There is a story that has kept popping up in my work over the years that embodies much of what I have learned about how people change. It is a story that has served a number of different functions as I have wrestled with the sometimes competing worldviews of Buddhism and psychotherapy, but it ultimately points the way toward their integration.
It is one of the tales of Nasruddin, a Sufi amalgam of wise man and fool, with whom I have sometimes identified and by whom I have at other times been puzzled. He has the peculiar gift of both acting out our basic confusion and at the same time opening us up to our deeper wisdom.
I first heard this story many years ago from one of my first meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein, who used it as an example of how people search for happiness in inherently fleeting, and therefore unsatisfactory, pleasant feelings.
Nasruddin & the Key
The story is about how some people came upon Nasruddin one night crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamppost.
"What are you looking for?" they asked him.
"I've lost the key to my house," he replied.
They all got down to help him look, but after a fruitless time of searching, someone thought to ask him where he had lost the key in the first place.
"In the house," Nasruddin answered.
"Then why are you looking under the lamppost?" he is asked.
"Because there is more light here," Nasruddin replied.
I suppose I must identify with Nasruddin to have quoted this story so often. Searching for my keys is something I can understand. It puts me in touch with a sense of estrangement, or yearning, that I had quite a bit of in my life, a feeling that I used to equate with an old reggae song by Jimmy Cliff called "Sitting in Limbo."
Looking for the Key
In my first book (Thoughts Without A Thinker), I used the parable as a way of talking about people's attachment to psychotherapy and their fears of spirituality. Therapists are used to looking in certain places for the key to people's unhappiness, I maintained. They are like Nasruddin looking under the lamppost, when they might profit more from looking inside their own homes.
In my next book (Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart), I returned to this story obliquely when I described locking myself out of my running car while trying to leave a meditation retreat that I had just finished. I knew I had locked my keys in the car (it was idling away right in front of me, for goodness sake!), but I still felt compelled to look on the ground for the keys just in case I might somehow be miraculously saved.
Being locked out of my car, with it running on without me, seemed like an apt metaphor for something akin to the title of my first book, Thoughts Without a Thinker. Something like a car without a driver, or, in this case, a driver without his car.
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Humbled by my own ineptitude, I felt closer to Nasruddin in my second pass through his story. Rather than seeing him simply in his foolish mode, as a stand-in for psychotherapists looking in the wrong place for the key, I now felt sympathy for Nasruddin, allied with him searching in vain for what he knew was not there.
What is the Message?
But it was not until some time later, when I came upon the same story in someone else's work, that I could appreciate it in yet another way. In a marvelous book entitled Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence Shainberg told how this same parable captivated his imagination for ten years.
He, too, thought that he understood it. The moral, he concluded, is to look where the light is since darkness is the only threat. But he determined one day to ask his Japanese Zen master (who is a wonderfully engaging character as described by Shainberg) for his interpretation.
"You know the story about Nasruddin and the key?" Shainberg asked his master.
"Nasruddin?" the roshi replied. "Who is Nasruddin?"
After Shainberg described the story to him, his master appeared to give it no thought, but sometime later the Roshi brought it up again.
"So, Larry-san, what's Nasruddin saying?" the Zen master questioned his disciple.
"I asked you, Roshi."
"Easy," he said. "Looking is the key."
Finding a More Authentic Self
There was something eminently satisfying about this answer; besides having the pithiness that we expect from Zen, it made me look at the entire situation in a fresh way. Shainberg's roshi hit the nail on the head.
Nasruddin's activity was not in vain after all; he was demonstrating something more fundamental than initially appeared. The key was just a pretext for an activity that had its own rationale. Freud evolved one way of looking, and the Buddha discovered another. They had important similarities and distinctive differences, but they were each motivated by the need to find a more authentic way of being, a truer self.
About The Author
Mark Epstein, M.D., is the author of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart as well as Going on Being. A psychiatrist in private practice, he lives in New York City. He has written many articles for Yoga Journal and O: The Oprah Magazine. Visit his website at http://markepsteinmd.com/