Trauma experts speak of something called the OODA loop to describe the process of decision-making. First, we Observe a situation: What is this? We then Orient ourselves to it: What is my relationship to it? Next, we Decide on a course of action, and finally we Act. We do this all the time, often seamlessly, but where it gets really tricky are situations that are both stressful and novel, where we can get stuck in orientation. We wonder why this person is attacking me instead of defending ourselves or trying to flee. We freeze when gunfire erupts. To borrow a classic Buddhist metaphor, we wonder who shot us with the arrow; wonder why; who made the arrow; take pains to understand its construction, all while bleeding out.
In the interview room at our temple, I sometimes ask people “What color is this?” as I point to a meditation mat that’s clearly brown. Rarely do people say “it’s brown,” and if they do, rarely will they stick by it. They wonder what else I may be asking them, what Zen sleight of hand is happening. Analysis in our lives is useful, of course; even necessary. But we get stuck there; get stuck in the past and future and learn to trust neither the present moment nor our relationship to it. Sometimes, though, the cushion is just brown in no uncertain terms, and it doesn’t matter who says otherwise.