Back home from holidays last week, I realised I would have to cut the lavender flowers because they were starting to dry out. I never like doing it because they look so pretty even as they’re fading, but I know that if I don’t I will end up with a lot of old, dry wood as the plants mature, and the flowers will become less robust and fragrant with each passing year. It’s hardly a big deal, but it’s another revealing test of my attachment to things.
Our unconscious expectation that things remain permanent is the main cause of our human suffering.
There is a wonderful parable about this from the life of the Buddha. One day, as the Buddha sat with a group of monks, a local farmer ran by looking very distressed and upset. The farmer asked anxiously if the monks had seen his cows, who had all run away. The Buddha answered that he hadn’t, and the farmer became even more distressed, wailing: “If I lose my cows I have lost everything of value in my life. I will have nothing left, and I will kill myself.” The farmer ran frantically down the path desperately hoping to find his cows.
The Buddha turned back to his students and said: “Do you know why monks are the happiest people in the world? It’s because they don’t have any cows. All attachments are like this; you must learn to kill your cows, because they are the cause of your suffering.”
We must all learn to kill our cows.
What are your cows? Examining this question closely is an interesting practice. We can imagine we aren’t too attached to things and then, unexpectedly, it feels difficult to cut the lavender, or say goodbye to someone, or we start to worry about the future.
Worrying and fretting about what might happen to us in any given situation means we are unconsciously assuming that we know what the outcome will be. Of course, we never do though, do we?
So worry and anxiety are genuinely useless emotions, and cut us off from our capacity to make good choices.
By remaining in the attitude of not knowing what is coming next, yet preparing ourselves each day by letting go of what we know is no longer suitable, we can maintain our composure and move forward more gracefully in life. By killing our cows, we allow ourselves the space to know that we don’t know what is going to happen around the corner, and by not clinging to the people and things we think we possess, we don’t have to live with so anxiously like the poor farmer.
The past few months we have seen spectacular wildfires destroy several communities and massive forests around the world. The loss of life – all life – is deeply sad, and also inevitable. Wildfires are nature’s way of regenerating itself, staring new growth and improving the soil. Because our human population has increased so much we’re living closer to danger zones and are now the primary cause of wildfires, yet we are surprised when they happen.
In the face of apparent destruction and loss, there will always be some form of regeneration.
As long as we can practice letting go of the specific forms we prefer and cling to, we can see that there is always a potential for creating new forms, ad infinitum.
The word crisis comes from the Latinised form of the Greek word krisis, which is the “turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death,” and literally means “judgment, discrimination, selection”. This is where we are now: very much at a turning point, which requires stepping out of our comfort zone and into That New Thing.
So, what are your cows? Are you ready to kill them, or do you want to run around frantically trying to keep them in order? Life is happening today, according to the quality of choices we make right now. Like holding a fistful of sand, if we can loosen our grasp on things just a little bit, we will find the capacity to embrace so much more, and be with it a while as it runs through our fingers.
With much love and light as always,