It’s All / It’s Not About You

Zen Living — 10 suggestions

Today’s article seemed to ‘want’ a few concrete examples. I decided to publish them separately. It’s All / It’s Not About You

Introduction:The Principal Paradox

I received this question: “When you write, you say that personal self-responsibility is key. Then you say, “Drop your ego,” or personal identity. Aren’t these contradictory?”






Wuzu Fayan said, “For example, it’s just like a great cow passing through a latticed window. Her head, horns, and four legs have passed through. Why is it that her tail can’t pass through?”

Think about that one, for a moment, before reading on.

By the bye, this article is the basis for one of the chapters in my book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall. Check it out!

Personal self responsibility is often confused with egotism.

When we say, “You are completely responsible for your experience,” we do not mean “It’s all about me.”

It’s all about me” is actually a form of ‘dis-ease.’


Many are the people who think that the world isn’t treating them right. I hear this one especially as I counsel couples. There they sit, balefully glaring at each other, vainly hoping I’ll declare a winner. Each rattles off a litany of what the other is doing wrong. Sometimes, one or the other will tell me, with great righteousness, “Everyone knows that relationships should be easy. When you find the right person, (s)he will meet all your needs, without asking, and everything will be perfect.”

This is egotism.

Egotism is not the same as self-responsibility.

My belief is that there is no reason to expect anyone to put me first. It doesn’t matter that my parents seemed to dote on me as an infant (hint: they had to or I’d have died… same for you…) or told me I was special and important and could be or do anything (also true, and I remind you of that list of funny Zen-ish quotes from last week: )

05. Always remember that you’re unique.
Just like everyone else.

See the Zen in this? It’s a paradox. Every person who ever lived is unique —even to the level of fingerprints. And each person is special.

However, so is everyone else, equally to you. This emphatically levels the playing field.

Self-responsibility, then, is to walk a path.

Here’s another paradox: There are many paths through life, and there is only one path that leads to enlightenment. The confusion arises in thinking that the true or functional path is the property of one religion or another.

Dumb paths that get us nowhere involve any attempt to be special in the eyes of others.

The wise path, the one path, in all cases, is dropping the ego.

What does this mean?

It is the foursquare recognition that, as no one and nothing (no thing), I nonetheless guide myself along a path that leads toward awareness.

A Helpful Haiku

(Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), known as Basho, was a Zen monk who travelled across Japan during the Tokugawa era, teaching and writing more than a thousand haiku. Read more here:

This road –
No one is on it.
The autumn evening.


No one
walks along this path
this autumn evening.

The dumb path is this: someone (me! me! me) walks along the path.

The wise path: no one walks this path, as the path is walked. There is no walker. There is walking.

Get it?

So, what’s up with the cow? (see intro box, above)

I just read that one this morning, (it’s Koan # 38) and I liked it. As an image, consider a cow that has climbed through a window. Seemingly through to the other side, the tail remains lodged firmly in the window.


Practically speaking, you and I are in this world until we are not. Yet, until we die, we remain ‘attached,’ at some level, to our humanity, and to our identity. We can get all the way through the window, except for ‘that which catches us.’ The ‘tail that catches us’ is our ’embodied-ness.’ Thus, we can get far along the path, but dropping the ego completely requires death — ceasing to be ‘in and of the body.’

So far as I can tell, no one has pulled off this trick while living.

In other words, you cannot ‘get it,’ but you can, moment by moment, be ‘getting it.’

Thus, one has a choice. You can continue to beat up on yourself for what you do not ‘get,’ or you can continue to walk the path.

Beating up, giving up, blaming, waiting for rescue, all of these are ‘faulty paths’ that lead nowhere. Walking, while recognizing the ‘stuck tail,’ is the road to enlightenment.

Personal self-responsibility might then be seen as the willingness to walk, no matter what seems to be happening around you or to you. The discipline is to ask, “What of this is mine, and what of this is out of my control? (Hint: anything outside of ‘you,’ is, by definition, out of your control.)

What is my ‘tail’ caught on? What am I distracting myself with?

It’s tempting to waste your life trying to make others responsible — for your happiness, for your wealth, for what you know, for your feelings. It’s tempting to demand that others and ‘the world’ treat you as you want to be treated. What you might be noticing is that this is not working, never works, and (you’ll have to trust me on this part) never will work.

Demanding the impossible is the erroneous path.

Wisdom is freeing yourself from expectation. Again and again.

An expectation is a demand for future compliance, and mostly does not work. When it does, it’s a fluke. Basing your life on flukes is dumb.

Instead, commit to a path that leads nowhere, walked by no one. The path to nowhere is walked in the now-here, (because there is no destination, only the walk, until, paradoxically, you reach the destination for all of us — death.)

This wisdom path is walked with attention to every detail, every interpretation, all with the recognition that no one is walking, no one is interpreting. Thinking that there is a you in all of this, is your ‘stuck tail’ — your ego identifying with the role of interpreter, walker.

I know. What the heck is he talking about?

Consider the expression “Chop wood, carry water.” My intent with this blog is to give you tools to let go of your present way of seeing and being. Nothing changes in the ‘real’ world. There is still wood to chop, water to carry. So what changes?

Your focus, attitude and commitment. Instead of mindlessness, griping, complaining, you do what you do by bringing your attention to right now, and being there and there alone. You chop wood, carry water, with total, mindful attention.

( If you watch kids play, you see a child’s version of this — total focus on the game at hand, so that there is no play and player. There is just playing.)

And then, as your ego pops up, smile and think, “caught tail.” Let go, give yourself a shake, and go back to playing — being.

Or, keep pretending that anyone cares, and that rescue is at hand. 95% of the population buys into that delusion.

Drop me a line if this delusion works out for you, eh?

I suspect that no one will reply…

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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