#24 The worst horse
[Note: This week’s essay was difficult to write. If you’re looking for something better here’s something from a few weeks ago I ended up not publishing until today.]
From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind1, Shunryu Suzuki talks about four kinds of horses (people):
It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!
His basic point is that excellent horses (people) aren’t better or worse than bad horses (people); but notes the worst horse might find more meaning in their practice or life, or even develop more because of their struggle.
Pema Chödrön talks about the worst horse in a few places, and most notably in her book The Wisdom of No Escape2, points out that all the venerated teachers of the Karma Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (the lineage in which she is trained) were worst horses; real disasters; people who “blew it time and time again.” Tilopa was a mandman, Milarepa was a murderer, Naropa was overly intellectual and stubborn, Marpa flew into rages and beat people, and Gampopa was arrogant. If you aren’t familiar with any of these names or this lineage of Buddhism, these are the wise ones; the ones "to whom we prostrate when we do prostrations.”
I first read about the worst horse thing last summer and I’ve returned to the the concept often because I am a worst horse. The pain has to penetrate to the marrow of my bones; I’ve been known to blow it time after time; I can be a real disaster.
Over the years, a majority of the letters I’ve received are from other worst horses. People that keep trying and making the same mistakes; people who find living more difficult than the rest; people in recovery who wonder when they will have achieved some sense of completion; people who ask why they have to do all this bullshit work other people don’t seem to have to do. They are asking me the same questions I have. When is it enough? When can I stop? When does it get easier? When is it less messy? When do I become an excellent horse?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I could guess and probably come up with some great sounding answers, but the truth is I don’t know when it gets easier. I don’t know when we feel grown up. I don’t know why it’s harder for some of us. I don’t know when it gets less messy.
What I do know, nearly ten years into a journey that on some days has me feeling like I’ve made no progress at all, is that I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t envy the excellent horse. It’s the difficulty, the same mistakes, the regressiveness, the painfulness—all of that hateful stuff—that keeps me cutting through the woods and coming back to myself.
I don’t think it’s the being the worst horse part that makes life difficult. For instance, if you’re the best horse, and it’s all just handed to you, and you never have to go seeking, isn’t that more difficult? And being a worst horse doesn’t make life limiting—Ram Dass was a worst horse; Gandhi was a worst horse; almost every single person I count among my teachers was or is a worst horse. Worst horses make history; worst horses have depth and extremely dark senses of humor. Most of my friends are worst horses, I’m more likely to trust a worst horse with my life, etc.
What I think makes life difficult for us worst horses is the idea that we’re not supposed to be worst horses in the first place. Working with limitations and difficulty is part of the deal of being alive. But believing that you’re fundamentally flawed because it’s harder for you? Is torture.
For me, my practice isn’t to transcend my inherent worst horseness (because I am afraid: once a worst horse, always a worst horse). My practice is to harness that difficulty; to embrace it; to value it; to use it as a portal. That I make the same mistakes, that I have to work harder for my peace, that there’s a lot going on in here to deal with, that it takes me so much longer: these are not curses. These are forcing functions of honesty, growth, expansiveness, humility, embodiment. These are the ways in which I learn to love bigger, to hold more space, to find more compassion, to live a very large life. These are the SOS pads that remove the layers of grease from the baking sheet I bought at the Safeway in 2010. In other words: worst horseness is the very stuff that dissolves itself. But if you’re stuck wishing you weren’t a worst horse, that you were some other kind of horse, you miss the practice entirely.
I’m not sure if I’m making the point I’m trying to make here, but I know, being the worst horse that I am, it can feel like such a disadvantage. It is not.
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Ten Things Right Now
An update to my Writing Music playlist, a fake pink drink I actually like, what tf is spiral dynamics, a notably lacking outpouring of support for Anne Heche, meditation resources for days, complicated book recommendations.
“All the richness, all that fecundity, all that beautiful miracle of life, it happens because we live in cycles, not perpetuity.” adrienne maree brown on On Being was the best podcast I’ve heard all year.
Laura McKowen’s second book is available for pre-order! Get it get it.
I love Alex Olhonsky’s newsletter, Deep Fix. This roundup he published is filled with good stuff, and got me thinking about spiral dynamics again (see next point). Alex is also working on the Natura Care Program, a three-month program that integrate entheogenic plant medicine ceremonies, a social model for recovery with peer support, nature immersion, and instruction in contemplative practice. This is an offering in collaboration between Recovery Nexus, a non-profit recovery organization, and Circle of Sacred Nature Church. This long-form essay on the use of Ayahuasca in healing from addiction is also a great resource. As someone who has tried and not benefitted from psychedelics (not my path), a reminder that I don’t think they are some kind of panacea, but another option that may work for some. I also am continuing to read on how use of certain psychedelics, appropriation, white-washing, and clinicalization of ceremony, etc. impacts indigenous communities. For instance, there’s a scarcity of mescaline, and a venture-backed organization developing mescaline interventions for addiction.
I first encountered spiral dynamics through John Dupuy’s book, Integral Recovery (hard recommend), which turned me onto Ken Wilber’s work. I forgot how interesting spiral dynamics is in explaining human and cultural development (and addiction!), and found this four part series by Trace and Rob Bell fascinating.
Books: Finished What is Zen: Plain Talk for Beginner’s Mind Norman Fischer, recommended by Carl Fisher (recommend); Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (if you’re into dystopian fiction, recommend); The Courage to Create by Rollo May, recommended by Africa Brooke (recommend); Chris La Tray’s essay gorgeous essay “Living on the Fringes” in the Whitefish Review. Reading: Trump and a Post-Truth World by Ken Wilber (recommend if you’re a huge fucking nerd).
This is expensive! But they sent it to me for free and I have to say it’s really, really good.
I’ve gotten back into my meditation practice after falling off (in a big way like a worst horse way) while moving here. Some of my current favorite resources: James Baraz’s Thursday night sit via Berkeley Insight (on zoom); daily zazen through everyday zen (on Zoom); this library of talks on Dharmaseed; Monday nights with Insight LA at Forever Hollywood Cemetery; this James Baraz intro to meditation course my mom and I took last year that we’re doing again. (Also, thank you to Shelly Tygielski and Sah Di’Simone for your help and resources.)
Page 38, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, from Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33. Further states “In your very imperfections you will find basis for your firm, way-seeking mind.”
Page 9, The Wisdom of No Escape: “The Karma Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, in which the students of Chögyam Trungpa are trained, is sometimes called the ‘mishap lineage,’ because of the ways in which the wise and venerated teachers of this lineage ‘blew it’ time after time. Firs there was Tilopa, who was a madman, completely wild. His main student was Naropa. Naropa was so conceptual and intellectual that it took him twelve years of being run over by a truck, of being put through all sorts of trials by his teacher, for him to begin to wake up…His main student was Marpa, who was famous for his intensely bad temper. He used to fly into rages, beat people, and yell at them. He was also a drunk…His student was Milarepa. Milarepa was a murderer!…Milarepa’s student was Gampopa (after whom Gampo Abbey is named). Because everything was easy for him, Gampopa was arrogant…We could all take heart. These are the wise ones who sit in front of us, to whom we prostrate when we do prostrations. We can prostrate to them as an example of our own wisdom mind of enlightened beings, but perhaps it’s also good to prostrate to them as confused, mixed-up people with a lot of neurosis, just like ourselves. They are good examples of people who never gave up on themselves and who were not afraid of themselves, who therefore found their own genuine quality and their own true nature.”