4 Zen Stories

I read an interesting post on Twitter which was about 4 Zen stories and thought of posting them here.

I’m an introvert. I overthink. It’s what we do. My mind is always on, and even on good days, it can be hard to feel calm. Part of this is human nature — our brains are built to fix problems — but if you’re constantly worried about solutions, the future, and what’s not working, you can’t enjoy the bursts of relief we’re meant to celebrate whenever we achieve a breakthrough.

Drop a person like that into an environment of adversity, and they’ll forever lose themselves in a maze of their own making; a maze of thoughts they’ll whiz through like a rat seeking cheese, only to realize there’s none to be found once they’ve seen every corner. Now, on top of that person’s natural tendency to worry, every day offers them new opportunities to create negative thought spirals, and before you can scream so much as “Stop!” they’re already waving at you from the top of the slide, ready to begin another descent into misery.

It’s true. Life can be a real doozy sometimes. But even when it feels like the world is collapsing — especially if you’re prone to worry to begin with — you can’t dwell on the negative. The easiest way to do this is to turn to a good story.

Below, I’m sharing four that will get you back on track if you feel stuck in a spiral of worry. They’ll change your perspective, redirect you towards progress and growth, and, if you let them, they just might make your day.


The Farmer’s Horse

One morning, the old farmer’s horse ran away. The neighbours expressed their sympathy: “What bad fortune!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”
The next day, the horse returned with a whole flock in tow. The neighbours were over the moon: “How lucky you are!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

The next morning, his son tried to tame the horses. He fell and broke his leg. The neighbours showed consolation: “Such bad luck!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”
One day later, the army drafted soldiers. They skipped the farmer’s son. The neighbours were delighted: “What a blessing!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”
If you’ve ever thrown a whole morning after a spilled cup of coffee by sulking in your anger for hours after the event, you know the neighbours’ dilemma: Life is a rollercoaster because they overreact to everything. If, emotionally, all you know is the highest high and the lowest low, your life will always be stressful.
The farmer knows something they don’t: The jury on today’s events isn’t out yet. Who knows what consequence they might have down the road? That’s why he keeps calm, stays humble, and holds off on judgments.
Don’t live in extremes. Live in the middle. Don’t be like the neighbours. Be like the farmer.

The Learned Man

A man went to inquire about Zen. He raised questions while the teacher was talking and frequently expressed his own opinion.
Eventually, the teacher stopped talking and served tea. When the man’s cup was full, he kept pouring.

“Stop!” said the man. “Don’t you see the cup is full? No more can go in!”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” the teacher replied. “If you don’t empty it first, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

Not only are premature judgments stressful and often wrong, but they also prevent you from learning anything new. As long as you hold a stick in your hand, you can’t pick up a stone. The same is true for our relationships, careers, and knowledge. The hard part of learning isn’t to get new information, often not even to understand it — it’s letting go of what you think you already know.

Variations of this story call the visitor a “learned man.” As we grow up, go to school, meet people, and live our lives, we all become learned people. The sooner we can let go of our preconceived notions, the sooner we can keep an open mind, widen our perspective, and learn what we must in order to grow.

Don’t let your cup overflow. Empty it often so you can taste new kinds of tea.

The Couple on the Donkey

A man and his wife were traveling with their donkey.
On the first day, both rode on his back. In town, they heard people whispering: “What a mean couple, putting all that weight on the donkey.”
On the second day, the man rode and the wife walked beside. People whispered: “What a cruel man, forcing his wife to walk while he rides on the donkey.”

On the third day, the man walked, the wife rode the donkey. People said: “What a careless man, letting his wife ride alone on the donkey.”

On the fourth day, both walked beside the donkey. Again, people whispered: “What a stupid couple! Why walk if they could ride on the donkey?”

No matter what you do, people will judge you. Since we’re all overflowing cups, we can’t help but spill some of our hard-formed if ill-advised opinions. Even if we don’t voice them, whether we think you’re stupid or a genius, we’ll always think something.


Don’t let any of those thoughts seep into your self-image. They were never yours to begin with. If you find yourself thinking the lady on the bus is rude, she’s probably just scared, stressed, or confused. Maybe all three. We love to generalize behavior and ascribe it to who people are when, really, most of what we do is a result of the context we’re in.
Wherever your donkey takes you, hold your head high. Ignore the whispers, and be kind to the villagers. They might not know what they’re doing, but it is not who they are.

The Move

Two men visit a Zen master, looking for advice.
The first man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”
The Zen master asks: “How was your old town?”
“It was terrible. Everyone was mean. I hated it.”

To that, the Zen master replies: “This town is much the same. Don’t move here.”
After the first man leaves, the second man enters and says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. How is it?”
Again, the Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”
“It was wonderful. Everyone was friendly. Just looking for a change.”
The master replies: “This town is very much the same. I think you will like it here.”

What we seek is what we find. Why you do what you do matters as much, if not more, as what you ultimately end up doing.
The reasons through which you look at the world as you roam through it will shape what you see, where you go, and who you’ll encounter. Ultimately, what you’ll find will be determined by how you chose to seek.
Choose wisely. Look for the positive. Stay optimistic. And don’t think moving alone will make you happy.

All You Need to Know

If you find yourself worrying a lot, overthinking things, and unable to enjoy life’s little and big wins, try changing your perspective with a story.
The Farmer’s Horse is about not judging too quickly. A perceived misfortune today might be revealed as a blessing in disguise tomorrow.
The Learned Man is about being willing to let go of your opinions if they no longer serve you. Don’t let them get in the way of learning.
The Couple on the Donkey is about ignoring what others think of you while realizing you too tend to generalize. We all make bad choices from time to time. Everyone lives and acts at the moment, including you.
The Move is about understanding that what you seek is what you’ll get. Your intentions shape your behavior, and thus your perceived outcomes and real results. Don’t let negative thoughts compound into a bad life.

Source: A post on Medium which I saw in my Twitter timeline.

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