The Ogres who visit during the Holidays

Ogre to Ogre

The holiday season can be, and often is, a mixed bag for many.  Your expectations, your hopes and desires, the anxiety of what getting together with family will bring or the fear of having no place to go, the stress of getting the house ready for a big dinner, the pressure around gift giving, or the bah humbug attitude toward the commercialization of this time of year might be thoughts that are rattling around inside your head. Holidays may be a favorite time of year for you and yet the daily pressures, challenges and frustrations will probably still arise.

All of this, and so much more, are part of what “the holidays” bring up for many of us. There is a wrestling that takes place inside of you and manifests in your outer world as your family, your sibling, your parent, child or friend. Sometimes you might even find yourself rolling around on the floor, throwing punches at each other. This wrestling, regardless of whether it is inside your head or outside in your relationship(s), is the very bedrock of spiritual practice. Stress, anxiety, open heartedness, joy, gratitude and love are what are part of the great human experiment of life. Perhaps you can find the beauty of the dawns light in it all.

Here is a Zen Koan that points toward this experience you might be having this holiday season:

The ogre outside shoves the door,

the ogre inside holds fast.

Dripping sweat from head to tail and battling for their lives, they keep it up throughout the night.

Until at last when the dawn appears

Their laughter fills the early light — They were friends from the first.  

This Koan is Zen Master, Hakuin’s, commentary on a line in the heart sutra that goes like this:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep Prajña Paramita,

Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions

Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

Oh Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,

Emptiness no other than form; Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.

 This Koan comes from an Indian philosopher named Nagarjuna who offered the philosophy of Prajna Paramita which means “beyond knowledge of the other shore.” Nagarjuna tells this story:

There is a story that is told of two people hiking in the woods and in the course of their hike they get separated from each other and one of them gets lost. As he travels deeper and deeper into the woods. The day is turning to evening when he comes upon a tiny hut with a little wisp of smoke coming out of the chimney.  The traveler knocks on the door and asks if he can spend the night as he is lost in the woods. The owner of the hut says, “No you can’t stay here because there are goblins and orgres around here and it isn’t safe for you. The traveler pleads with him telling him if there are goblins and ogres around then for sure he wouldn’t want to spend the night outside, and could he please let him stay?”  The owner says okay but just one night.  As the travelers is preparing for bed he hears a loud knock and then banging on the door. He runs to the door and holds it closed against the banging which now gets louder and louder. With all his strength he holds the door closed against the pushing and pounding, the clawing and yelling. This goes on throughout the night but he is able to hold the door closed.  As the dawn rises he looks through the cracks in the door to see that it is his friend with whom he was separated from and he laughs out loud!

I am moved by this story because I can relate to it in so many ways. How often I am deluded by the stories I tell myself or others tell me. How about you?  We wage battles against ourselves, our family members, our partner etc., and so often these battles feel as if they are a matter of life or death. If we could realize that we are in a battle with ourselves we too might find that we can have a hearty laugh with it all.

I can have a story going in my head that I am convinced is absolutely true and then I take action consistent with that story only to find out that my story isn’t even close to the truth. Yet, there I am holding the door closed with all my strength based on a delusion of one sort or another.

I wanted to share this Koan as many prepare for the holidays because, for many, the holidays are such a mixed bag. This Koan provides a context in which to hold your assumptions, your stories about holidays, about people in your family, or about yourself that might just be fears you are carrying around and not actually true. I know for myself, that when I can see clearly, I often find the whole situation laughable.

One of the things I carry about myself is my defensiveness and how I can be quick to defend myself. Most of the time the situation is not even about me or involve me and yet there I am all suited up in my armor, shield and sword ready for battle.  It is a constant struggle to resist the temptation to hold the door shut so the ogre can’t get in. What is mostly true, however,  is that I’m the ogre I’m trying to keep out. It isn’t out there, it’s in here!  This truth makes me laugh way more than it makes me cry.

So this Koan, is about that for me – keeping out what I perceive to be a goblin when in fact it is actually a friend. Perhaps even, my best friend from the start. How about you?


The Heart of the Forest – David Wagoner

You pretend to look for wildflowers, but what you’re doing
is trying to find traces of where your feet
lost their sense of direction in the woods.

You can name the trees and what’s staying alive2
under them, but you’re afraid this may be a time
when you find the ghost-pale, skinned corpses of beavers

or the green antlers still on the skulls of elk,
or the leaflike, feather-light wings of owls suspended
upside down on spikes among living branches,

so you rehearse remembering the place
where one of your clumsy feet once found itself
secure, where it lifted you and moved you,

where you breathed again and saw, in the near-darkness
of the forest floor, a fir tree fallen and broken
into nurse logs, out of whose rotten, moss-covered sides,

among small spillways of lilies of the valley,
dozens of other selves were growing, rooted
all the way through into another forest

where nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost,
and lying down with one ear to the ground,
you listened to its heart and yours still beating.


Please share your thoughts with me.