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Three Kinds of Horses

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There’s a Zen story about three kinds of horses, told from the viewpoint of a jockey who rides all three horses in different races and has to get each mount to put its total energy into its race. The jockey signals the first mount to make its move by merely showing the horse his whip, and the horse gives it his all. With the second horse, the jockey shows the whip, but the horse doesn’t respond, and the jockey needs to give it a few whips to get it to really move. The third horse sees the whip and doesn’t move, then gets whipped, and still doesn’t make its move. In order to move, it needs to be whipped again and again until it feels the jockey’s message in the marrow of its bones.

I needed to feel the pain from my marriage in the marrow of my bones before I could find the resolve to alleviate the pain by being mindful instead of allowing my fears, my Organizing Principles, and the rest of my identity to keep me imprisoned in repeating the same old behaviors that had sustained me as a frog in hot water for so many years. It took that critical mass of pain—so much that it totally overcame my amnesia for pain—to make me focus on the fact that through mindful awareness I could change, and that it was up to me to decide if I wanted to apply the resolve I needed to do so!

At that point I became determined not to let my fears of aban­donment and awkward pain own me anymore. I committed to staying mindful and not letting my machinery pull me back into amnesia for pain. My programming was still operating, the voice in my head was still speaking to me as loudly as ever, but my desire to alleviate the pain and to have a more fulfilling relationship was so strong that I kept focusing on the present and using mindfulness to interrupt my machinery.

I considered Door 1 and knew that I did not want to fully accept the relationship my wife and I had as it was. I committed to opening Door 2 to change the relationship with the goal of making it work for both of us. To do this, I knew I had to acknowledge my authentic thoughts and feelings and to express what I wanted and needed. In addition, I had to surrender the part of myself that I’d been withholding in an attempt to be in control and be “safe”; I gave up my last crust of bread.

I finally took a stand for what I wanted and I committed to not backing away. I was in the unknown, and it felt like I was walk­ing on a tightrope without a net. My fears were still roiling in my gut and making me anxious, but when my mindfulness and resolve wavered and I would slip into letting my programming run me, I would focus my mind again in the present so that I could ignore the voice in my head and stay committed to my stand for changing myself so that we would achieve positive change in our marriage.

When, by the following year, the change didn’t happen and instead the pain continued to intensify, I moved from Door 2 to Door 3 and left my wife. The decision to get a divorce, and the pro­cess of adjusting to the end of our marriage and to my being on my own, was very painful. I survived the awkward pain of being alone that I had feared for so long, gradually accepted the fact that I was on my own, and, over time, began to experience a sense of possibility.

By choosing to no longer be a frog in hot water, I’d finally changed and made choices with mindful awareness. It’s crucial to remember that mindfully choosing any of the doors—Door 1, accepting the situation fully; Door 2, changing it; or Door 3, leaving it—transforms a frog-in-hot-water situation or relationship into one in which you are no longer suffering. If you’re in a frog-in-hot-wa­ter situation or relationship, or one that has the potential to be, it’s up to you to recognize how much pain you need to feel before you have the resolve to be mindful and choose a door. There is usually a breakdown before there is a breakthrough.

Will you be like the first kind of horse, which only has to see the whip, and mindfully make a choice about which door you will choose to prevent the situation from causing you long-term pain? Will you be like the second kind of horse and need to feel pain for some time before you summon the resolve to stop yourself from running on automatic, which will just perpetuate your being a frog in hot water in pain, and make a mindful choice about which door to choose? Or will you need to feel pain in the marrow of your bones by letting the situation or relationship persist for a long time before you finally summon the resolve to mindfully dis-identify with and disengage from your old beliefs and behavior? Before you mindfully choose to embrace the situation or relationship by accepting it fully, warts and all, changing it, or leaving it?


An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon.

  • 6 Apr, 2015
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 19 Tags

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