43 – No Cows, No Problems

In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that is often shared about a farmer who lost his cows. To me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions. It’s relevant because we ALL HAVE COWS. I want to talk about the story, and talk about what the moral of the story is. What can we learn from this story when we apply it to our daily lives?

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 43. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about No Cows, No Problems. In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that’s often shared about a farmer who lost his cows, and to me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions and it’s relevant because we all have cows. I want to talk about the story, I want to talk about the moral of the story and what we can learn from the story when we apply it to our daily lives, but before I jump into that, a quick update on the podcast format.

Something I’ve been thinking about incorporating into the podcast is to do an occasional Q&A podcast episode, so questions and answers. As you may know, several of you have reached out to me by email in the past and quite often I get questions about clarification on certain topics or how does that topic apply to this situation, things of that nature, so I thought it would be cool to occasionally, maybe once a month or just every so often, dedicate an entire podcast episode to questions that I received from you, listeners. There are two ways to send me the questions. You can email me the questions like you have in the past, noah@secularbuddhism, in which case I would just read the question in my own voice and then give you an answer in the podcast episode, but what I thought would be cool, if you’re willing, you could call in with your question and leave me a voice mail.

That would allow me to extract the question in your own voice, insert it into the podcast and I think that would sound a little bit more fun for some of you who are willing to call in, in your own voice, ask the question and then I’ll answer it in the podcast episode. The way to do that would be to just call my phone number. I have a Google Voice number that’s set up just to receive voice mails, so if you call area code 435-200-4803 and leave me your question in a voice mail, I’ll extract it, put it in the podcast and on that specific episode of the Q&A episode, I’ll address the question after letting everyone hear what your question was. Those of you outside of the US, you would just have to dial the country code +1 and then area code 435-200-4803. That’s something I want to try. Hopefully, that’ll work out well. I think it would be kind of fun to do that occasionally.

The other format that I’m ready to do occasionally is to interview people. I have a couple of interviews that I’m lining up that I’m actually really excited about. I wouldn’t want to do this in every podcast episode because it takes a lot of time and effort to line up interviews, and I’m not quite ready to do that all on my own yet, so I will do occasional interviews. The three formats of the podcast would be the most common just like this episode and all the past episodes. It would just be me explaining a specific topic or a story or, you know, just discussing something. The other format would be an occasional question and answer podcast where I would address the questions that I received from the listeners. The third format would be an occasional podcast interview.

That’s where I’m planning to take things down the road, so if any of you have questions and you’d like to be featured on the podcast, call with your question. That would be my preference, but you can also email me if you prefer to remain anonymous or not have your voice featured in the podcast. You can do that by email. Again, phone number 435-200-4803 and the email is noah@secularbuddhism. Okay, before I jump into the story about the cows, again, remember the Dalai Lama’s advice? I try to say this in every episode and do it for a reason. “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” I think that’s so important to emphasize regularly.

Also, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This podcast and the topics I discuss and the stories that I share, they’re all part of that mission, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. It allows me to do much more with this platform. One-time donations are appreciated as well, and of course, you can do this by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the Donate button at the top of the page. Again, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s done that because it’s making a very big difference with helping me to plan how I do this in the future, knowing what resources I can depend on to grow not only the non-profit, but also the podcast itself, so thank you, thank you, thank you to those of you who have been in a position to be able to do that.

Okay, so let’s jump back in to this week’s topic real quick. The story I want to share today, it goes something like this. One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and he asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened?” The man said, “Well, monks, this morning all 12 of my cows ran away and this year my whole crop of plants was eaten by insects.” The poor farmer was dismayed and the Buddha said, “Well, sorry, we haven’t seen your cows. You know, perhaps they’ve gone in that other direction.” The farmer ran off in that direction. Then the Buddha turned to his monks and he said, “Dear friends, do you know how you are the happiest people on earth? You have no cows or plants to lose.” That’s the story. That’s the essence of the story. When I first heard this story, it really spoke me on multiple levels.

