Name Your Cows or How to Re-Center in Late Winter

Early in the winter, when the snow was welcome and the residue of the holiday season magic still lingered, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s 5 book series on mindfulness:

How to Sit

How to Walk

How to Eat

How to Love

How to Relax

They are small, thin, strategically simple and repetitive and wise books. I knew immediately that he had a lot to teach me. His gentle coaxing to live in the present moment and be awake to your life smoothed out my edges right away. I tasted my food. I felt deep gratitude. I was lighter, more generous, more calm. There was one activity in How to Relax that took my breath away. I thought about it often, but never sat down to do it.

Mid winter, I noticed myself caught up in the dreariness. I overreacted. I fretted. I felt more toxic. It didn’t lift. By February, filled with self- loathing, I finally decided to actually do the exercise. I felt immediate relief. I felt lighter, more at ease, unstuck. It starts with a story (paraphrased here):

One day the Buddha was sitting with his monks in the woods. A farmer hurried by, in crisis, looking for his cows. “If I don’t have my cows, how can I live? I think I will kill myself.”

The Buddha replied, “We haven’t seen your cows. Maybe you can try in the other direction.” The farmer left in a hurry and Buddha turned to his monks, “You are very lucky. You don’t have any cows to lose.”Our idea of happiness is a cow. We put our happiness in something external, something that can come and go. If we can let go of the cow, we can stop running, stop chasing, stop searching and find happiness inside ourselves. The activity is simple: Write down your cows.

So finally, late in the dark, snowy winter, I wrote down my cows. I will be happy when…my next book gets published. When I feel more fit. When I get a little more balance as a woman/mother/worker/writer/partner/friend. When…

On and on. In writing them down, seeing my cows on paper, naming them, they lost their power. I learned a lot about my patterns, my need for external recognition and the false places in the future I send my happiness instead of keeping it right here, right now, inside of me, in this rich, abundant moment. You can wait until you find your cows to be happy, or you can let go of your cows and be happy now.

The teenagers I work with got it right away. “Being done with homework is my cow,” one said. “I think I will be happy as soon as I climb out from under it, but then there is just more assigned.”

“Friday is my cow,” said another. “I think I will be happy once the weekend comes, but then I miss being happy for five days of my life.”

“I think I will be happy when I hear from colleges,” a third chimed in. “But then it will just be figuring out where I am going, then what to study, then what job to get. It will always be something.”

I’ve kept my list of named cows close and add to it when I catch feelings of not enough-ness or unhappiness, spinning or anxiousness welling up. So folks, if you are feeling stuck or spiraling or negative, I nudge you to try naming your cows. Write them down, and then be brave enough to let them go. It won’t fix everything, but the self-awareness it brings just might help.