March 26, 2018

The Often Overlooked Lesson in the Taoist Farmer Story

I wrote about the Taoist Farmer story in my post Schrodinger's Cat and the Value of Uncertainty in a Continuously Connected World, but as I continue to work on myself, it reveals new layers of meaning for me. Here is the story again:

There is a Taoist story of 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 what they called 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.

Executive/Life coaches often share the Taoist Farmer myth with clients who are fused to a particular "story" about the situation they find themselves in. These coaches are trying to get their clients to create a gap between their story about a situation and what the ultimate reality might be.

Coaches point out that the lesson of the Taoist Farmer, is, of course, that no event, in and of itself, can truly be judged as good or bad, lucky or unlucky, fortunate or unfortunate. Only with time is the whole story made clear. The thinking goes that helping a client get some space between their story and reality might reduce stress and/or help them move through life with more grace. Nothing wrong with that.

But there is something important here that is often overlooked. The Taoist farmer didn't cultivate detachment as a means to an end. He didn't keep an open mind to achieve better outcomes for himself. He didn't distance himself from his story about events to lower his blood pressure and stop kickin' the dog. He didn't answer "maybe" to maintain aplomb as a way to better deal with Life's ups and downs.

What looks to be an open-minded approach to life here is not a "strategy." It's an outcome.

The truth here is this: he didn't care.

The Taoist Farmer here literally does not care what happens. He doesn't divide Life into good events and bad events, like piles of laundry. He experiences Life as one thing....undifferentiated energy/consciousness. Given a choice between another Ice Age or another Renaissance, it would be a jump ball for him.

What looks to be an open-minded approach to life here is not a "strategy." It's an outcome...a byproduct of what he was searching for and of his ultimate realization.

If your clients are tired of being whipsawed by their reactions and want more equanimity in their lives, it is fine to tell them the Taoist Farmer story.

But it might be even better to point out the path the farmer walked and why he walked it. As the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho said: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought."

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought."
Matsuo Basho

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