I’m guessing that an awful lot of people might be wondering what in the world one subject has to do with the other when they see Zen and cowboys mentioned together in our tagline on the home page. And, I would be willing to bet that simply seeing the word Zen might even scare a few people from reading through our pages any further so I thought some quick comments on the correlation between the two might be in order. Many years ago I became interested in – almost drawn to – the Japanese martial art of Aikido and began training shortly thereafter. Through that training and exposure to books on eastern philosophy, I realized that all of these principles I was learning, such as staying centered and balanced both physically and mentally, could and should apply to everyday life.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
In trying to answer the question “What is Zen?”, one may find answers revolving around the sound of one hand clapping, the moon and sky reflected in a single drop of dew and many other mind-boggling, esoteric suggestions. A search for an academic definition of Zen would lead to descriptions of it being a buddhist religion with its earliest origins in India before spreading into China then through Korea, Vietnam, and ultimately into Japan. Either of these explanations cause the same end result: quite often people in western society have the misconception that zen is some mysterious, mystical thing and they envision buddhist monks meditating and chanting high in the mountains of Tibet when, in reality, that’s a very distorted and overdramatized perception of something that at its core really stresses simplicity in life.
All of that being said, it still doesn’t really reveal much about how Zen relates to ranch life and cowboys now does it? By no means do I consider myself to be an expert on the subject, so I’ll simply offer my personal view on the meaning of Zen and how I feel that it ties so closely with ranch life. At its most basic level, Zen is about being rooted and centered in the present moment, undistracted by the past or the future. It is about learning to concentrate on daily activity; being focused on the here and now, whether that moment be good or bad, because there is something to be gained from both. Think about it… how can you appreciate what is “good” if you have never experienced anything “bad”? Both are necessary components of life. Truthfully, when you think about Zen in those terms, ranching and cowboying automatically leads you to practicing Zen in everyday life whether you realized it or not.
There are any number of ways to demonstrate Zen’s presence in ranch life. An obvious one is to consider riding and working with horses around cattle. Being present and focused in the moment while sitting on a horse leads you to be centered and balanced in the physical sense and also mentally so that you’ve got a better connection and better communication with the horse enabling him be more responsive to that which you’re asking him to do. Such an explanation is not foreign to anyone who has ever studied horsemen like Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman, all of whom, at one point or another, have been compared to Zen masters in the way that they are able to focus on the simple things and use subtle measures to get in tune and bring out the best in both horses and people. Likewise, when you’re gathering and driving a bunch of cows being centered and concentrating on what you’re doing at that moment are of the utmost importance: Push in and crowd the cows too much and they’re guaranteed to break and run all over the place. Don’t push them enough and allow them too much “cushion” and you’re going to get the same result – cows running all over the top of you and everyone else.
And it’s nearly impossible to be on a ranch soaking up all the natural beauty that surrounds you without being humbled and ever-grateful for the smallest and simplest of things. Practicing Zen can be as simple as watching the morning sky transition from hues of pink and orange to the brightest golds and yellows just as the sun breaks the horizon line; catching the scent of approaching rain as a towering thunderhead rolls across the prairie towards you and the rest of the cow crew while you scramble for your slickers [long rain coats, for those unfamiliar with the term]; the wonderment of watching as a new calf or colt catches his first breath of life while his mama softly licks and cleans his body; the comforting feeling of smallness that comes over you while lying back in the grass of an open field and gazing up at the star-filled heavens.
“The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu
In essence, practicing Zen seeks to make ordinary life a blessing by helping you to be mindful of even the smallest, simplest of pleasures in daily life while also being mindless – or rather undistracted – all at the same time. And Zen is truly something to be “practiced” because it’s not anything that you just do once and then it is over, nor is it something that can be grasped all at one sitting. Admittedly, I constantly struggle to stay focused and centered, exercising patience and restraint when I should. Too many times, I fail at my efforts but that’s when I pray harder, meditate more and try to put a little bit of Zen back into practice so that I can get my mind right and move forward in a better way. Hopefully, by the time my journey is done, I’ve succeeded in making myself a better person who learned from mistakes while finding contentment with the simple yet meaningful aspects of life. And I wish the same for each of you…