In the West we grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are adults, we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. We must become self-sufficient individuals in a society that is ever more competitive and demanding. Central to this entire process is the ego. Having a competent, effective, and confident ego is crucial to success in the world.

As a psychotherapist, I am fascinated by those times when—through factors outside of our control, like illness, loss of work, or a change in circumstances—this entire edifice begins to crumble. At such times we enter a period of uncertainty about the form and direction of our lives. The ego begins to recognize that it doesn’t have real control over what’s happening. We feel lost, unsure of our ground, fearful of the unknown, and powerless. These times of liminality are like a bardo—an intermediate phase between states of being—and can lead to a kind of breakdown as familiar forms begin to dissolve and new forms have yet to emerge. It is tempting to grasp at something that will rapidly patch up the cracks and create a sense of security. We can experience these fearful times as periods of great danger, or we can see them as opportunities to change the orientation of our life. On our journey to freedom these are significant experiences, because they allow us to go beyond the ego’s dominance.

This is an uncomfortable process, often accompanied by great resistance, fear, and even depression. We are required to let go and open to the unknown, and yet we still cling to what once felt secure. It can seem as though there are greater forces at work actively trying to change us. As Buddhists we may not find it easy to make sense of these apparent forces, since we do not ascribe such phenomena to God or other omnipotent agents.

There is a Sufi tale of a man on a quest who finds himself trapped in a huge public bath. The man is alone and knows that if he does not escape he will die. A parrot suddenly appears and tells him that if he can shoot it with his bow and arrow, he will be free. The man has three arrows and quickly fires the first. The parrot flutters into the air, and the man misses. The man turns to stone from the feet to the waist. He fires a second arrow, misses, and turns to stone up to the shoulders. He has one arrow left. What should he do? If he misses a third time he is dead.

This riddle beautifully illustrates the challenge of those times when our conventional ego strategies fall apart and will actually lead to our demise if we go on. The story ends when the man closes his eyes, says, “God is great,” and fires the arrow. This time he hits the parrot and is freed. When faced with no other options, he has to give up to something greater than himself to find a different source of resolution.

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