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Are These Bad Times or Good Times? The Story of the Zen Farmer

When we stop trying to coerce life to go exactly the way we want, we naturally experience a greater sense of fluidity and ease no matter what happens. Just like the Zen farmer.

There once was an old Zen farmer. Every day, the farmer used his horse to help work his fields and keep his farm healthy.

But one day, the horse ran away. All the villagers came by and said, “We're so sorry to hear this. This is such bad luck.”

But the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”

The villagers were confused, but decided to ignore him. A few weeks went by and then one afternoon, while the farmer was working outside, he looked up and saw his horse running toward him. But the horse was not alone. The horse was returning to him with a whole herd of horses. So now the farmer had 10 horses to help work his fields.

All the villagers came by to congratulate the farmer and said, “Wow! This is such good luck!”

But the farmer responded, “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?

A few weeks later, the farmer's son came over to visit and help his father work on the farm. While trying to tame one of the horses, the farmer’s son fell and broke his leg.

The villagers came by to commiserate and said, “How awful. This is such bad luck.”

Just as he did the first time, the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”

A month later, the farmer’s son was still recovering. He wasn’t able to walk or do any manual labor to help his father around the farm.

A regiment of the army came marching through town conscripting every able-bodied young man to join them. When the regiment came to the farmer’s house and saw the young boy's broken leg, they marched past and left him where he lay.

Of course, all the villagers came by and said, “Amazing! This is such good luck. You're so fortunate.”

And you know the farmer’s response by now…

"Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?"

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Perspective has a lot to do with our experience in life. One of the (many) benefits of mindfulness is the opportunity to cultivate a greater sense of equanimity, or looking at life with calmness and an even temper, even in difficult situations.

We often try to control the events of our lives by deciding what outcome would be good and what would be bad, and then working very hard to achieve one and avoid the other.

When things go according to our plans, we're overjoyed. But when things don't turn out as we’d hoped, we're deflated. We might berate ourselves for getting our hopes up or lash out at others who we think are responsible for creating the “bad” outcome.

Equanimity, on the other hand, is considered to be one of the highest forms of happiness we can experience, because we're not constantly fighting our moments and chasing more checkmarks in the Good column and none in the Bad.

This doesn’t mean we become numb to the real difficulties in our personal or collective lives. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we rationalize and passively accept injustice in the hopes that one day it’ll lead to a good outcome.

But when we learn to stop grasping at life’s moments to coerce them into becoming only exactly what we want, we experience a greater fluidity and ease, which supports whatever action we choose to take.

And the truth is, we don’t always know whether an event will ultimately prove to be “good” or “bad.”

Just like in the Buddhist story of the farmer, something that seems like good news in the present moment might turn out to bring inconveniences or even heartbreak in the future. And something that appears to be a bad thing in the present moment might become very useful on another occasion.

"Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?"

You can likely find examples of this in your own life. Maybe something you originally thought was “bad”—a break up, for example, or getting laid off from your job—proved in time to be an important catalyst for growth, new relationships, and fulfilling experiences.

The same might also be true for something you thought was wonderful—a new friendship or a promotion, as examples. But over time, maybe that supposed “good” thing complicated your life and made you pretty miserable.

Like in the parable of the farmer and his horse, an equanimous perspective allows us to hold the full range of our experience more lightly.  And over time, you’ll likely realize that the lows don’t feel so low, and the highs, while often welcome, don’t knock you from your grounded center.

Maintaining an open and receptive awareness—and not clinging to any outcome, desired or dreaded—we give space for life to flow, with all of its unknowable twists and turns, and its possibilities, too.

What would it be like to go through life like the farmer?

Try this 5-Minute Meditation

Meditation · 5-30 mins

Good Luck, Bad Luck, Who Knows?

In this meditation, we'll practice strategies to embrace the unknown in life, even when it scares us.

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