Getting Beyond Good and Bad

There’s a zen story of an old farmer who 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 on his misfortune. “What a terrible accident!” they all said. “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.

What’s the lesson here? There are many interpretations of this story, but they usually miss the mark.

  • There’s no such thing as good or bad
  • You can’t fight fate, so don’t bother
  • Nothing happens by accident
  • There’s no point in having strong reactions to anything

While there are truths to the above, the deepest lesson of the story is subtle but powerful. Like the neighbors in the story, we’re conditioned to identify with our experiences. When good things happen, we’re happy and we seek to maintain the experience. A product makes you feel good, so you buy more of it.

When bad things happen, we seek to change it. This experience makes you feel bad, so you take steps to avoid it in the future. On the surface, these are basic strategies necessary for survival and managing one’s life. They are a necessary and reasonable part of being human.

Where we get into trouble is when we manage our lives entirely around seeking good and avoiding bad. The pursuit of happiness, for most people, is exactly this: a lifelong project to feel good as often as possible, a project that has very little to do with the nature of reality. It is the root of anxiety, depression, and certainly addiction.

Pain is a part of life, but suffering is something else. Suffering is what happens when we resist pain. When something bad-feeling happens, it causes pain. But if you add onto that experience thoughts about how terrible it is, it gets even worse. Do you notice? Do the obsessive thoughts about what should or shouldn’t be help anything?

When something good-feeling happens, we grasp at it. We want more. We worry about losing it. This also causes suffering. Bad things will happen. Good things will happen. Attachment to either causes suffering.

We’re conditioned to anchor our awareness and even our identities to our current experience. When someone asks, “How are you?” we reflexively look to the content of our current experience to find the answer. You just had a great meal. You just made a sale. So you say “I’m good.” Or you slept poorly last night, and had to speak to an angry customer, so you say, “Not so great.”

Throughout your life, you’ve experienced an enormous variety of good and bad, yes? So how are you, in the context of your entire life? Where do you look? Is who you are a product of your experience today? Experience constantly changes, moment to moment, so to anchor your identity to that chaos is, well, the insanity in which most of us live.

It leads us to try, with all our might, to control our experiences in order to manage our sense of ourselves. We strive to maintain the good and mitigate the bad, and we build our entire lives around this activity, calling it the noble “pursuit of happiness.”

How’s this working for you?

Isn’t it still the case that bad shows up when you least expect it, and the good always feels like it’s slipping away?

You may be thinking, “So, what’s the alternative?” and this is the right question.

The answer is to cultivate the practice of radical acceptance, anchoring your identity in that which never changes—that which is the canvas good and bad are painted on. This is what the man in the story knows in his bones.

But I know what you’re thinking: “If I accept everything as it is, then I’ll lose all control and direction in my life!” to which I would respond, “Can you be absolutely sure that’s true? Have you tried it?”

Radical acceptance does not mean the end of preferences, feelings, self-care, decisions to change things, or any other aspect of the human experience. It’s not a shift in what you do, it’s a shift in who you are. When you seek to change things from an initial place of total acceptance, you do so in a way that is in harmony with reality, rather than resistance.

You already do this to some degree. It’s the governing dynamic behind, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” and every other piece of mediation, negotiation, or sales wisdom. But it doesn’t have to be just a tool, it can be where you live.

Would you like to be so centered in the immutable center of your Self that you are not hooked by any passing good or bad (and they are always passing)? The practice leads to something far deeper than content-based happiness: it leads to a deep, abiding fulfillment, because that canvas is Life Itself, and you realize You are It, and It is You.

Meditation, done properly, is one way to cultivate this ability to accept reality as it is. The other, less-known practice, is called “radical self-inquiry.” It’s the subject of the online, hands-on, seminar I’m teaching for eleven weeks beginning January 10, 2019.

Do you want to be more like the man in the story? Then I’ll see you there. If not, I wish you well on your journey. Everyone, in my opinion, must pursue happiness to discover for themselves it cannot be found. When you’re ready to try another way, I’ll be here.

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