There is a long honored Zen story about a man riding a speeding horse. As horse and rider gallop dangerous close to a small group of travelers along the same road, a man nearly trampled calls out to the rider, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” The man on horseback desperately answers over his shoulder, “I don’t know! You will have to ask the horse!”
The state of affairs for that rider is exactly as it is for most of us. While in the saddle, we have no command over our direction or destination. “We are riding horses we cannot control,” Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hanh observed about this story.
But the truth of the matter is, there is little control to be had – over horses – over anything. It is a false notion to think that we can exert our will over our circumstances. Oh, one might manage things for a little while, “with a place for everything and everything in its place,” but places and things have a way of getting jostled.
The people you work with, or the people you work for, are going to be uncooperative. The systems you have put your confidence in – religious, social, political – will never act exactly as you wish. Your children, be they four or forty, won’t do what you tell them to do.
Your own body and emotions will rebel against you. The stock market, no matter how savvy your investment, will prove to have a mind of its own. On and on I could go: Every relationship, stage of life, challenge at work, decision, health diagnosis, or family crisis has the potential to become a bucking bronco, tossing you from the saddle.
Switching from land to sea – another tossing, turning, uncontrollable entity – it might be helpful to think of your world as a great ocean. Its ever-churning waves keep crashing against you and your vessel. If you are waiting for the waves to settle, thinking that will aid you in controlling life, you will die waiting. Sure, the sea will subside, falling as slick as glass from time to time, but the billows and winds will always return.
Thus, inner peace – call it acceptance, serenity, resilience, or some other synonym – is the stability achieved within, for only chaos reigns without. Inner peace is a sort of ballast, a centering weight that provides stability as one sails the sea. It keeps the ship afloat, balanced, riding the waves instead of being swamped by them.
Most everything you wish you could do something about is beyond your ability to do so. That’s okay. You can learn to live with it, go with it, and roll with the waves that are certain to come. For it is the wise man or woman who knows that control is an illusion; and it is the skilled sailor who understands that he or she cannot control the weather or the water. He or she can only learn to steady and sail the ship.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop