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What If Your Experience Isn't Good or Bad, It Just Is?: A Zen Parable of Non-Judgement

There is a Zen parable I heard years ago that I have continued to recall whenever I am met with disappointments or easy wins. It’s a kind of wisdom that is subtle at first but give the tale a moment to soak into the earth of your wisdom body, and you’ll know what I mean when I say this Zen story has a nourishing and simple potency that stays with you. It did for me. Read the story first, and then I’ll share more about what happened that causes me to continuously return to the lesson this story offers.

The parable is this—

Once upon a time, there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

In March 2020 I taught my last yoga class to complete my requirements to earn my 200-hour yoga teaching certification through a local teaching studio in Bend. The program was ten months long, requiring me to spend one full and intense weekend a month with my cohort of fellow students, new friends I had come to adore. The program challenged me to find the edge of myself, pressing past ideas of who I thought I was as I took on new ways of being in the world. It was a time of expansive growth, spiritual nourishment, and deep alignment between my body, spirit, and mind. I chose this program at this time to honor my value of connection and community, and that was exactly what I did by opening my heart to the people and the process. We gathered for the last time to complete our program, graduate, and bid farewell in celebration on the first Saturday in March.

Two weeks later, Bend schools were shut down, and the world slowed to a halt as Covid-19 raced across the country like wildfire in a windstorm. Suddenly the community we had all come to rely on was gone as if a big, heavy door was slammed shut on our lives as we knew it. It was easy to disparage, fret and give over to the fear of not knowing what will come around the next corner. It was early in the days of the pandemic when I sat beside my kids on the couch mid-day piecing together a puzzle wondering how long we might be here, suspended in this bubble of safety and uncertainty, that I remembered this Zen story and worked to suspend my judgment. When I did I noticed I could more easily access what I was present with that was not scary or uncertain, but was good, tangible, and steady.

In the story, the farmer understands the true nature of life, that you can’t judge any event as an “end” in a way. There aren’t definite breaks that separate one moment from another, and there isn’t a perfectly formulated end to which everything builds.

What we learn, and I learned it through the series of disappointments, volatility, compassion, and kindness, is that there’s always tomorrow. And whether the day was good or bad, there are a million effects that can arise from one event. Good and bad are interconnected; they are one. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. If things seem perfect, they aren’t. If they seem awful, they may not be as bad as you think. Things can change in an instant, at all times. And they will, at some point or another.

Consider your own disappointment or difficulty, and consider this–how would it support you to suspend judgment of what this event means in your life? Is it possible it means the opposite? Imagine that.

We, humans, are meaning-makers. What we don’t know or understand lives in our psyche as a hole we want to bridge with stories we make up, assumptions that we pull from the evidence available, or beliefs by which we are operating. Our work is to develop awareness about what these stories are that we come to live by unwittingly, and unconsciously. By shedding light on them we can begin to disempower the assumptions that one thing is good or bad, and just stay a bit longer in the discomfort of not knowing. It is from a place of accepting what is that we can truly begin to practice non-judgment of events, of others, and most importantly of self.

What judgment are you willing to release (good or bad) to practice non-judgment in your life today?

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