You know, at the time I was feeling very much like the farmer. Ironically, when I first read this story, I believe it was in Old Path, White Clouds. I may have to look at that and reference it at the end where I first read the story, but I felt like the farmer. My cows were missing and I was in a frantic search to see if I could find them or to recover them. I felt like the farmer in the parable, only that for me, the story is a little bit different. For me, the story goes on. I felt like the farmer. I spent some time looking for the cows. I couldn’t find the cows. Once I realized, “Okay, well, there’s no recovering the lost cows,” I felt like I was able to come back and sit down with a group of monks, and I found peace, tremendous peace, in the concept of letting go or in the concept of letting be and I was able to sit with my feelings. I was able to distinguish clearly between the emotions that I was experiencing.

Going back a little bit real quick, most of you know the plight that I’d been going through with my company and the difficult financial times that I’ve experienced after my company had placed several of my products in various big-box retail locations, specifically Walmart, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless. Well, as many of you may have been able to drawn from conclusions from past episodes, ultimately what’s happened is my company has been forced under, which has forced me to go under personally because my personal credit and loans were all linked to the business, so when you have roughly at this point 6 or 7,000 stores worldwide all returning product … and this is inventory that I have already paid to manufacturers. It’s inventory I have not been able to resell to others. A huge portion of it is because it’s inventory that’s now essentially obsolete.

Some of you may know I was one of the very first to popularize the selfie stick and what a global phenomenon that was. Today it’s the fidget spinners. Back then it was the selfie sticks. They were all over the place. As soon as we popularized those, companies from all over started copying my design, they started manufacturing cheap versions, and before we knew it, you could see these things on street corners being sold or in gas stations. They were just everywhere and not just here in the US, but worldwide. It was crazy how fast it all climbed and how fast it all dropped. I December, so not this December, but the previous December, I was being featured by The New York Times in an interview about the rise of the selfie sticks, and then it seemed like in January they started to be banned. Walmart … or not Walmart. Disneyland started to ban them, museums, the Louvre in France, and just as fast as they climbed in popularity, it seemed like overnight they were frowned upon. Nobody liked them. It wasn’t cool to have a selfie stick anymore.

The timing made it so that I had thousands and thousands of these in stores all over the world, so suddenly they were all turned back to me and I was in this position where I had to absorb the loss of the manufacturing cost, the shipping cost to get to all those stores, and then when they send them all back, they don’t just say, “Hey. You know, we don’t need these anymore,” which at the time, of course, I was manufacturing a significant amount of these every month. I was also in the position where they asked for their money back. When Walmart says, “We want out money back” on all these inventory items that we had paid for, it’s a big deal. It’s a pretty significant amount. Long story short, it left me in a position where I realized I was not going to be able to survive this and it was really difficult because while there was uncertainty about whether or not this could maybe fail or maybe it could succeed, that was a tumultuous phase.

The moment it crossed the line from that uncertainty to certainty and it was certain that I was going to have to go down the path of bankruptcy, it became a little easier because at that point it’s like when you’re in a water fight with water guns. You don’t want to get wet, but the moment you get wet, you’re like, “Oh, well, I’m wet now,” so it’s not so stressful to have someone come spraying you with water. It was a similar feeling for me going through this. It was during that tumultuous time, during the uncertainty of what was going to happen that I had encountered this story of the farmer and the cows. I remember laughing hearing the story, thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s so true. So much of this suffering I’m experiencing of the loss of my cows, it’s real and it feels very difficult to cope with something like that.” Fortunately, this also came during a time in my life when I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time and effort to be more mindful and to have more mindfulness as a regular, everyday part of my life.

While I felt like the farmer at first, running down the path, thinking, “Wait, I’m going to find them,” I also feel like in my version of the story, I went, I look and I realized, “Hey, it’s true. They’re gone. I can’t do anything about it.” Instead of holding on to that for much longer, I feel like I went back and I sat down. I was like, “Okay. Well, now I’m one of you guys. I don’t have cows either, so I’m going to enjoy the same experience of peace and contentment that you guys have because you have nothing to lose, and now I have nothing to lose.” It was an interesting process to sit with that. I’ve talked in the past about the parable of the two arrows and I felt like I was experiencing that as well. There was the first arrow of suffering that I was experiencing, at the loss of my business, at the loss of my sense of identity.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, how my sense of identity was attached to a label with my career. I’m an entrepreneur, and that’s been a very important part of how I identify myself in relationship to the world and to others. I realized a significant part of my suffering had to do with this perceived loss of my identity, and when I realized, “I’m linking who I am to what I do,” I was able to at least mentally sever the two and realize I’m not an entrepreneur. That’s just something I do, but when that no longer felt like a sense of my core identity, a significant amount of the pain I was feeling also went away with that because it wasn’t me personally being threatened. It was just a label that is not going to be a label anymore. Maybe it will be again someday. Maybe I’ll be an entrepreneur when I do something else, but for now I’m not and I’m just someone who doesn’t have cows. It was interesting to sit with this, with the two arrows. The first arrow was the loss and that’s normal, natural pain and suffering, you know?

