When’s the last time you got lost? I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city that seems to have very few straight streets or right angles. For the first few years, I got lost all the time. I would take a new street and suddenly pop out in a part of town I thought was far away, in the other direction; if I’d tried to draw a map of the place, it would have been not only wrong but in defiance of all natural laws. During those early days, I trusted GPS a lot to get me where I was going. Now, for the most part, I think I understand the lay of the land. That’s a nice feeling, but it also gets me into trouble.
According to one of my teachers, there are two ways of being lost. The first is a kind of confusion—or, just as often, a state of being wrong. The example we see in Buddhist texts is of mistaking a coiled rope for a snake. When you turn a corner and see that snake, you react as if it’s real. You run away, or you jump, or you scream. And while all of those are (sort of) reasonable reactions to a snake, this is not a snake—it’s a rope. So everything you’re doing in that moment is wrong. It stems from a false understanding.
We do the same, says my teacher, when we drive around. We drive around in circles looking for such-and-such landmark or for the right exit not because we know we’re lost but because we’re sure we’re not. We think we’re right—“No, no, it’s just over here, past this intersection. I remember.” A half-memory of how it looked that one time we went there can lead us astray for hours. It’s just like the snake: if we were right about that landmark, then all our actions would be perfectly appropriate. But we aren’t. And figuring that out can be hard.
In Buddhist terms, when we talk about being lost, we usually mean this kind of confusion, a kind of self-perpetuating ignorance. It may not always be willful, not exactly, but still, we cling to it. We can spend our whole lives not knowing what we don’t know, and maybe not wanting to. We can be lost forever.
The second way of being lost is to be truly lost—to know, with every cell in your body, that you do not know where you are or how to get where you’re going. Being lost, even magnificently lost, isn’t rare, but being lost in this way is. It’s just too hard for us to admit it, to open up to that total state of not knowing. But when you’re in it, when you really know you’re lost, everything changes. You stop looking for what you think is supposed to be there, and you start looking at everything. You pull into that gas station and ask for directions. You understand, in your bones, that everything you see might offer a clue, that everyone you meet might know the way.
Being lost in this way can be scary. But the truth is, we’re always this lost, whether we admit it or not. We don’t know where we’re going, or how. We don’t completely understand where we are. That’s just life.
We can spend our lives trying to be expert map-readers, but we’ll never know every turn, every landmark. There’s another way: to get comfortable with being lost.
Imagine waking up in a completely dark room; you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. What do you do? You have two good options. One is to start to explore. You might crawl slowly on your hands and knees; you might just run your fingers along the floor. You’ll smell everything, listen to every sound, feel yourself breathing. Maybe you’ll call out. This is a thorough examination of where you are. You can’t just run—you know, in that perfect darkness, how unsafe that is. Do you need to escape, or just find a light switch? You don’t know, which means you aren’t just looking for one specific thing. You’re trying to understand the whole thing. It’s total engagement, total receptivity. This is what Buddhist practice looks like most of the time: paying attention, really paying attention, and trying your best to just not get in your own way.
The other option, of course, is to stay where you are, to get still, and to let it be dark, to let yourself not know. This, in Zen at least, is the meditation side—again, paying attention, but also letting go of the idea of escape or relief. It’s a total settling in to the circumstances of now, however much you may wish they were different. It’s profound acceptance of being lost.
Consider the possibility that right now, in this moment, you’re just as lost as that. Slow down, listen, touch the things around you, start to map your world. Or don’t—maybe just sit down, right where you are, and let this be enough. You’ll still be lost, but you might also start to understand where you really are.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.