The Tiger, The Strawberry, and the Role of Beauty

There is a well-known Zen story about a rather non-conventional response to impending doom.

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

—Translated by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

‍A simple story with a simple message: Right there. Amidst all the difficulty. Sweetness.

Some seem to have a preternatural orientation towards always managing to find the good. Most of us need support and training to get better at seeing it.

A simple spiritual practice

Meditation can increase your awareness and ability to notice what might get overlooked in the face of so much stress.

But you don’t need to sit cross-legged on a cushion or even take up eastern studies. Just nightly, ask yourself and your loved ones this question: “What was the most beautiful thing you experienced today?”

Multiple benefits flow out of a practice like this. First, just reflecting on your day and revisiting the beauty you encountered is its own reward.

Second, the more you look for it, the more you are going to see.

Finally, it might even cause you to go beyond passively noticing beauty to actually creating it…to play beautiful music on your stereo or through your instrument, to make memorable moments, to go out of your way for others, to seek out and share beautiful art, to create meaningful connections.

Mary Oliver, in her poem Praying, shares how simple this can be.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
 pay attention, then patch 

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway 

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

—Mary Oliver, Thirst

Not just a balm…a key to survival

Though we don’t know what happened to the guy running from the tigers, it turns out that seeing beauty might be a key to actual survival when facing perilous situations and life-threatening uncertainty.

Lawrence Gonzales wrote the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why to summarize his research about who survives life and death situations. He found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly impossible circumstances. Decades and sometimes centuries apart, separated by culture, geography, race, language, and tradition, the most successful survivors go through the same patterns of thought and behavior, the same transformation and “spiritual discovery,” in the course of keeping themselves alive.

According to the author, there are 12 traits that many survivors seem to share. The eighth one is See the Beauty. Survivors seem to be attuned to the wonder of their world, he says, especially in the face of mortal danger. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, provides a respite and also a sense of hope. It is purported to cause the pupils to dilate, which can open the senses to the environment and that might help you see options.

There are many stories in the book about people’s ability to find beauty while fighting to survive another day. But the Viktor Frankl story in Man’s Search for Meaning is especially raw:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be…”

The challenges and uncertainty right now are almost too much to bear.


What was the most beautiful thing you experienced today?

Dennis Adsit is an executive coach and consultant based in Boulder, CO. He connects other famous parables to coaching with the stories of the Empty Boat  and the Taoist Farmer.  Lots more of his writing can be found on his  blog

Photo by Emmanuel Lamboley on Unsplash

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