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A Goose in a Bottle

Koan: A woman raised a goose in a bottle. When the goose had grown, she wanted to get it out, without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?

Once I bought a little tree at the store. It was the first tree I ever planted, at a new house when I had just started living something like an adult life. The tree was folded in half with the roots up next to the branches so it was short enough to fit, wrapped in plastic, in a basket with other little trees. The whole thing was about 2 feet long. I brought it home and dug a hole and planted it in the tiny front lawn in front of my house. Somebody told me I planted it too close to... something, maybe the fence or the window, but I didn't believe them. How can you anticipate that something will grow if you've never seen it? But it did, and it was too close, although it took a few years for me to see it.

When I was a kid we got a puppy, a bullmastiff puppy. He was really cute. Someone told me, "if you can lift the calf, you can lift the cow" and that made sense to me, how could this not be true? So I picked him up every day, but one day I couldn't pick him up anymore (he eventually grew to be 125 pounds).

I raised two kids, not exactly inside bottles, but with the best of intelligent intentions that only fit the baby I had in front of me, and the life and insights I had at the time. If they've come out well, it has probably been as much in spite of as because of  my plans for them.

I feel for the goose, I feel for the woman, I even feel for the bottle. I'm probably doing it again, right now, putting yet another small goose into a bottle that seems to be just the right size. What to do? Can I plan better? Can I make it not happen if I do it right? Can I be smarter than the woman? But most of all, what's the solution here?

Meditation, all by itself, the sitting quietly with myself, brings me face to face with my life as it is. Koans do other things as well.

  • a koan gives me a place to inhabit, a path to walk, a fairy tale to enter, and I find that something in my experience matches that, and that it's always personal to me.
  • a koan takes me to places I had decided not to look at, to places I dreaded or tuned out or were invisible to me.
  • a koan brings suffering into focus and shows it to be different than I imagined, more interesting.
  • a koan gives me transformation inside the present moment, right now.

This koan says, "how do you get the goose out of the bottle?" so I know it's possible because the koan says so. I trust that, and I also trust that it's not a trick question. There's no getting the goose out on a technicality, although I'm allowed to try in good faith to be sneaky or clever. And actually, with a koan like this, mostly there will be a lot of bargaining of that sort. Maybe I can just stop feeding the goose and it will get really thin. Or maybe the bottle was really really big and it's not a problem. Or else I might get frustrated and decide I've got to just break the bottle. Nah. Sorry.

So this koan doesn't let you jump over things. The first thing is to just be there. What's it like to be the goose, growing up there? getting big? What's it like to be the woman? How is this me?

Next thing, what's fragile, what's the thing I think I mustn't break? What are the prohibitions I've lived with all my life without questioning them? A few months ago I got really frustrated with my father. As he was acting more and more unreasonable (from my point of view), I became more and more calm and rational and distant. I couldn't tell him how I was feeling, I didn't want to break him. But finally, after trying all my familiar approaches without success, I began to tell him how I was feeling, without much daughterly restraint. Later I realized it was probably the first time in my life I had yelled at my Dad. Somehow I thought it wasn't allowed, but when I did, it helped a lot. The distance disappeared and we both talked about how we felt. We learned how to do something new. Nothing broke.

So this predicament happens all the time to everyone. A woman told me about raising her daughter in a world where a lot of kids get lost, girls get pregnant in high school or get involved in gangs or just lose momentum. She is trying to keep her daughter from growing up but she can see that this is a "goose in the bottle" moment. The bottle is her care and love for the girl, but also her identification with her. Maybe there is a way to let her daughter out of the bottle without breaking the love. As she talked she started to be able to imagine it.

The koan also lets me feel freedom. The goose out of the bottle, how is that? What does it feel like be free? As I sit with the koan I feel myself as a goose. I feel my heavy body, my strong feathery chest, my webbed feet on the ground. And then I feel my wings open, I bring them up, the air is strong against them, I feel the weight of it in my legs, and then I push down my powerful wings and lift up into the air. This too is possible.

The goose koan is about me, especially about me. I have imagined that I could live my life small, that I could be no trouble to anyone. I have hoped I could keep myself separate, but as I let the world enter me I can see I'm part of everything and I don't even want what I thought I wanted. Getting out of the bottle is just a matter of taking a step and finding out who I am in this wide open world. 


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