Karens’ Descant has regularly touched on the topic of paring down, decluttering, releasing loved objects, and living smaller. Still, when I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s story about the farmer who lost his cows in No Mud, No Lotus, I was struck (again) by his gentle insistence that we must look beyond the obvious detritus with which we are surrounded.
His parable runs something like this: A farmer, looking anxious, passes by The Buddha and group of monks, and asks “Have you seen my cows?” The Buddha replies that they have not, and that he should look in another direction. After the farmer leaves, he turns to his group and says “Aren’t you very lucky. You don’t have any cows to lose.”
Well, that’s a head scratcher. The Buddha and his followers may be fed by the kindness of strangers (or devotees), but the farmer’s existence is dependent on his cows. At first the parable seemed a bit like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” response to the absence of bread – a life of contemplative ease contrasted with a life that is marginal in its well-being. No wonder the farmer was anxious – he has a family to feed and small children who are crying for milk – and cows on the run also distract him from the many other tasks that a small farmer must accomplish (mindfully, one hopes) in order to sleep well at night. I am all in with the farmer….
But as the story unfolds, it is clear that my automatic social critic lens is (once again) too narrow to take in the meaning of The Buddha’s response. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the story is not about real farmers and rambunctious cows, but about our attachments to ideas and habits – particularly those that we associate with our well-being and happiness:
One of the biggest cows that we have is our narrow idea of happiness. You may suffer just because of your idea; and you continue to suffer, until, one day, you are capable of releasing the idea and right away you feel happy — No Mud, No Lotus, p 59)
To be truly happy, we must release our cows – the attachments that hold us back. As I Googled “releasing our cows”, I discovered that there is even a printable worksheet to help….
Ok – as I look at my life I have to consider not just the “stuff” that Dan and I have been pretty good about culling, recycling and donating, but at the other less visible baggage that I still carry. I don’t have to get too reflective to find cows mooing in almost every corner of my inner life. Here is just a quick list….
- I am attached to my convenience – such as having 2 cars even though we rarely need them. Oh, the excuses I make – they are paid for, we always combine errands to drive less, we don’t have a garage to hook up an electric charger…My friend Kyle, who has chosen not to own a car, kindly pointed out this cow today after I tut-tutted about his ecological failings in using Swiffers…
- I am attached to my slothfulness – I have never liked exercising, and can conjure up 1000 excuses even when my Apple Watch tells me that I may expire in an untimely fashion from lack of activity. I feel guilty when a few days go by and I am happily puttering, writing, cooking – and I even count gardening as exercise, but I belonged to a YWCA health facility for a year – and never went.
- I am attached to worrying – about my children and grandchildren, whose lives and future I cannot control (or even directly influence…). And would they be annoyed if they knew how much I worry…about whether the house will need to be painted in a few years (yes, probably – but will worrying about it make it less inevitable?); about if and when we should consider moving into a life care community. Well, this list is endless and useless…
- I am attached to having the dishwasher loaded a certain way – I even sneak up after Dan has loaded it to rearrange stuff…let’s not go into the other areas of secretive tidying so that things will be arranged in a way that I like…well, sometimes I tell him the right way to do things (which he sensibly ignores).
- I am attached to my own significance — I say yes to requests even when I immediately know that it will require me to do things that will make neither the other person’s life or mine much better (and I sometimes have to back out with a limp excuse). And I feel guilty about NOT going to a conference, which involves canceling dates/coffees/dinner, etc. with people whose lives will not be deeply affected by my absence (they all have other friends). I even work at maintaining a public image that no longer fits, polishing my “emerita vita”, which no one is likely to read….
Honestly, even the beginning of the mooing cacophony makes me start to laugh at myself, albeit with a large dash of added discomfort. I should add that this list does not make me feel like beating myself up: these cows are not harming anyone else in a significant way. They are not “character defects” but cows – all the small things that, when I chase them, reduce rather than increase the joy in my life. I think that I will print out the worksheet and start thinking about releasing my cows. If I can give away a beloved chair, take almost all of the books that we have finished reading to a neighbor’s Little Free Library, and pare down the boxes of family memorabilia to a size that our families might actually want to take a look at some day – well, surely I can reduce my attachment to a few cows.