That's no bull

Zen has a wonderful, 900-year-old pictorial story, which, in modern terminology, would be called no bull.

It's actually called the Ox-herding Pictures, and since Zen essentially teaches without words, it's appropriate to depict man's search for himself in illustrations.

The ox is a metaphor for the mind, which refuses to conform to any discipline, and the oxherd is the Zen practitioner trying to find his true self.

The mind was compared with a wild ox because it had to be captured, tethered and broken, a long, slow process. Following the example, the Zen student is encouraged to directly experience his own mind through meditation, subdue anxieties and desires, experience oneness with all and to find peace.

But it isn't just in Zen; all literature is rife with search stories, variations of the ox-herding story.

Prometheus, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Knights of the Round Table, or a native American on a vision quest — it's about anyone who confronts adversity, is changed in the process and then brings back something to his community.

Fairy tales are a variation of the search motif.

"The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth," mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

"The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand."

The process is always the same: departure, initiation and return. All the stories are really the story of all of us, on a personal search for fire, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the bull.

Once we start on the path of self-discovery, there's no going back. We might never discover who we are, but we'll never be content with who we were.

"The journey begins as an exhausting search for an elusive quarry," Timothy Freke writes in Zen Wisdom. "The seeker is pictured in search of himself, but all he can find is rustling leaves and singing cicadas, and he does not yet realize that these are the very clues he seeks.

"During this stage, the student is often confused and discouraged. He doesn't really know what it is he is looking for."

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the bull only appears lost because the oxherd thinks he is alone, separate from others, from the world, which both religion and science argue is an illusion.

So the oxherd, the searcher — us — seeks, reaching crossroads, uncertain which one to take, going one way, doubling back, taking another until he discovers a teaching, a method that works, and he sees the bull's footprints everywhere. He sees through the illusion and realizes everything is a reflection of himself.

"Better keep yourself clean and bright," wrote George Bernard Shaw. "You are the window through which you must see the world."

The student must train his mind so it doesn't conjure fantasies or watch movies in his head and begins Zen training until the mind is tamed and he accepts that it is not other people who cause his anger and angst, but himself.

With practice, vigilance and discipline, the mind is calmed and the oxherd is no longer concerned with success or failure, or what the world thinks or demands.

"He realizes that the bull has only been a temporary subject of his quest," Freke writes. "His search has led to the realization that the separate self, that he previously took himself to be, is not his true self. The seeker knows his Buddha-nature — his deeper identity."

With that comes the realization all is one, that everyone and everything is but a reflection of a deeper reality, the Absolute.

"Although the vision that the seeker has been seeking has finally been attained, there is no self to glory in this achievement. Mind, clear of all limitations. Confusion is replaced by serenity. Ideas of holiness are irrelevant," writes Freke.

That brings joy, which encompasses sadness and happiness, but is greater than both. With joy comes acceptance of the self and the world.

The search is often portrayed as something outside ourselves, a heroic quest that summons physical courage and mental strength, but essentially is a journey inward.

The searcher goes "into depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world," writes Campbell.

"The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the "king's son" who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power.

"From this point of view, the hero is symbolic of the divine creative and redemptive image, which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life."

The final word goes to Zen: "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."

Even the enlightened have to pay the hydro and telephone bills.


Faith in everything

Faith can not only move mountains, it can transform lives, even the lives of the agnostic and the atheist.

Many have lost faith in religion, given up on the mystery and rituals because we think, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have seen the man behind the myth.

We think we have lost our faith in faith, but we’re wrong.

Our whole life is governed by faith. Without it, we would be frozen in fear, afraid to peek out from under the covers. From the moment our eyes open until they close at night, faith guides us.

We have faith that the sun will rise, that when we drift off to sleep, we will awaken, that the alarm clock, the shower, the toaster and the coffee maker will work.

We have faith that the electricity flowing behind our walls will fry the bacon, but not us. We have faith that:

  • our car will start – and stop – and when we get out our feet won’t go through the pavement
  • gravity will work
  • the laws of electromagnetism won’t be repealed
  • the millions of neutrinos flowing though us won’t suddenly gain mass and rip as apart
  • the atoms coming into us will know the jobs of the ones they’re replacing.

“The atoms that come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out again, always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday,” said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

We have faith our bodies will remember to renew themselves without us being aware we’re being replaced and unlike the snake shedding its skin or the tarantula molting, we are not left vulnerable. It just happens, like the owner’s manual proclaims.

We have faith that the TV will turn on, the balcony won’t collapse and that our kids will ask for money and the car on Friday night.

We have such faith in everything except ourselves.

 “Faith is a faculty of the mind that finds its highest expression in the religious attitude,” Ernest Holmes wrote in The Science of Mind.

“But always the man who has faith in his own ability accomplishes far more than one who has no confidence in himself. Those who have great faith, have great power.”

People with great faith change the world. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad are the obvious religious examples, but the men and women who had faith in what they were doing also made our world better:

  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Michael Faraday
  • Charles Darwin
  • the Wright brothers
  • Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, the first to find microbes, a seminal discovery that has saved millions of lives.