For me, this came in the shape of looking at warehouse, seeing my employees, thinking of the various memories I’ve built with them, the trade shows that we’ve attended worldwide, and the people I’ve met along the way and the hard work that’s gone into designing the product packaging. This has all been a very significant part of me for the last seven years and there was nostalgia in that emotional grieving, that this is something that I’m going to lose. It’s not a part of my life anymore. That’s was a difficult phase and I was able to sit with that. It lasted about, I’d say a good week where I’d go in to work and I’d see everything I built. I would get emotional, and I would laugh and I would cry. It was an interesting phase, but what I noticed is I was always experiencing the pain of the second arrow, which is I was feeling bad about feeling bad.

A part of me was saying, “You’re not supposed to feel bad. You’re supposed to be mindful and get past this really quickly.” I realized that’s a big part of the pain I’m feeling, it’s that I’m feeling bad about feeling bad. That’s when I was able to do something incredible. I was able to just allow myself to feel bad. I allowed myself to just feel the emotions. I was able to reminisce on all the great memories. I was able to feel sorrow. I was able to let myself cry. At the end of that process, which took about a week, I just found a tremendous sense of peace. It was over. The cows were gone. I no longer have to worry about losing the cows because I don’t have those cows anymore. It was fun to link what was happening in my personal life, in my career, in my business life, with the story that was very touching to me, the idea of the poor farmer losing the cows.

I felt like I could identify with the farmer, but I could also identify with the monks. I could identify with the pain and sorrow of losing the cows, the frantic search for the cows, but I could also identify with the serenity, the deep serenity and the deep peace that comes from knowing I don’t have any cows to lose. I think when it comes to possessions, we’re always trying to accumulate more and more, and we think that these cows, they’re essential for our existence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having possessions. It’s not the possessions themselves that cause the problems. It’s the attachment that we have to the possessions that becomes the problem.

Often our attachment to our possessions is the very obstacle that prevents us from having joy or contentment in that present moment because we’re accumulating stuff, and the more we have, the more we have to fear because the more we depend on our attachment to possessions for something like feeling joy or happiness. Well, the greater the risk of losing those things. It’s like the higher you climb, the scarier it is that you’re going to fall because the higher you were, the harder the fall, that kind of thing. To me, this story is a valuable teaching that says we can let go of our attachment. You know, we have the attachment that we have to our cows. We can become free and the key isn’t to let go of your cows. I don’t think that the moral of this story or the key to this story is to say, “Hey, let go of everything now because if you give it all up now, you’ll never have to worry about anything.” I think there’s truth to that, absolutely, but I don’t think that that’s necessary.

We don’t need to give up everything that we own, but I do think we need to give up the attachment that we have to everything that we own. You know, it’s all impermanent anyway, our possessions, the labels that we have like my label of being an entrepreneur, the opinions that we hold. We attach to those as well. All these things, they’re all impermanent. These are the cows. Several weeks ago, I did a guided meditation on impermanence where I asked you to imagine what it would be like to see everything that you own slowly disappear on a stage. I focus haven’t had a chance to listen to that, go back a few episodes and find that because the point of that exercise is that this is the nature of reality. All things change. All beginnings have endings, so why should we feel so attached to the cows that we own?

