Last week I read a teaching by Thich Nhat Hahn that went as follows:
One day the Buddha and a few of his students were eating lunch in a pasture. As they sat, enjoying their meal, a farmer ran by frantically. He looked up at the Buddha and his disciples and asked if they had seen any cows passing by. The Buddha replied, “We have been here over an hour and have seen no cows. Perhaps you should look in another direction.” The man happily thanked the Buddha and ran off in the other direction in search of the cows. As soon as the man departed the Buddha turned to his students and said, “Now aren’t you glad you don’t have any cows to constantly worry about?”
This story has stayed with me because as Thich Nhat Hahn points out, the Buddha’s question was one in which it is often the things that bring us prestige, honor, social status, maybe even acceptance and pride that can also be the things that limit, chain, and imprison us with worry and frenetic behavior. This imprisonment occurs because in order to maintain a certain level of prestige, one needs to hold onto and thus watch these things that temporarily afford that social distinction.
Now mind you, these metaphorical cows need not be an actual cow, for some a “cow” may be an old relationship, a title, material possession, or even the amount of money you earn and make. A “cow” could be one’s body, one’s physicality, one’s weight or even functionality of the body.
Whatever your “cow” happens to be, what does retaining this possession do for your sense of clam and peace? Are you able to spend time leisurely eating lunch on a pasture like the Buddha and his monks? Or are you frantically running around always trying to keep your cows from leaving? And what might you gain by giving up just one of your cows?