A Matter of Misdirection

How we learn by looking in the wrong placeHenry Shukman

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

In “Indian Camp,” the first story in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, a boy and his father paddle out on a lake to an island where a pregnant Native American woman is having a hard labor. The boy is shocked both by her suffering and by the general poverty of the camp. He waits as his father, a doctor, helps deliver the baby; the boy doesn’t pay attention—nor do we—to the woman’s husband lying on a nearby bunk. Unable to endure the sound of his wife’s birth pains or his certainty of the new child’s miserable prospects, the man slits his own throat. But the author only lets us see this late in the tale; most of the way we think the story is about the boy and his father. All along, without our even noticing, another more pressing series of events has been unfolding right under our eyes.

In literary terminology this kind of manipulation of our attention is aptly named “misdirection.” The term describes a technique of prestidigitation, or sleight of hand: a skillful pickpocket might distract a victim by knocking against her shoulder, directing her attention there and away from the pants pocket. A magician draws attention to his sleeves—Look! Nothing up my sleeves!—so the audience doesn’t look at the real hiding place of his next prop. But it’s just as common in narratives, found in mysteries and TV cop shows and all manner of stories, short and long.

Thomas Jackson

In Somerset Maugham’s classic short story “Rain,” for example, we follow the state of a prostitute’s soul, wondering whether the zealous missionary will succeed in “saving” her from her sins. Only at the very end do we realize that the person whose moral fortitude has been on the line all along is not the prostitute but the missionary; he, not she, is the one we should have had our eye on. This is one of the pleasures of narrative misdirection: the discovery that the information we needed was right before us, yet we didn’t see it. It can give a story a satisfying sense of both inevitability and surprise. To find that our attention was in the wrong place adds another dimension to the sense of reality evoked by the narrative. The writer invites our attention to a foreground, but something is also moving in the background. When we see that, our perspective shifts and expands, and that feels good. There is a rightness to it, like the tumblers inside a lock falling into place, allowing it to open.

For a mystery writer, misdirection is as essential a tool as a hammer for a carpenter. In one of the early classics of the form, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes disappears for a long stretch, leaving an outmatched Dr. Watson on his own with the likely murderer. Only later on, at a moment of high tension, do we discover, with terrific relief, that the gardener of the household where Watson has been sequestered was none other than Holmes himself in disguise. He has been there—once again—all along.

Alfred Hitchcock was cinema’s first master of the mystery, and—not coincidently—he was a master of misdirection. We are so swept up in James Stewart’s obsessive attempts to protect the woman he loves in Vertigo that we miss the clues indicating she is a duplicitous accomplice in a shameless heist. Psycho, too, is threaded through with misdirection, though today, when the film is iconic and the story so well known, some of this might be hard to appreciate. We naturally assume that the female lead, Janet Leigh, will be a major character in the film. Having stolen money from her boss and having been stopped by a suspicious cop, her caper and her moral dilemma soon have us on the edge of our seats. But we don’t know the half of it. The film is barely getting going when she is famously dispatched in the shower, and we realize that the real subject of the movie is not going to be this woman after all, but someone else, namely, Norman Bates—and his mother. And that’s another misdirection.

But misdirection is more than a mere device for a storyteller. It works in stories because it fits with something in the workings of life. Misdirection is akin to a principle of growth and development, and it’s no accident that its operations can be detected within the structures of many wisdom traditions.

I remember once reading an account of a Zen student who worked diligently and vigorously for years with the koan Mu and eventually had a breakthrough, an opening that allowed the koan to become clear to him. He “passed the barrier” of Mu and entered into a new phase of his koan study with his teacher. But what struck me in the account was that it seemed to convey something more than the writer was aware of. He had clearly benefited from his years of hard practice, but the benefits, as he described them, had to do not only with the specifics of his koan training but also with something larger. Although he intended to tell the story of his Zen practice one way, a broader story emerged in its telling, for it seemed clear that it was in his whole life of practice, especially shared practice as a member of a community, that he came to flourish as he never had before. His focus was on one thing, but, as in the Hemingway story (though in this case, it was without authorial intent), much of importance was happening off to the side as well. Our training may require us to pass through a narrow gate even as it leads us to something far wider than we may at first realize.