Even misplaced faith can still change the world. Christopher Columbus believed fervently that he could find a shortcut to India and travelled to the great capitals of Europe trying to convince anyone who would listen to back his plan.

Finally, Queen Isabella pawned her jewels, Columbus ran into North America, and Spain became a world power.

We don’t have to make great inventions, or discover new laws, all we need is a little faith in ourselves and we can change the world as we are transformed. And we don’t have to make great sacrifices or spend out life cloistered away in a lab to do it.

The world exists only in our thoughts and when we change those, we fix the world. There is no objective reality. We see the world as we are; it’s a mirror of our intention and our attitude. We can argue for our limitations and get them or have the faith that we can do anything.

And it doesn’t have to be difficult. “Always think of what you have to do as easy and it will be,” said Emile Coue, the French psychologist called the father of applied conditioning. His self-hypnotizing slogan – every day, in every way, I feel better and better — has become a mantra of Silva Method.

Our thoughts create our physical reality, our biography becomes our biology; we can make ourselves healthy or sick.

“The greatest single discovery of my generation is that we can change our circumstances by a mere change of our attitude,” said William James, the father of American psychology.

We take so much for granted that we’ve become blind to the crucial fact that we are an integral and essential part of the world. It has been said that the universe is so finely balanced that if one atom were removed, it would collapse.

The big bang would become the big whimper.

Some believe the universe is god, that the big bang was his/her/its birth. Cosmic inflation was its initial growth spurt and the rapid expansion a few billion years ago was another spurt; it’s growing at the speed of light.

That makes us part of god, a sub-atomic particle in its little toe maybe – or the cosmic equivalent – but still god in the way that a wave is the ocean.

All we need is to have the faith in ourselves that we have in our microwave; when we press the start button we know, we believe, we accept that it will cook the food.

Would we transform our lives if we proclaimed 100 times a day that we have faith?

Though we seem to be sleeping
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,
and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are.
— Rumi

Kindness is best prescription

Pharmaceutical companies must love cold-and-flu season. Even the people who don’t go to the doctor buy chemical concoctions to make them feel better.

But we don’t need to go to the doctor or drugstore. We can write a prescription ourselves, even if we aren’t sick, because it’s preventative as well as curative.

The prescription is kindness. But we don’t have to be kind because it’s the nice thing to do; we act kindly because it’s good for our physical and mental health.

Odd, isn’t it, that the most selfish thing we can do is help others.

That isn’t touchy-feely, warm and cuddly stuff. It’s cold science. Numerous studies show kindness causes significant health benefits, both physical and mental.

Kindness is a factor no matter where we are on the spectrum: from the first charka to the seventh, from survival to self-actualization, from biology to spirituality.

Being kind helped our ancestors survive in the jungles of Africa and it helps us survive in the workplace; when we’re kind to others, whether it was sharing food during a famine, or helping a stressed colleague finish a project, they reciprocate.

That’s survival and biology.

Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me,” while the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.”

That’s self-actualization and spirituality.

In his 1991 book, The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, Allan Luks, former executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, documented a study he had done with 3,000 people.

His conclusion: “Helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders both serious and minor, psychological and physical."

Helping others can enhance feelings of joy, emotional resilience, and vigour. It also:

  • reduces our sense of isolation
  • decreases the intensity of physical pain
  • increases our sense of self-worth, happiness, and optimism
  • feelings of helplessness and depression.
  • Kindness can be as simple as smiling at a harried grocery store clerk, being patient if he makes a mistake or complimenting her on how she handled a difficult customer.

There’s even a week — Random Acts of Kindness Week — where we can practise being kind so we can get in shape for the rest of the year. In the event our niceness muscles have atrophied, here are a few random exercises to kick-start our kindness regimen.

Check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website: http://www.actsofkindness.org/.

  • Pick up litter
  • Take a dog for a walk at the SPCA animal shelter
  • Pay for the coffee and dessert of someone in a restaurant
  • Donate blood
  • Become a volunteer
  • Praise the work or attitude of a co-worker
  • Bring coffee or tea to a colleague
  • Say good morning to everyone
  • Give a compliment, especially to a spouse or a child
  • Practise non-judgment.

“Isn't it amazing how often we can touch someone's life, and enrich our own, by a very simple act? Kindness, pass it on ... what a wonderful way in which to pattern our lives,” Betty, a community worker in Washington is quoted on the Random Acts of Kindness website.

Since we often treat people how they treat us, we can take the initiative with one act of kindness and start a ripple effect that ends up washing over us.

“One synonym for the word kindness is the term humanity,” Claire Buckis wrote in a Reader’s Digest article. “Kindness is essentially a recognition of the fact that we’re all human, an acknowledgement that we’re all in this together.

“Most of what makes life worth living depends on at least some of us being altruistic some of the time,” Professor Sam Bowles told her. “We cannot address problems like global climate change, the spread of disease and political violence by appealing only to selfish motives.”

Bowles published a study showing people resent the idea of being offered a reward to do good. “People enjoy being kind to others much as they enjoy eating ice-cream. It gives us pleasure.”

Hans Selye, the Montreal doctor who coined the word stress, also came up with the term altruistic egoism as a way to combat it.

