Hongzhi says, “Flowing along with things, harmonizing without deviation, thoroughly abandoning webs of dust, still one does not yet arrive in the original home.” We can consider this work as being done in parallel: as we develop our verification of selflessness, simultaneously we’re working on accepting ourselves, on celebrating our complete uniqueness. We can also see this as a process that happens in steps. We gain spaciousness, and then we have more room, more courage, more verification, and so we are now ready to see deeper into the darkness of our minds and hearts and bodies.

I remember that scene from the film Little Buddha where the Buddha, played by Keanu Reeves, is sitting underneath the bodhi tree and confronts the totality of his mind—all of the desire, sexuality, pent-up lust, rage—the armies of Mara come through and there are blood and guts all over the place. Then Mara herself appears in the reflection of a small pool in front of him—the source of all of his rage, all of his grief, all of his hatred—and he still faces her with complete openness and acceptance. And when he’s remained steady and unflinching through all of it, the image reverts and he sees his own reflection in the pool. It’s that thoroughgoing facing of himself, not missing any of his humanity, which puts an end to all of the conditioning.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to visit some colleges as part of an exploration of contemplative practice in education. In one of the schools, I met with the mental health professionals on the campus and we spoke about what they see as a narrowing of an affective range people consider normal. It seems as if the culture of campus life is tolerating an ever-thinner bandwidth of emotional well-being. So it’s almost like if you get just slightly too excited, or there is even the suggestion of a kind of despair, something needs to be done. But this perspective is deeply wrong. Taken to an extreme, it’s as if we’re going to be defining bipolar illness as just a movement of the mind toward a nice thought and then a bad thought: if you can’t keep it neutral, then you’re in trouble. That’s why the fourth Ox-Herding Picture is such an amazing antidote.The poem for the image is: “Through extraordinary effort he sees the ox still. Its will is forceful, its body spirited. Sometimes it runs high into the mountains. Other times it disappears into the mist.” That’s you. You better be ready for the full range of ecstacy and despair.