The narratives implicit in spiritual training often contain misdirection of various kinds, under the shadow of which other kinds of change and growth, noticed and unnoticed, may be occurring. In the grand narrative of the voyage from samsara to nirvana, we may tend to overlook all kinds of unsought gifts that befall us along the way. For some people, their significant growth takes place entirely within the traditional and explicit narrative structure of a path of practice. But for others, it is more multifaceted and harder to pin down. Probably it has always been this way.

In his first teaching, the Buddha explicitly taught that we exist in a state of suffering and that we can be liberated from it. There’s a stick, and there’s a carrot. There’s a path from A to B, from dukkha to liberation, and he went on to outline it. This would seem a straightforward description of, and prescription for, a path of training. Yet even this is not so simple.

Inherent in that carrot-and-stick model is the notion that this state we are currently in is unsatisfactory, while there is another, better state waiting for us: a deluded here and an awakened there. Yet that very formulation could stand as a description of dukkha itself—of the problem one is seeking to resolve—in that it constitutes dissatisfaction with how things are. It is surely a conundrum, one located squarely at the heart of spiritual life and elaborated in a multitude of ways. If we are seeking something other than what is already right here, we surely have a problem. If we are not seeking, if we simply choose to live out our ego-driven portion of samsaric existence, then we also have a problem. It’s something to chew on, and Buddhists have been chewing on it, and arguing over it, for a long time.

Bodhidharma, the legendary first great ancestor of Zen in China, said that when we reach the “other shore,” the promised land of nirvana, we find that there never was another shore to begin with. This is not so much Zen’s final word on the matter as its first word, or at least the perspective in which the tradition is grounded. In Bodhidharma’s words, both sides of the equation—the need to seek and need not to—are embraced.

Many paths have certain benchmarks, and as we pass them we may be encouraged to think we are making progress on the way. But our inevitable attachment to these markers traps us inevitably—in notions of good and bad, of something chased and something fled, of pride in the one who has made the progress or despair at the one who hasn’t. “Progress” itself may be, as it were, a lack of progress, any concern with it being a precise sign of our continuing attachment to it. And yet, off to the side, we may truly have made progress in ways we don’t see.

Misdirection operates on a smaller scale, too. Any spiritual training has to work with what is presented, namely the front door to our experience: our mind and our sense of self. In kanna Zen, or koan training, the student initially sits with a “barrier koan” such as Mu. The focus, the attention, is all on Mu. Mu comes to fill the foreground of the mind. The mind’s front door over time becomes completely occupied with the koan. That’s what’s needed. While the front door is busy getting absorbed in Mu, it’s not attending to the back door, where the “real” Mu can slip in unnoticed and spring itself on us.

It seems paradoxical, and it is: by becoming absorbed in the foreground, we allow the background gently (and sometimes suddenly) to come to life. Our attention expands. By means of the narrow focus, our consciousness broadens. As we absorb ourselves into the lamp of consciousness, its light opens into a more inclusive illumination. The narrow torch-beam switches off, and the background—everything else previously plunged in shadow—comes into bright relief, not to say new life.

But it has to happen by itself. We can’t aim for it directly. “Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity,” according to the Xinxin Ming, a poem attributed to the Third Chan Patriarch, Sengcan. In other words, you can’t take the mind head-on. The front door is not the way; and yet it is the only way. Our minds are fruitfully led down the garden path, an illusion of progress is fed to the hungry maw of the self to keep it quiet, like a bone tossed to a dog, and real shifts can occur—inadvertently.

In “The Student,” Chekhov’s personal favorite of his 588 stories, a young seminarian is walking home one gloomy afternoon, searching his mind for solutions to his life’s travails. He hates living at home with his parents, he hates his studies, the weather is awful: the whole world is a vale of sorrow. Then he stops in a vegetable plot where some women are warming themselves by a fire, and he is prompted to tell them the gospel story of Peter—how he stood by a fire through the night while Jesus was held by the Roman authorities, and three times denied that he had anything to do with the prisoner. One of the women starts crying. The student is shocked to find an event from 1,900 years ago having such a direct effect here and now, and he sees in a flash that the past is connected to the present in a single “unbroken chain.” The past is not merely past, it is also right here.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
sanghadass's picture

Thank you for this! I enjoyed this in the same way I enjoyed Curtis White's 'Science Delusion' - a pleasant romp through the arts. A couple of things came to mind while reflecting on the theme of this offering. I remembered hearing about the awakened nun whose story is recorded in the 'Therigatha'. How she was about to hang herself in despair of failure and suddenly - woke up! Just before the leap! She had felt that despite her sincere efforts she had failed and at the last moment - freedom beyond measure! Our paths of struggle dissolve and the path of liberation opens up - in the midst of things as they are.

