Recently, I discovered a parable shared by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book How To Relax. It goes something like this:
“The Buddha was having a silent lunch with his monks in the woods. A farmer came hurrying by and asked if they had seen his cows, which had left him that morning. It appeared the farmer was suffering greatly. The Buddha, upon seeing how distraught the farmer was, compassionately told the farmer they had not seen his cows. Once the farmer left, the Buddha turned to his monks and said, “Dear monks, you are very lucky. You don’t have any cows to lose.”
Clinging to the cows
Hanh goes on to explain that these “cows” stand for the things we need to let go of, one of which is our idea of what we think will bring us happiness. He explains that when we cling to these cows, they get in the way of us actually being happy.
It’s our attachment to the cows in our lives that creates our suffering. When we cling to people and things and believe our happiness comes from them, we’ll suffer because that’s not where happiness lives. Instead, as Hahn goes on to say, we need to see that our happiness must come from within ourselves.
A very similar idea was posted in a video by Mark Groves on his createthelove Instagram page. Although Mark talks about love in his video, I think I can substitute the word happiness and the same idea will be true. I’ve taken the liberty to do so with his message. Here’s what he said:
“If you place your happiness in the container of someone (or something) else you will be disappointed because it will be taken away from you to show you that happiness doesn’t live there. Happiness is cultivated from within ourselves. It is birthed through our behaviors…it is validated by how we show up, not by another person (or thing).”
Leaving the cows behind
All of this reminds me of the struggle I had to leave my former husband and the home in which I lived. I was clinging to the idea of what I wanted my marriage to be and to things like my dining room rug, my patio space, and my bookshelves, thinking they were what brought me happiness. It was a struggle to think that all of this would no longer be a part of my life. Leaving all of it behind felt made me feel empty.
But a few months after I moved out, I began to see it all differently. My new place had very few things–mostly used and borrowed stuff. I left a lot of cows behind. Yet in time, I found myself happy and at peace. I realized in the case of my marriage, I was clinging to something that didn’t exist. Yes, on paper we were married. But in practice, we weren’t. I was clinging to nothing. My happiness didn’t live there.
In the case of my things, I realized what I was clinging to was just stuff. They were just cows. My happiness didn’t live there, either. Instead, as both Hahn and Groves say, I was slowly finding that my happiness lives within me.
Cows will come and go
What I know for sure is that although there are some people and things that’ll be with me for a very long time, there are some that won’t. People and things come in and out of my life for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the loss is okay, other times I experience great pain. Of all the things that come and go, the hardest loss for me is the people. It is easier to say it’s just a cow when it comes to stuff, but not so much with a relationship.
And I’ve come to realize that the suffering I experience at their loss is my attempt to cling to something or someone that is no longer mine to hold. People and things often leave when they’ve served their purpose. And more often than not, the loss is creating a space for something new or different.
When I first started looking for an apartment, I met with a landlord who was divorced. He told me about his former home, the beautiful gardens he’d created, and how hard it was to experience that loss. He then said, “But look at what I have now.” He pointed to his current garden area, full of flowers, vegetables, and fruits. “It’s not the same,” he said, “But it’s just as nice if not better. I think he had learned the lesson of letting go of the cows.
Happiness doesn’t live in the cows
In The New Earth, Eckhart Tolle sums it up well:
“The Joy of Being, which is the only true happiness, cannot come to you through any form, possession, achievement, person, or event–through anything that happens. That joy cannot come to you–ever. It emanates from the formless dimension within you, from consciousness itself and thus is one with who you are.”
I’m discovering how true this is. My happiness doesn’t live in the cows. My happiness lives within me. It bubbles up through my behaviors and the way I live my life.
I’m doing my best to live a cling-free life. And now I’m seeing my relationships and things as places to expand, enhance, and share the happiness that is already inside me.