Again, I’m not saying that we need to start letting go of our cows, but take a look at the cows that you have in your life and imagine, “Well, what would I be if I didn’t have these cows?” The cow could be the specific house that you have, the specific job title that you have, the car that you drive, the type of work that you do. Whatever it is, are you attached to it? Do you feel that your sense of identity derives from the thing that you do or is it separate? There’s me and then there’s how I am. There’s what I do, there’s what I’m called, my name. These are all separate from the core essence of who I am. Who I am is just me and that’s constantly changing. In one day, I wasn’t an entrepreneur. The next day, I was. In one day, I didn’t have a big business. One day, I did and I had products sold all over the world. The next day, I didn’t.

You can start to see the reality that I talk about so often, which is that life is like a game of Tetris. One piece shows up and it’s all great, and the next piece shows up and you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t fit anywhere and it’s ruining my game.” Are we attached to these pieces as they unfold? That’s the core essence of the teaching of the story. It’s not about the core. It’s about the attachment to the cow, so this has been an opportunity for me to spend a considerable amount of time looking at my attachments. Now in my case recently, I am losing a lot of these attachments and that’s not the problem. That’s not painful. What’s been painful is realizing that some of the things that I’ve had to give up are things that I was attached to. For example, my title, my identity as an entrepreneur weirdly enough was more painful than losing my house or losing the money or the income I had from my company. It was the perception that I had that other people have of me, so therefore my sense of identity was on the line.

That was more painful and I’m glad I was able to explore that and see that and find that, and then disassociate with that label in terms of allowing that label to own me. Remember, that’s my definition of non-attachment. It’s not about not having things. It’s about, do the things that I have, the labels that I have, the opinions that I hold, do those things own me? It’s been really neat to spend time with this and realize right now nothing owns me and I own very little. It’s been very refreshing. It’s been very refreshing to hit this reset button to be at a place where I get to decide with my blank slate, where do we go from here?

This week is a big week for me. On Thursday is when I meet with the trustee over the bankruptcy to find out what are they doing with all of my stuff, all of my inventory, all of my personal assets, my home. I expect that it’ll all be taken. It’ll all be gone. That’s the standard protocol, and it’s been fascinating to be able to sit with that, to experience that, to see the attachment that I have to these things, and to watch them go. In that parable of the cows, it’s one thing to wake up and beck, “Oh, no. The cows are gone,” but I think it’s another to sit there and watch somebody come and say, “Hey, these are my cows now” and they’re going to walk out with them, and to have peace with that. To think, “Well, okay. I’m not going to have any regrets about this. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last seven years running my business, watching it grow, watching it reach the peaks that it did.”

Now I want to enjoy watching it dissolve because it’s a reminder to me, in the same way that I would watch incense being burned. You know, I see the smoke going up and I see this is the nature of my reality. I’m experiencing it. I’m seeing it firsthand. Things that are born die. Things that are created dissolve. This is reality in motion here, and I’m grateful for that experience. I’m grateful to be able to experience this right now the way that I’m experiencing it, with the perspective and the mindset that I’m experiencing it with because I can see how difficult and how emotional and how heart-wrenching it would be to go through all of this if there was a significant amount of attachment to the possessions while going through this. It would be very painful, so it doesn’t need to be more painful than it is beyond that first arrow.

That’s why I love that parable. The first arrow of pain, sure, that’s fine. That’s natural. I have no problem with that level of pain, but I don’t want to allow the second pain of arrow to make this any more painful than it has to be. That to me is really the essence of what this story is about. Again, maybe look in your own lives and look at your cows. Look at your possessions. Which of these possessions, not just physical possessions; the possessions of your labels and your opinions and your beliefs and everything. Throw it all in there. Look at it and say, “Where do I see attachment?” It’s okay to have that attachment. Just know that that attachment will cause significant pain if and when, and I should just say when, it’s time to let go.

That when may not be until the end of your life, that you’re sitting there on your deathbed realizing, “Oh, this is it. I’m about to die.” Maybe that’s when you sever the connection with everything that you know and does that have to painful or will you be prepared because you’ve been letting go your whole life, you’ve been experiencing non-attachment with your possessions your whole life? To me that’s the essence of non-attachment. It’s not necessarily letting things go. I talk about attachment and its opposite would be detachment, but non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment. It’s like holding on to something and saying, “I’m holding on to this because this is what makes sense now, but I can let go if I need to.” That to me is non-attachment.

