Once upon a time there was a young man who sought enlightenment. People in his village suggested that he visit a hermit who lived on a nearby mountain… so the youth set out on his quest.
He navigated his way through a dark forest, swam across a raging river, and hiked up a steep mountain… until he finally arrived at the hermit’s dwelling. He announced to the wisened old man that he wished to know the meaning of life and had come to study with him. The hermit responded, “If you can answer my one question, you may stay.” “OK,” said the youth, “what is your question?” The old man replied, “There is a goose in a bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?”
The youth asked, “Can the goose fit through the opening in the bottle?” “No,” answered the hermit. “May I cut the bottle open?” “No.” “May I break the bottle?” “No.” Discouraged, the youth told the hermit that he would like to retire to the woods to ponder over the question further.
The next day, the youth asked, “Can I heat the bottle to stretch out the mouth of the bottle?” “No.” “Can I kill the goose and pull it through the neck of the bottle?” “No, the goose must be alive.” Once more, the youth returned to the woods to think it over.
The following day, the youth asked his final question, “Perhaps the goose lays an egg and I pull that out of the bottle?” “No.” Sadly, the youth declared, “Then I have failed your test. I will return home.” He set off back down the mountain. A while later, however, mad with curiosity, he returned to the hermit. “Could you please tell me the secret? How do you get the goose out of the bottle?”
The hermit smiled at him, and said, “You want the goose out of the bottle? OK, the goose is out of the bottle.”
I liked to share this story in my business seminars… and the more often I did, the longer the pause I left afterwards. It really is a fantastic story to illustrate how dissatisfied our minds are at the hermit’s answer. What in the world did he mean?
Well… in reality there was no bottle, there was no goose. They were just mental ideas, without physical materiality. Our minds want there to be a problem, want there to be a solution… that’s why we are so disappointed with this story. What do you mean – says the mind – after all the trouble I’ve gone to, looking for an answer, that there is no problem? Are you saying that my analytical reasoning was all for nothing?
And that, I believe, is the great lesson of this story: that many of the questions we pose to ourselves, especially metaphysical ones, simply don’t have answers. They just leave our minds annoyed and confused. This frustration is actually very useful; it’s what eventually helps us seek relief from the mind’s inability to grasp reality, to define it, to know it. Exasperation pushes us to go past the mind… not for answers, but for a return to tranquility. We see how easily our minds can be trapped in cul-de-sacs, in disappointing circular reasoning, which pushes us to seek other methods… higher levels of intuition. It is in the letting go of these unanswerable questions that we begin to seek a more heart-centered way of life… here in the present… where imaginary gooses and bottles no longer confound us and imprison us.
Once we reach this liberated position, we can finally hear the hermit’s answer and think, “Of course! How silly I was!”
(In this vein, I always like to think that the youth eventually did find enlightenment on his way back down the mountain… or maybe many years later… like in my case!)