There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse, we don’t know where we are going and we can’t stop.”
The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.
It is important to learn the art of stopping – stopping our thinking, our habit energies, or forgetfulness – in other words, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger and craving?
We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits of it are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and to bring joy.
But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition. We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it. We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage. We may vow not to do it again, but oftentimes we do. Why? Because our habit energies push us.
We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction. With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests and say, “Hello, my habit energy, I know you are there!” If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength. Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.
Forgetfulness is the opposite. We drink a cup of tea, but do not know we are drinking a cup of tea. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that he or she is there. We walk, but we are not really walking. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future. The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty. We need to shine the light of mindfulness on everything we do, so the darkness of forgetfulness will disappear.
The first function of meditation and mindfulness is to stop. The second function of meditation and mindfulness is calming. When we have a strong emotion, we know it can be dangerous to act, but we don’t have the strength or clarity to refrain. We have to learn the art of breathing in and out, stopping our activities, and calming our emotions. We have to learn to become solid and stable like an oak tree, and not be blown from side to side by the storm.
If we can master the art of mindfulness, we can protect ourselves from emotions that are too strong whose intentions are to derail us.