As with most parables, this one can be read on various levels. So often, life seems to carry us in directions not of our choosing. Whether in relationships, careers, or the particulars of a given day, we often view ourselves as passive participants, shuttled here and there without conscious choice. While there is much to be said for giving ourselves over to the flow of what is, this story reminds us that, ultimately, we bear responsibility for how we fashion this precious life of ours.
This allegory also calls attention to how we are repeatedly carried off by our accustomed ways of thinking and reacting. Perhaps anger, sadness or hopelessness automatically arise when things don’t go as we wish. Maybe anxiety is our frequent companion, accompanying us into the unknown. We might slide easily into well~worn mental grooves of mistrust, negativity, reverie or busyness. Perhaps we display a quickness to judge others or to find ourselves lacking or slighted.
Whatever the habitual responses might be, they color our perceptions. They also lead us to make certain choices and, thus, their effect streams out into the world, further influencing our experience and affecting others through our demeanor and actions. In Buddhist psychology, these phenomena~~these horses that rapidly carry us away~~are term habit energies. We are encouraged to transform them through the shining light of our awareness.
To do so, we must first increase our capacity to identify these responses as they occur. Changes in the rate or quality of our breathing are the surest, most immediate indicators that we’ve been hauled off by one horse or another. By then following our breath~~attending to it and nothing else~~we begin to slow down. Depending on the nature of our upset, this process can take a few moments or much longer.
But sooner or later, our mad gallop becomes a canter, and then a slow walk. If we stay with it, we eventually arrive at a poised stillness that offers an opportunity to look deeply into our reaction and see what really caused it.
Since not everyone responds the same, external events cannot truly be the origin of our agitation.
Happy trails, ya'll, and namaste!
PS. For more on this, see Transforming Habit Energy, 9/18/10.