His prescription was to do good for self by helping others with “the creation of feelings of accomplishment and security through the inspiration in others of love, good will and gratitude for what we have done or are likely to do in the future.”

We can start being kind this week, practise all spring and summer for World Kindness Week World Kindness Day, in November just in time for the start of the next cold-and-flu season.

A few more random thoughts about kindness:

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now, that I am old, I admire kind people.”  — Joshua Heschel

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop

“The ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty and truth.” — Albert Einstein

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate."”— Albert Schweitzer

“Kindness is the kingpin of success in life, it is the prime factor in overcoming friction and making the human machinery run smoothly.” — Andrew Chapman

Unlike the United States, we don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, we can, however, pledge to ourselves that we will be kind, just like students at St. Vladimir School in Edmonton:

I pledge to myself, on this day,
To try to be kind, in every way.
To every person, big and small,
I will help them if they fall.
When I love myself and others, too,
That is the best that I can do!


Keep it simple

The simple truth is life is not complicated, but we choose to make it so.

Newton’s third law of motion applies to our life as much as it does physics: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If we’re nice to people, they’re nice back. We know that yelling doesn’t produce a loving response. It didn’t work when we were yelled as kids, it didn’t work when we yelled at our kids, and it doesn’t work when we yell at the kid inside us.

“To be simple means to make a choice about what is important, and to let go of all the rest,” Zen master John Daido Loori writes in The Zen of Creativity.

“When we are able to do this, our vision expands, our heads clears, and we can better see the details of our lives in all their incredible wonder and beauty.”

Henry David Thoreau put it even simpler: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

We don’t have to build a cabin in the woods. We don’t even have to do anything drastic or dramatic. We simply become aware of what we do and what we think.

Remember KISS? No, not the rock band, but the rule: Keep it simple, stupid.

We like complex. If a simple version of what we have to do is staring at us, we look for the complicated.

Occam’s Razor, named for a 14th century Franciscan monk because he shaved away all unnecessary assumptions, says all thing being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.

If we’re driving across the bridge and the gas light goes on, don’t assume the fuel pump is shot and the head gaskets will have to be replaced, and then we work up all sorts of dire assumptions about what our life is going to like.

Pull into a gas station and fill up.

Here’s a simple truth: Seventy per cent of everything in the universe is made of hydrogen atoms: one proton and one electron.

But just as simple is another basic truth: the reality we see is a reflection of our thoughts. The problem usually isn’t the problem; it’s our feelings about it.

“Life reflects back to us exactly what we expect based on our belief system,” Patrick. J. Harbula writes in The Magic of the Soul.

“It is our thought process that holds our experience of reality in place. It takes energy to hold the perceptual world in place. When we release that hold, we free up more energy for magical creativity.”

If we don’t blame others for what happens to us, we’ll feel better and have more energy. We know trying to change our family, our neighbours, our city, our province, our country and the world, doesn’t work. It’s more effective to change ourselves.

We don’t need to have an opinion about everything; we don’t need to comment on Martha’s hair or Joe’s shirt, or the fact that the coffee lineup is getting longer and the servers slower.

We could even get really radical and accept that life is easy, to accept that we can have it all, that we can be healthy, wealthy and wise.

It all starts with why. When we don’t like something, or get angry, or decide, before we even try something, that we couldn’t do it, we ask why.

We don’t need to judge why we’re afraid, just be aware. What we bring into consciousness we can — if we choose — change. As long as we are unconscious of our motivation, we are victims of circumstance.

There are  many things we can do to make our life simpler, here are a few:

  • Be positive. Science has documented that happy thoughts produce a different body chemistry than thinking depressing, anguished ones.
  • Be open minded and receptive. We don’t need to embrace every lunatic idea that comes along, but we don’t need to have an opinion about it either. We might not accept it, but we don’t have to reject it. Just be open to it.
  • Have a be attitude. “An attitude is a cluster of thoughts strung together, which turn on particular nerve cells in the brain, which then stimulate specific neurotransmitters to make you think, act and feel certain ways,” Dr. Joe Dispenza writes in Evolve Your Brain.
  • Be forgiving. Hanging onto issues that hurt us long ago means we still carry the pain. Let it go.
  • Be mindful. Be present. It’s the regret and guilt for what we did or didn’t do that produces most of our angst now.
  • Be grateful — for everything. As we age, we tend to complain more about our body and how it doesn’t do what we think it should. Maybe it creaks a little more than it did when we were 20, but it’s still amazing. Even the most sophisticated piece of machinery at its best can’t match our body at its worst.
  • Ignore what others think of us. Yeah, our parents were concerned about what the neighbours, the teachers and the priests thought. We don’t need to.
  • Slow down. Defy the screams in our head that yell Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! When the driver in front of us takes an extra 10 seconds to turn, big deal; when another driver is in such a hurry that he pull dangerously in front us, let him go. It’s better than having him on our bumper urging us on with sign language. In the context of a lifetime, how big a deal is a few seconds? For that matter, how big a deal is our angst du jour? What was it Feb. 3, 2017?

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Leonardo da Vinci said.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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