things happening in our world mean to us. Common, every day, events can mean different things to different people. Sometimes, they can even mean different things to us. For example, something as simple as rain means different things to us at different times. During that July heat wave, that cloudburst is a thing of joy, that cold rain three days in a row in November? Not so much. That first coating of snow in early December is “beautiful,” those 3 feet in late January “suck.” Why the difference? And, why does that become a story that makes you smile the following Fourth of July? The context in which an event occurs can completely change its meaning. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s war criminal is another man’s national hero. What makes the actions of the person different is interpretation and context.
When life throws surprises at us, it challenges us to make a decision whether we are aware of it or not. Asking yourself the question, “What does this mean to me?,” is a good starting point for more rational decision-making and logical thoughts.
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
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