In his book “Being Peace” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh tells an interesting story:
There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse galloping very fast. Another man standing on the side of the road calls out to him, “Where are you going so fast?” And the man on the horse yells back, “I do not know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We ride many horses that we can not control.
People with anxiety will usually find that they have become accustomed to sitting on such a horse and have even made it a “comfortable” place. When the horse comes to a standstill, for example, when you want to sleep or when you are waiting in a traffic jam or in another place where there are hardly any distractions, the disturbing symptoms of anxiety occur: restlessness, turmoil, worries, tiredness …
The galloping horse symbolizes the strong current of our habits, which leads us like a torrent into the unknown. As long as we ride the galloping horse, deeply occupied with work, media, entertainment, commitments, consumption and constantly reacting to everything we see and hear, the anxiety symptoms remain below the surface. People with anxiety tend to disguise their anxiety with all sorts of strategies. They distract themselves with work, sports, food, alcohol, drugs, video games, gambling, sex, shopping etc.
Awareness of our anxiety
Because it is so important in our society to be productive and competitive, it is easy to ride galloping horses and develop anxiety. The first step in curing our fear is that, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, we are aware of our situation that “we ride many horses that we can not control.” The step of perception is crucial because only someone who is aware of their situation can choose to change it.
Developing mindfulness and making ourselves aware of where we are and where we are going to go will greatly help increase that awareness; the awareness of the horses we ride. What kind of horses are they? How fast are they galloping? Where are they galloping?
As your consciousness clears, you already have more control and you can decide to slow down and sometimes even stop your horse. This often happens during meditation when we focus only on our breath and are mindful of everything that is happening.
This process of slowing down and developing mindfulness initially has a paradoxical effect. People with anxiety can feel even more anxious and feel that their symptoms are getting worse. This is very understandable, as we said at the beginning: the galloping horse has become a habit for a long time.
Through mindfulness, we train fearlessness
When we stop riding the horse, there are no more distractions. Then we face our raging thoughts and our fears. That’s not a pleasant feeling. But on the contrary. We are extremely tempted to get back on our horse quickly and continue our lives as it was. Just no mindfulness anymore! But you can not live in peace and fearlessness without meeting your fears. As the Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa puts it in his book “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior,” in order to develop fearlessness we should not try to reduce our fear but go beyond it. And to go beyond our fear, we must first learn to accept them willingly and sincerely.
The development of a meditation practice helps to develop a sense of the present: to live in the present moment, in peace and harmony and without fear. Slowly the fear passes and makes room for the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh formulated it wonderfully in “Being Peace”:
I breathe in and calm my body and mind, I exhale and smile, remaining in the present moment I know this is the only moment.
The galloping horse then turns. The man who rides the horse now looks like a dancer. Even if his answer to the question “Where to so fast?” Still could be the same: “I do not know, ask the horse!”, The tone of voice has changed and something has changed fundamentally. Now the man answers with a smile. He looks confident and he knows that he controls the horse.