Caught Tail

Caught Tail — and excerpt

It’s not only my tail that’s caught…
Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall

Today, I want to offer you another section of my great new book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall:

Zen Living: 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?”

Yes. No. Both. Neither.

Ponder: Wuzu Fayan said, “For example, it’s [enlightened living] 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.

Personal self responsibility is often confused with egotism

When I say, “I am completely responsible for my experience,” I do not mean, “It’s all about me.”

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

Many people 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.

Egotism: You expect or demand that others put you first. This happens because you think you are so, so special. This, however, is silly in the extreme. It doesn’t matter that your parents doted on you as an infant (hint: they had to or you’d have died…) or that they told you that you could be or do anything, and that you were special and important. Growing up and waking up requires that we understand the following—

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

See the Zen there? It’s a paradox. Every person who ever lived is unique —even to the level of fingerprints. Where we go off the rails is in thinking that I alone am unique. This emphatically levels the playing field.

Self-responsibility is the ceaseless action of walking a path. The wise path, the one path, in all cases, is dropping the ego.

What does this mean?

Dropping the ego is the foursquare recognition that, despite being unique, I also am no one and nothing (no thing) special. I therefore guide myself along a path that brings moment-by-moment self awareness, by ‘simply being.’

A Helpful Haiku

Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)—was a Zen monk who travelled across Japan, teaching and writing more than a thousand haiku.

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

Another translation-

No one
walks along this path
this autumn evening.

The dumb path is this: someone (me! me! me) walks along the path, and everyone is envious of my every step!

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 and the lattice?

I read this Zen story and I liked it. A cow has climbed through a window. Almost the entire cow has passed through to the other side, yet the tail remains lodged firmly in the window.

Why? Because it’s the part of himself that he’s caught on! Get it?

The goal of Zen living, through meditation and contemplation, is to discover what you are catching yourself on. The tail that catches you is personal and unique, and arises as a result of your ‘embodied-ness.’ Perhaps it is the desire for status and recognition. Perhaps it is possessions or wealth. It might be anything you distract yourself with—food, sex, roles. It may be your belief in the reality of your ego-identity. It could be anything at all.

Recognizing your ‘stuck tail’ is walking the road of enlightenment. It reminds us to examine our motivations and actions. If we act without attachment and without ego, without yielding to the temptation to bend to the will of the world outside of us, we are awake.

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

Personal self-responsibility is continuing 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.)

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.

The easiest way to begin this practice is to monitor your body for tightness. Notice when you are upsetting yourself (over your caught tail…) by seeing where, in your body, you feel the tightness of “upset.” Make a pact with yourself to monitor that part of your body for the next 30 days. When you notice yourself tightening, say (to yourself, so they don’t drop a net on you…) “Caught tail!” Then, have several breaths, centre yourself, and come up with a strategy that will produce the sensation of “unstuck.” Repeat. Endlessly.

Walking the Wisdom path.

Commit to walking a path that leads nowhere, walked by no one. One step and one step, this path is always walked in the now-here, (because there can be no destination, only the walk, until, paradoxically, you reach the end for all of us—death.)

This wisdom path is lived with attention to every detail, every interpretation—yet 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?

My intent is to suggest letting go of your present way of seeing and being, so that you might self-less-ly walk the ‘wisdom path.’ Yet, nothing changes in the ‘real’ world. You still have to make a living and have a life.

So what does change? Your focus, attitude, and your commitment. Instead of mindlessness, or griping, or complaining, you do what you do— you attend to right now—here, and here alone. You chop wood, carry water, with total, mindful attention.

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, you can choose to 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…

Want more? Buy the book already!

Secondly, I received the following question on last week’s blog post:

This article was great and I am really enjoying this Zen experience and look forward to your articles however there is one thing that I just can’t seem to grasp and need some help in clarifying it and just putting into perspective. Basically I’m wondering about emotions or preferences. Is it ok to not care for a particular individual or want to be around people that you find unpleasant? Or are we supposed to like everyone and be happy go lucky? And is it a judgement to not want to be around people who are always getting into trouble? 

The thing is, the issue is always about the judgement I am having about what I imagine is going on. This is different from a preference.

One of my favourite Zen writers, Brad Warner, mentioned somewhere that he was quite insistent on a particular zazen (seated meditation) style. From other stuff, I assume that Brad sits in Half or Full Lotus. He mentioned some guy wanting to do it some other way, and Brad insisted on his style.


Now, Darbella and I both sit Seiza posture, which is kneeling while sitting on a cushion. This is our preference. Now, if I were to sit with Brad, at his zendo, I would do my best to sit his way. I would still have my preference, but not have and rigidity about it.

A judgement would be: “Brad doesn’t know what he’s talking about! Kneeling is the best way, and I’m really smart, and besides, who is he to make me sit his way? He must be a really weird guy.” (This may actually be so, which is why I like reading his stuff…)

Emotions are bodily reactions to what arises from thought. As such, they are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. What arises, arises. My job is to notice and to express, safely and quickly, and then get back to “simply noticing.” This includes all emotions.

It is not my opinion that we are “supposed to” be anything, other than present. Certainly not “happy go lucky,” or dancing about pretending all is well, all the time. The problem? Things are as they are, and sometimes, things are decidedly odd.

So, I do not want to pretend, ever, that anything is other than it is. For me.

How I see things is all about me. So, as we’ve been saying these last few articles (forever, actually,) everything is about how I choose to see it, describe it to myself, and how I then choose to act.

So, to answer your question: Move toward those things that you are attracted to, and away from those things that you find yourself repelled by. Do not cling to things you like, nor cling to your aversions and judgements.

No, it is not a judgement to not want to be around people who are always getting into trouble. It is a judgement to think there is “something wrong with, or something to be done by” these people. In other words, don’t spend time with them, but also let them go. It’s not your job to fix anyone. It’s your job to be present, moment by moment, with yourself.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

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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