Another teaching that came to my mind is 'the stages of letting go' i.e. so-called progress on the path is really letting go of craving. Its like the inverse of progress where the less we can call our own, the less we hold on - the more at ease we are. Through kindness to ourselves - and others - we let go and love. We let go of our fear and expectation and we arrive in the simplicity of this moment. Willing to give as best we can.

I never really pictured the path as a background/foreground thing - I guess something like that could be going on. It may be something which is more apparent through koan study - or other forms of zen practice. It might just be a case of what we take to be a negative outcome may turn out to be a wonderful gift - painful or unsettling as it might be at the time. There is really know way of telling if the difficulties we encounter may not be of benefit in the long run. After meeting the Dharma, it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Or, is that just faith having its way with my faulty perception? If so, its fine by me!

We may have the impression that we are treading water. When in fact, we may be doing better than we 'believe'. Sure we are human! Sometimes part of 'being human' is to underestimate our own goodness - and that of others. Faith/confidence is a real source of support when we have been touched deeply by the Dharma - through insight. Before this happens I guess faith and hope go together. A good thing - but fragile. May all beings be liberated!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point, Sangha. People so often underestimate each other's and their own goodness, or Buddhahood. As Nichiren wrote, " As to the question of where exactly hell and the Buddha exist, one sutra states that hell exists underground and another sutra says that the Buddha is in the west. However, closer examination reveals that both exist in our five-foot body. The reason I think so is that hell is in the heart of a man who inwardly despises his father and disregards his mother, just like the lotus seed, which contains both flower and fruit at the same time. In the same way, the Buddha dwells in our hearts. For example, flint can produce fire and gems possess value in themselves, We common mortals can see neither our own eyebrows, which are so close, nor heaven in the distance. Likewise we do not see that the Buddha exists within our own hearts."

John Haspel's picture

I find this article interesting in the range of discordant views presented, from Tolstoy to Salinger, from Trungpa to Dogen, and there certainly is much “misdirection” in the later-developed schools but I take exception that the Buddha himself relied on misdirection and hidden or obscure teachings. This is blatantly incorrect and denies the Buddha’s own words.

The Buddha’s direct teachings of the Four Noble Truths does not present an inaccessible “carrot” hanging on the stick of misdirection, despite the arguments of “Buddhists” in the years since the Buddha presented his teachings. The Buddha taught a Dhamma to free one of suffering caused by clinging to views. The later-developed schools are dependent on finding something to cling to in the phenomenal world, even if it is clinging to a doctrine of nothingness which the Buddha taught was clearly of a doctrine of “I.”

It is in the insistence of a mystical or cosmic “self” that creates the need for a teaching of continual misdirection, not the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha taught that what is perceived as the self is “Anatta” The Buddha taught that nothing of permanence or significance resides in what is claimed as “I” and doctrines that seek to continue a doctrine of self in any realm, imagined or otherwise, is a false Dhamma. No misdirection here. No “carrot and the stick” doctrine here.

The Buddha taught a direct and accessible path to awakening - the Eightfold Path. There is no misdirection or ambiguity at all in the Buddha’s Dhamma. It should be emphasized that even though the Lotus Sutra is the foundation of East Asian Buddhism, it was certainly not something the Buddha ever taught.

The teachings of the Buddha do not “pull both ways” as Mr. Skukman suggests, but they present a clear and direct path, unfettered by cultural and individual views, to awakening.

Of all the varied influences effecting modern Buddhism mentioned here, there is no mention at all of what the Buddha actually taught.

It is true, as Mr. Skukman says “everything we could ever have hoped for was right here all along.” The Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths over 2,500 years ago and these teachings are still present if one can see through the misdirection that has developed since he taught.

John Haspel

kamdrgon@aol.com's picture

"The teachings of the Buddha do not “pull both ways” as Mr. Skukman suggests, but they present a clear and direct path, unfettered by cultural and individual views, to awakening.

Of all the varied influences effecting modern Buddhism mentioned here, there is no mention at all of what the Buddha actually taught.

It is true, as Mr. Skukman says “everything we could ever have hoped for was right here all along.” The Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths over 2,500 years ago and these teachings are still present if one can see through the misdirection that has developed since he taught."

All well said, totally agree.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Consider it Western Empiricism's default means for comprehending the Law. Or anything else, for that matter.

oliverhow's picture

I sit here with tears streaming down my face, stunned, overwhelmed by the beauty and clarity of this piece. I am a new subscriber to Tricycle, although I've known about it for some time. Why did I wait so long..... richard

stevenorthcounty's picture

Wow! Couldn't stop reading. Thank you.

kamdrgon@aol.com's picture

Me too!

leeman999's picture

Brilliantly insightful piece! I really enjoyed it. I can identify with needing misdirection to help me in my spiritual practice. As a person who has abused alcohol in the past, and still do occasionally and purposefully drink to excess even today after all the misery drinking has caused me (my wife Amy of over 19 years committed a gradual suicide via daily, copious drinking of cheap vodka, dying one month short of her 42nd birthday back in late 2006), when I consciously try not to drink, that's paradoxically when I'm most apt to drink. So instead of trying not to drink, I try to just live in the Now and do things that my higher, deeper self tells me I should do. Intellectually, by own personal self, I can't resist alcohol, but if I let down my guard and allow the One Life to fill me up, I can live a sober, sane life. But if I follow my ego's lead and look to my past for clues on how to behave, I'll end up drinking.

I self-published a self-help book that although not outwardly Buddhist, contains principles very similar to Buddhism. "Overcome Any Personal Obstacle, Including Alcoholism, By Understanding Your Ego" is a recovery system comprised of the Seven Insights of Enlightenment. In the book, I also trace the root cause of each of the Seven Deadly Sins to an overly strong ego and conversely, show how the One Life can lead one to attain the Seven Virtues.

I tip my cap to Tricycle and the thoughtful, eloquent and wise contributors like Henry Shukman.

LindaG's picture

Sounds like a good book. Intriguing concept. I hope many read it, and gain help.

tmark.com's picture

thank you.

jungsoo's picture

"the world we seek entrance to far surpasses our descriptions of it." BAM!
Also, I just realized that your description of War and Peace is similar to the Diamond Sutra in that the deep meaning lies in the mundane descriptions.
Great article. thanks.

stanoly30's picture

Thank you. Beautifully written.

srpage10's picture

Henry Shukman, your article keeps ringing true, all the way through. Thank you.

cmgerace's picture

I just joined Tricycle and the teaser was this article. I wanted to finish reading it and I have to say that this article alone justifies my membership. I look forward to future articles and insight from Tricycle.
Mr. Shukman a great explanation of "not doing anything" is the key to releasing the enlightenment within you. Thanks

Dominic Gomez's picture

Nichiren redirects practitioners to faith in the title of the Lotus Sutra: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. The teaching the sutra constantly makes reference to is this ultimate Law of life itself.

Alcinoo's picture

Best magazine out there, hands down, amazing work

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Wow, such praise! Thanks for your kindness, Alcinoo.

Warm wishes,
Emma V.

mralexander99's picture

Where do you find such incredibly useful articles such as this? Hard to say, but I am so appreciative of Tricyle magazine for having my life "interrupted" by such a concise and powerful essay as this. After reading this essay I was of course "dumbfounded" to realize yes ths is so based on my limited experience in trying to "grok" what is "Awakening"!

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

We're happy it affected you so much, Mr. Alexander! Henry Shukman wrote this article specifically for us. Thanks for your kind words :)

Warm wishes,
Emma V.

Janejenn's picture

Thank you, Henry Shukman, for this profound and beautifully written article. I will be coming back to it many times in the future, since the nature of it's message is elusive and inherently difficult for us humans to grasp - or, I should say, to NOT grasp. I wonder whether the writing of articles Iike this one is your "most truly valuable activity".