In Zen Buddhist practice, people often report feeling “stuck” in life. They share that, in spite of all their hard work, education, and success, they are unable to move beyond whatever has them stopped. This experience is often described in lay terminology as “Hitting the Wall.” In Zen, we call this barrier, “The Gateless Gate.”
Encountering the Gate can be one of the most frustrating challenges that you will ever have to confront in your training. It is the point where all of your solutions do not work and where everything you have learned is of no value. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how intelligent, talented or influential you are, the Gate does not discriminate. Once you hit it, there is no avoiding it.
When you find yourself stuck, the first thing that will occur to you to do is “push through.” It will seem perfectly natural to try harder at work, focus on your relationship or recommit to going the gym, etc…. When that fails you may opt for a workshop, a self-help book, or even find a guru. There is nothing wrong with this, but what if, after all that effort you are still stuck in the same place? What do you do then?
From a Zen perspective being stuck is a sign that your humanity has caught up with you. This is the place where you will either confront the limiting aspects of being human (i.e. your character flaws and we all have them!) or accept the fact that your life from that point on will be nothing but a variation on the same old themes.
Passing through the Gate requires breaking the grip of your perspectives, beliefs and opinions about yourself and others. Breaking the grip of what you believe is tough given the way that our brains function. For example, take a moment and try to stop thinking. Now, try to stop adding meaning to what you are thinking. Confused? Don’t worry. Getting beyond this barrier takes a deeper understanding of what is preventing you from moving forward in your life.
Being stuck is, in part, the result of not understanding the nature of thought. It is the condition of being engrossed in the non-stop dialogue in your head and having no clue about whether or not it is valid. Think about it. From one moment to the next, aren’t you constantly assessing, positioning and reacting to everything in your world? In the case of being stuck, first it is, “Why am I stuck?” Then, “Who can I find to help me get un-stuck?” and finally we default to “What is wrong with me?” All of that stuff gets mixed together and ultimately determines just how far you are going to get in life. So, even if you consider yourself to be successful right now, sooner or later you will find yourself at the place where the usefulness of all that stuff in your head is gone.
In the midst of the swirl few of us ever stop to consider whether or not the meaning we give our thoughts is actually true. This is the source of the Gate. The Gate does not exist out in the world. It does not reside in the attitudes and behaviors of the people around you, nor does it exist in the circumstances that supposedly prevent you from moving forward. In other words, it is your own creation. Addressing this fact is a core focus of Zen training.
The first step to moving through the Gate is gaining perspective. You must develop the capacity to observe what is happening in your head in real time; one of the most expedient, and often unsettling, technologies for doing this is Zen meditation or “zazen.”
Newcomers to zazen often find it very difficult. People arrive to the practice with the opinion that sitting on a square mat and a round cushion is easy: it is not. However, if you stick with it, you will develop the ability to see your thoughts in relationship to what is actually going on around you and separate from them. Through consistent training, you can dissociate from the meaning that you give the thoughts: this is “opening the Gate.” As this ability gets stronger and stronger, the Gate begins to open more and more.
Ultimately, passing through the Gate requires that you develop a sufficient understanding of what is real and what isn’t. Beginning Zen students focus the majority of their energy on this. After having an initial experience of reality they continue to repeat it over and over again. The more they do, the more the Gate falls into the background, and the more freedom they experience in their life.
Somewhere, someone suggested that it was possible to never experience being stuck. This has become a popular opinion, but after more than a decade of training, I have yet to see any evidence of this possibility. So here is the truth about the Gateless Gate. If you are not hitting it, you are not playing full out in life.
Being stuck can be extremely challenging. At the same time, “hitting the wall” is a requirement for growth. Early in my Zen training, my teacher told me, “If you commit to zazen and don’t quit, you will find what you are looking for.” It was at a time where my life had caught up with me, and I was completely stuck. Fortunately I did commit to ongoing training and Zazen: eventually I passed through the Gate.
So today I say the same to you. If you are stuck, do zazen, find yourself a qualified teacher who can guide you through the Gateless Gate, and don’t quit. Simply put, life is asking for more of you.
Here’s to being stuck!