Recently on retreat I had an opportunity to watch my mind’s machinations around accepting things as they are. Shortly after the retreat began, I noticed some people around me expressing dissatisfaction with the food, the accommodations, the sound system, etc. I reflected on how these shortcomings didn’t bother me and that I was fortunate to just accept things as they were. However, as I awoke at five on the first morning of the retreat, that equanimity quickly began to elude me. Later, as I struggled to stay awake through the morning Dharma talk by Sr. Chan Khong, I saw that my attachment to sleep triggered a sense of lack similar to what I had observed earlier in some of my Sangha siblings. It reminded me that I wasn’t immune to the distress of wanting, it was just that what I wanted was different.
The idea of accepting things how they are, acknowledging we have “enough conditions to be happy right here and right now,” is a central teaching of our practice. As the retreat continued, While I did my best to be happy in the present and also to give my body and mind enough sleep, I considered this balance between meeting one’s needs and accepting what is.
In The Path of Emancipation, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) tells the story of the Buddha observing a bereft peasant losing his cows as a starting point for discussing how we can become captive to even to attachments we believe to be valuable or virtuous:
When I use the word “cow,” its first meaning is something that you think is essential for your happiness. It is something you have never questioned: a position in society, a business, a diploma, an ideology. But when you get it, it seems you do not have the happiness you wanted, and you continue to suffer, even if you actually have your cows. We are invited to practice looking deeply into the nature of our cows to see whether they are really necessary for our well-being and happiness. If we find out that it is only a cow that creates more anxiety and fear, then we will be able to let it go. That is why I have asked all of you to practice looking deeply and to call your cows by their true names.
What Thay is describing may seem unrelated to my situation, because adequate sleep seems to be an obvious condition for happiness and well-being, but Thay goes on to talk about a monk who is so stressed by building a temple that he forgoes meditation and enjoying the present:
It does not mean he should not build the temple, but there are ways to build temples without making them into cows, and where you still remain a free person. Whether something is a cow or not depends on your behavior. Releasing cows does not mean releasing responsibilities.
When I think about how I can remain free even as I’m pursuing a difficult task, like trying to get enough sleep on a retreat, I consider how flexible or rigid I am about getting my need met. I notice that I can become stuck, unyielding, and preoccupied with thoughts about how to satisfy my need. I might even feel angry or resentful that it was not met in the first place. Can I shift from, “I’m a cranky mess when I don’t get enough sleep,” to “I can be present, even when I’m not feeling rested or refreshed.”?
Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will focus our Dharma Sharing on our relationship to our attachments. We will work with four questions from a worksheet provided by the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
- List the things you think are necessary to your well-being and happiness.
- Look deeply at whether each item is bringing you happiness or actually causing you to suffer.
- Consider which cow(s) you want to practice releasing.
- Write down concrete ways in your day life you can practice releasing your cow(s).
Thay’s telling of the story of the escaping cows is below. You may also be interested in Joyfully Together, an in-person afternoon of singing, sitting, walking, and sharing on Sunday, May 21, in Chevy Chase, DC.
From The Path of Emancipation: Talks from a 21-day Mindfulness Retreat by Thich Nhat Hanh
One day the Buddha was sitting with a group of monks in the woods near the city of Sravasti. They had just finished a mindful lunch and were engaged in a small Dharma discussion. Suddenly a farmer came by. He was visibly upset and shouted, “Monks, have you seen my cows?”
The Buddha said, “No, we have not seen any cows.”
“You know, monks,” the man said, “I am the most miserable person on Earth. For some reason, my twelve cows all ran away this morning. I have only two acres of sesame seed plants and this year the insects ate them all. I think I am going to kill myself.” The farmer was really suffering.
Out of compassion, the Buddha said, “No, sir, we have not seen your cows. Maybe you should look for them elsewhere.”
When the farmer was gone, the Buddha turned to his monks, looked at them deeply, smiled, and said, “Dear friends, do you know that you are the happiest people on Earth? You don’t have any cows to lose.”
So my friends, if you have cows, look deeply into the nature of your cows to see whether they are bringing you happiness or suffering. You should learn the art of releasing your cows. The key thing is to let go and free yourself.”