Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of the Buddha having a silent lunch with his monks in the woods. A farmer comes hurrying by and asks if they had seen his cows, which left him that morning. The farmer bemoans that the loss of his cows will create hunger for his family. Insects have already devoured his crops. If he doesn’t have milk to sell, he might as well kill himself. The Buddha tells the farmer they have not seen his cows and he should look somewhere else. Once the farmer leaves, the Buddha turns to his monks and said, “Dear monks, you are very lucky. You don’t have any cows to lose.”
Hanh says, “A cow stands for something we need to let go of. Our idea of happiness is a cow. Our idea of happiness is the main obstacle to happiness. And it’s because of this idea of happiness that we cannot be happy.”
How can our idea of happiness become the main obstacle to happiness? When we aspire for things in the future that we believe will bring happiness, we are no longer present with our lives and situation for what it is. Our source of happiness has shifted from the present to the future. If we are not happy and joyful in the present, “it’s because we’re caught in our ideas.”
I must admit, I find Hanh’s statements on happiness perplexing and complicated. But, let me give it a try as to what wisdom he is offering.
If I believe that certain conditions must exist for my happiness, (e.g., a bigger house, a new car, weight loss, more money, a more loving spouse, grandchildren, etc.), then I’m not present in recognizing the joy and happiness that already exist. My focus is the pursuit of the ideas of happiness, which may or may not happen. And, if they do, who is to say that they will make me happy!
So, here is what I want you to do. Take time to write down the names of your COWS, something you need to let go of. Some of your cows will be ideas of happiness. Learn to let them go. As Hahn says, “Let go so that happiness, joy, and peace can be possible.”
(Quotes from How To Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh, 2015)