How we learn by looking in the wrong place
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.
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.