With so much chaos surrounding us, with so much conflicting information circulating in the Internet, and so much use of doublespeak and manipulation in persuasive media communication, it can be difficult to discern just where truth lies. The temptation is to magnify the story that calls to us, and to demonize those who are called by an opposing story. An oft-repeated Zen story about a farmer and his fortunes points out the difficulty in deciding if an event is good or bad. Because the terms “good” and “bad” are related to the perspective from which things are viewed, and because none of us has the wide overview that embraces all time, those of us who think we know may have widely differing viewpoints, some, or none of which may be “real”. Here is the story, as taken from the Internet.
There once was an old Zen farmer. Every day, the farmer used his horse to help work his fields and keep his farm healthy.
But one day, the horse ran away. All the villagers came by and said, “We’re so sorry to hear this. This is such bad luck.”
But the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”
The villagers were confused but decided to ignore him. A few weeks went by and then one afternoon, while the farmer was working outside, he looked up and saw his horse running toward him. But the horse was not alone. The horse was returning to him with a whole herd of horses. So now the farmer had 10 horses to help work his fields.
All the villagers came by to congratulate the farmer and said, “Wow! This is such good luck!”
But the farmer responded, “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?
A few weeks later, the farmer’s son came over to visit and help his father work on the farm. While trying to tame one of the horses, the farmer’s son fell and broke his leg.
The villagers came by to commiserate and said, “How awful. This is such bad luck.”
Just as he did the first time, the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”
A month later, the farmer’s son was still recovering. He wasn’t able to walk or do any manual labor to help his father around the farm.
A regiment of the army came marching through town conscripting every able-bodied young man to join them. When the regiment came to the farmer’s house and saw the young boy’s broken leg, they marched past and left him where he lay.
Of course, all the villagers came by and said, “Amazing! This is such good luck. You’re so fortunate.”
And you know the farmer’s response by now…
“Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?”
We often try to control the events of our lives by deciding what outcome would be good and what would be bad, and then working very hard to achieve one and avoid the other.
When things go according to our plans, we’re overjoyed. But when things don’t turn out as we’d hoped, we’re deflated. We might even lash out at others who we think are responsible for creating the ‘bad’ outcome.
It’s as if we’ve drawn these two rigid columns of Good and Bad in our minds, and we’re constantly chasing more checkmarks in the Good column and none in the Bad.
But as the story of the Zen farmer shows us, we don’t always know whether an event will ultimately prove to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
So much of life can’t be neatly categorized as Good or Bad.
Something that seems like good news in the present moment might turn out to bring inconveniences or even heartbreak in the future. And something that appears to be a bad thing in the present moment might become very useful on another occasion.
Think about where this is true in your own life…
Maybe there was something you were very upset about when it occurred (like a breakup or job loss), but in time, it turned out to be an important catalyst for growth, new relationships and fulfilling experiences.
Or maybe there was a time when something happened that seemed like wonderful news (like making a new friend, or the political candidate you voted for being elected) but over time, you realized that supposed ‘good’ thing wound up making your life far more unpleasant.
What would it be like to go through life like the farmer?
Taking the perspective of “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?” allows for a deep sense of equanimity – in the meditative traditions, this is considered to be one of the highest forms of happiness we can experience, because we’re not constantly fighting our moments.
Equanimity means we look at life with calmness and an even temper, even in difficult situations.
This doesn’t mean we become numb to the real difficulties in our personal or collective lives. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we rationalize and passively accept injustice in the hopes that one day it’ll lead to a good outcome.
But when we learn to stop grasping at life’s moments to coerce them into becoming only exactly what we want, we experience a greater fluidity and ease, which supports whatever action we choose to take.
This week set the intention that you will take the perspective of the farmer as much as possible. If a challenging event occurs and you find yourself gripping in frustration, take a few deep breaths and repeat to yourself “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”.
And similarly, if something exciting happens and you find yourself wanting to cling to that feeling, almost as if you’re scared of losing the good experience, repeat to yourself, “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?”. Notice what happens.
I think the point of the story is not admitting that one’s own view is “wrong” or that any particular view, official or alternative, is the absolute “right” one. As humans, we are given the capacity of choice, which comes with a responsibility to thoughtfully use that choice. The point of the story is to not simplify perceptions and solutions into absolute categories called “good” and “bad” and to not assume that we know or can control the grand plan of creation.
For example, there are three broad theories (of which I am aware) about the current chaos. One is that if we all simply continue to wear masks a little longer and all get vaccinated, we will emerge into an age of prosperity and freedom in which there will be no more of the restrictions currently imposed – almost, but not quite, a return to an undefined “normal”. Another is that we are headed by design into an era of complete collapse and emerging totalitarianism, for which we need to be alert and prepared. A third is that we are in a stage of evolution which will not only result in a different social order (one which protects the earth) but in an entirely different kind of human. Is only one of these “right”? Even if one of these is the most probable, does that make the others “bad”, something to be condemned and perhaps even fought about? What will such struggle achieve? Is it possible that each perspective contains a bit of truth?
Each of us, steered by our own set of experiences and our own reflections on these experiences, must do the best we can to discern meaning and direction in the currents and eddies that surround us. Most of us apply, consciously or unconsciously, criteria in making those assessments. For example, some may choose a path of least resistance. Others choose to oppose or struggle. Some choose to build examples. One of my criteria is that we are each responsible for our own perceptions, actions, and well-being. That does not imply blame for being “wrong”, or that we can never learn from someone else. It does not imply wholesale rejection of the guidelines we have been given from our various traditions, or values that have survived the test of time. It is simply that it is counterproductive to give over our power to choose to governments, employers, spiritual leaders, heads of clan, or anyone else who is sure of the “right way” and demands we all follow along upon the path prescribed by them. Perhaps the path leads where we would like to go; perhaps it does not. We may never know if it is “right path/wrong path”, “bad luck/good luck”. We can only deal with our choices here and now, and make sure those choices are in line with the best of our understanding. We must stay ready to learn and grow. We must know and envision what we are trying to create and align our choices with our vision.
The story of the Zen farmer is also in line with that to which many of the great religions and philosophies of the world adhere: Judge Not. In other words, discern as you must, but do not use discernment to call what is perceived as “good” or “bad” and set these against each other. For example, joy is often perceived as “good” and grief as “bad”. Yet each brings its own rewards, and the parameters of one actually facilitate the parameters of the other. Without the polarities, we would know equanimity, but neither joy nor sorrow. Let us take our energy away from making judgments and instead strive to perceive ever more deeply and to respond with love towards each other, no matter the differences of opinion. Wherever we perceive love (not talking about romance), that is the direction in which the polarities will weaken, and the chaos will dissipate.
The solstice is shortly upon us, when the seasons change and in the north the days begin to lengthen. Let us welcome the solstice by suspending judgment in favor of respect and love.