Another example on the flip side of that, it would be saying, “Oh, there’s that thing. I will never hold on to that. I will never touch that.” That to me is also a form of attachment. It’s certainty, whereas non-attachment would say, “I’m not going to hold on to that, but if I need to, I will because I might need to one day.” The difference is the maybe. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the best thing to hold on to right now. Maybe it’s not. Then there’s a level of comfort that arises because you don’t have to oppose something so firmly or hang on to it so tightly. You know, it all becomes a loose grip on reality. You can’t just let it all go. That’s why I think I like the expression, “Let it be.” Let it go works for the past, right? Let things go in the past, sure.

In the present, I think it makes more sense we’re letting things be. Letting it be just as it is because remember, the moment we want life to be other than it is, we experience suffering, so here we are letting things be and seeing what would life be like if I would just let it be? What if the experiences that I’m going through, the emotions that I’m feeling, what if I just let them be what they? Well, then you discovery pretty quickly that because of the nature of impermanence, they arise, they linger and then they pass, and that’s it and we move on. That’s the nature of reality. That’s the topic I have for today, no cows, no problems.

Now a quick item for news. I’ve talked about this a couple of times, upcoming workshops. I’m doing a workshop on Sunday, August 27th in LA, I’m doing one on Saturday, October 21st in Orlando, and one on Saturday, November 4th in Phoenix. If you’re interested in any of those, visit secularbuddhism.com. Then you can click on … I think the link says Start Here. At the bottom of that link, you’ll see Attend a Workshop. If you click on Attend a Workshop, you’ll be able to learn more about those workshops, sign up for them. Right now the registration is only opened for the LA one, but monitor that page because the Orlando and the Phoenix one will open up soon.

I’ve mentioned this. Again, the recent Humanitarian Mindfulness Trip to Uganda that I did earlier this year, I’m doing that again next year. If any of you are interested in learning more about the African humanitarian trip, it’s a life changing trip. Everyone who went, 16 of us went on the last one, everyone loved it. Email me with questions about that, noah@secularbuddhism. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always go back to the first five episodes of the podcast. Listen to them in order. They’re a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhism.

You can always check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It serves as a basic introduction to Buddhist concepts. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Audible, and for more information or links to those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you for your time, thank you for joining me, and until next time.

  • Kate E

    Noah, I wanted to leave you a general comment to say thank you and appreciation for this podcast. I am hard of hearing and appreciate the podcasts being transcribed!

    I started studying Buddhism about three years ago after the birth of my daughter. It was the first time in my life that suddenly I couldn’t just simply “get by” in the crazy chaos of my life because adding my newborn/infant into the mix was the tipping point that made me realize I needed to slow down and be more mindful. I developed insomnia because I couldn’t shut my brain off at night. Learning mindfulness and Buddhism helped me recognize the role my mind was playing in keeping me awake at night and that in turn changed how I approached my world. From there I started to studying the concepts and philosophies of Buddhism and find it so relatable. It helped me slow down and just be in the moment and not caught up in my thought. I really enjoy your podcasts because you speak from the perspective of a parent.

    I recently received a cochlear implant in my right ear (which has been deaf since 6 months old and has never understood English). As part of my rehabilitation on the implanted ear, I have been listening to your podcast with just the cochlear implant turned on (I shut off the left ear hearing aid) and follow along with the transcripts. This rehab work help me continue to progress in understanding speech in that ear. As I said, I am hard of hearing and use spoken language and have always done very well all things considered, but it’s an interesting experience adopting this new “identity” with a cochlear implant. In a few months it may be that I hear better than I ever have. I was listening to episode #4 on the Ego where you cite an example of a dancer who suddenly become paralyzed. With the cochlear implant I’m now hearing better than I ever have in my entire life, yet I find that I’m not overly invested in an unhealthy way in thinking that this is somehow going to change me for the better because I recognize that everything is interdependent and I’m going to constantly change over time. This happens to be a snapshot of my life and it keeps from getting too attached to this new identity (in a good way). Anyway, thank you, I really enjoy your podcasts!

    • Thank you for sharing your story! I wish you all the best with the rehabilitation process.