When my son was little, I bought him the book Zen Shorts.
It is a beautifully illustrated book about a panda who eats bamboo cake, does calligraphy, swims and tells old zen stories to his neighbors, three siblings who have no visible parents.
One of the stories in the book is about a farmer who has a horse. When the horse runs away, all of his neighbors come by and wail about what bad luck it is. The farmer, who has a masterly handle on big picture strategy, tells the neighbors, “maybe.”
Then the horse comes back with a whole pack of wild horses. Now the farmer is the owner of many horses. The nosy neighbors laud the farmer’s good luck. He doesn’t join the crowd and still just says, “maybe.”
When the farmer and his son are breaking the wild horses, the farmer’s son falls and fractures a femur. The neighbors, who are really getting annoying at this point with their relentless opinions, go on and on about bad luck. The farmer sticks to his maybe guns.
War erupts and there is a draft. The military sweeps the town of young men, all but the boy with the broken leg. The neighbors get mouthy again about good luck and the farmer says, “maybe.”
You can imagine this scenario to infinity, right? I like to imagine that the swarthy farmer builds a high wall around his property to keep the neighbors out, but you know, an aside.
The moral to this story is (bamboo drum roll, please):
There is no such thing as bad or good luck.
We really have no business assigning judgment to anything.
In fact, all the things are just points of interest on a path that leads somewhere, and somewhere is just another part of the path with different points of interest.
Yeah, I know. I’m zen as shit right now. Don’t hate.
10 years ago, when I was waiting to be sentenced for selling ecstasy and I didn’t know whether or not I was going to have to go to prison, I really wanted to beg the powers that be to keep me out of prison. Because, obviously, prison equals bad and being out of prison equals good, right?
As it turns out, I ended up going to prison and it was pretty awful all around.
But I’ve mined many good things from that experience.
I can’t imagine my life without it. Perhaps my life would be better. Maybe not. Maybe I would have had some horrible accident during the two years I was there and I would be dead. Maybe prison saved my life. We don’t know. And really, it doesn’t matter.
I chose to have a neutral experience.
Instead of wishing not to go, I hoped only to be strong enough to thrive in any outcome. I made it my practice. And as a result, more opportunities could present themselves. And they did.
Deciding that any one thing about yourself or your life is either bad or good creates a very small container for your life. You can’t always be failing miserably or experiencing wild success. Yet, because of this very human trait of sizing everything up within a context of attraction or aversion, we can hardly help ourselves and our world contracts. Eventually we have created our own prison.
You eat tortellini with alfredo sauce and it’s like the whole irritating village turns up inside your head screaming “What bad food you have just eaten!” and then you agree with them and all the shouting rockets into a judgement call on your very person.
So you don’t just end up with a dairy and gluten hangover, your digestive system goes all hell-no from stress alone. And you are sick and sad and self loathing, swearing off pasta forever, as if that’s a reasonable solution.
Alternatively, you eat some kale. Or a goji-berry-quinoa-organic-sanctimony smoothie and your internal village is all, “You are so good, you deserve the tiara of health.” And for a little while you are super proud of yourself. You are convinced that the enzymes are shooting out of your skin like rays of magical light and in another few perfect days you will be levitating.
You think you are golden, but the fear that you cannot maintain it starts to manifest as projected self loathing you can barely contain your grimace when you see other people eating their saucy pasta. If they only knew The Truth, or had my vehement willpower, they would be saved, you think.
But what if, to both of those scenarios, you just said, “maybe.”
When those smart Buddhist pandas talk about attraction and aversion, they are talking about the ways that we become attached. They say that attachment is the root of all suffering.
What if, instead of all of the noise that surrounded the action (the action is that you ate some food), there was just quiet? Imagine so much quiet around your food, that you digest whatever food you eat easily. So much quiet, that if there are any problems with your digestion, you notice. And store those facts for later action.
I ate alfredo. And then I was full. Later I had a lot of energy. The next morning I had sixteen new book ideas.
I drank a smoothie. I was hungry fifteen minutes later. I drank another smoothie. All night I was up with the runs.
That’s it. No gore, no glory.
Both scenarios are possible. And I purposely made the alfredo one fancy just to twist around your paradigm. Because there are so many factors that go into this stuff that deciding whether something is good or bad is insane. It’s all just “maybe.” Even kale.
The final call about whether a food, or any choice, is right for you should be based solely on what works for your unique body. Keep it simple and eat the things that make you feel the best. Eat the foods that are in alignment with your values. Eat the foods that make you feel like a steward of our planet and a contributing member of your community. Eat the foods prepared for you with love.
I have yet to find better health advice than this quote from Michael Pollan.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
It is not to be underestimated how much energy it takes to engage in all of the judgmental noise around everything you eat and say and do. Energy you could be using for other things.
Practice being all swarthy farmer with yourself to free up time and space to make art and have ideas.
I ate a bunch of Red Vines. I am so bad. – maybe.
I just sold my company for twenty million dollars! I’m king of the world! – maybe.
I got fired. Life is over. – maybe.
My secret admirer gave me a Tesla! Awesome! – maybe.
You get the idea.
Cultivate neutrality. Broaden the arena in which you’re neither good or bad, but you’re really just okay. It doesn’t mean moments of bliss and despair won’t still be inevitable, it just means you will spend more time in grace. Recognize that there is a huge chasm between polar opposites. It is a giant place for you to live your big life.
The untamed future is there.
Health is not small. It’s a whole universe sized ideal. Health is not just your weight or eating your weight in kale. Health is a vast interconnected striding silence, a peaceful purpose. It is love.
Your job is to keep showing up, being kind, being clear, and doing great work while you are here. Keep going.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman