Lessons from a Zen Koan: Four horses

personal growth Aug 16, 2021

Have you hit rock bottom in your quest to become stronger, fitter, faster, healthier or simply happier? 

We’ve all been there at least once in our lives. The good news is, rock bottom is an excellent place to start your journey once again. When I work with clients, a particular story comes to mind. 

The four horses

There is a Zen Koan about the four types of horses: 

  • An excellent horse
  • A good horse
  • A poor horse 
  • A bad horse.

The excellent horse turns or canters at the shadow of the master’s whip, the good horse turns or canters at the sight of the whip, the poor horse must feel the whip on his skin and the bad horse must feel the whip in the marrow of his bones before he’ll turn or canter. Most people would like to be the excellent or good horse and may assume that the bad horse has no hope. This simply isn't true. 

I used to say I work best with elite athletes or desperate people. Like the excellent horse, elite athletes can sense the shadow of the whip and are highly motivated to change. On the other hand, desperate people who are plagued by injuries or setbacks have tried everything and have often given up, not completely or they wouldn’t seek help. 

They’re generally open minded as they’ve tried many paths and are process orientated by necessity, as are most elite athletes. If you have hit rock bottom, remember any progress is valued from this place. 

Stick with the process 

Provided you can stay process orientated, I have no doubt you’ll keep improving. It doesn’t matter where you're at, everyone on this earth should be process or journey orientated and not results orientated. Focusing on the process allows you to be present and learn more along the way without rushing to the end goal and missing all the “living” that happens in between.

The same Zen masters believe it’s the bad horse that makes the best calligraphy student, because at first his progress may be slow, but later he can stay in the process and overcome a series of difficult, challenging obstacles. The good horse that found calligraphy easy in the beginning may stumble along the way.

Comparing yourself to others can make it very hard to focus on your process. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done, the process will set you free. Start small but do it every day. Every day the journey must be taken up anew.

It also doesn’t matter how old you are when you start something new. If it’s important to you, do it and silence all the voices, including the ones in your head.

Try these tips to stay in the moment 

When it comes to looking after your body, start small and spend some time with yourself every day. Try the following: 

1 Start writing in a journal. It’s one of the best things you can do for your spiritual, emotional and even physical wellbeing. 

2 Breathe slower, softer, deeper. Nose breathe more. We spend so much time shallow breathing which is detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing. Changing your pattern or rhythm of breathing changes everything. If you don’t breathe well or slow and deep enough, it makes it difficult to release yourself from stagnant patterns, habits and rhythms in life that may not serve you.

3 Practice daily mobility moves. This helps you release tension in your body, reduce muscle tightness and stiffness, improve alignment and connect with yourself as you move and breathe in a gentle, flowing sequence.

WATCH my beginners’ mobility and flexibility routine below for a simple, 5-minute sequence you can practice daily. Do it in the morning and then no matter how the day unfolds you've successfully worked on your journey.

You can also try Happy Penguins, which is one of the most efficient mobility exercises you can do to release tension in your lower back and down regulate your nervous system.

Looking to improve your self-awareness and stay in the present? Join my weekly meditation classes and let’s get grounded together. 

Listen to me talk more about why I’m so inspired by the Four Horses Koan here  

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