Deep resistance to learn, change … Zen story of 4 horses.

Is there something that you have found difficult to change in another, in yourself? When I develop and coach leaders, I find this zen story below a valuable parable. Have you come across some pattern in people, in yourself that refuses to budge despite a lot of effort? Some of us find it easier to see it outside. Some see it inside. And some of us believe, outside is inside 😉 Is there some hidden grace in these situations?

Some of my leadership and life coaching clients come with acute challenges. I have myself struggled with some patterns for long. In trying to deal with and accept it in others. Can the frustration of relating with a coachee, a colleague, a family member, a friend who is difficult and stubborn be ‘made’ fascinating? Could the sometimes phenomenal challenge/ burden of working with oneself to let go be made lighter? Is it about taking action, seeing things differently? Is it about learning, or teaching? In this piece from George Leonard from his brilliant book ‘Mastery’ (thanks to my friend Sekhar Chandrasekhar who pointed me to it and gave me the book), a lot of these questions got answered. And especially since it is about developing people and learning myself, it made even more sense to me 😉

The paradox of developing people

Many years later, I found myself once again in the instructor’s role, engaged this time in an art far more subtle and complex and difficult to learn than flying. I was forty-seven when a friend invited me to join the aikido class he was organizing. I had never heard of aikido, nor had I ever dreamed of becoming a martial artist. That was twenty years ago, and I can now say that practicing aikido has been the second most profound learning experience of my life. Teaching aikido has been the most profound.

Even before getting my first-degree black belt, I was enlisted by my teacher as an assistant instructor. My job: teaching the basics of the art to beginners. Six years later, in October 1976, shortly after getting our black belts, two of my fellow aikidoists and I started our own dojo. From rather questionable beginnings fourteen years ago (it’s not customary for first degree black belts to start their own school), Aikido of Tamalpais has become a respected and happy dojo. We three founders have continued developing our skills, and have advanced to higher ranks. From the thousands of students who have practiced at our school for varying lengths of time have come twenty-eight black belts – not an insignificant number in a difficult art that offers no cheap degrees.

At this point, ‘I’d like to be able to tell you that by now I’ve mastered the art of teaching slow students and beginners. But that wouldn’t be true; I still have one of my partners, tells me that teaching beginners and slow students is not only fascinating but also pleasurable. The talented student, she believes, is likely to learn so fast that small stages in the learning process are glossed over; creating an opaque surface that hides the secrets of the art from view. With the slow student, though, the teacher is forced to deal with small, incremental steps that penetrate like X rays the very essence of the art, and clearly reveal the process through which the art becomes manifest in movement.

Gradually the mystery has unfolded. My experience as an instructor has shown me, for one, things that the most talented students don’t necessarily make the best martial artists. Sometimes, strangely enough, those with exceptional talent have trouble staying on the path of mastery. In 1987, my colleagues at Esquire and I conducted a series of interviews with athletes known as masters of their sports. Most of the athletes we interviewed stressed hard so many baseball players with God-given ability who were soon gone. I’ve seen others with no ability to speak who stayed in the big leagues for fourteen or fifteen years.

Good Horse, Bad Horse
In this book Zen Mind, Beginners mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. “in our scriptures, 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 drivers will, before it sees the shadow of the whip: the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches it 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 to run.

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says, when you learn too easily; you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Suzuki’s parable of the four horses has haunted me ever since I first heard it. For one thing, it poses a clear challenge for the person with exceptional talent: to achieve his or her full potential, this person will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability. The parable has made me realize that if I’m the first or second horse as an instructor of fast learners. I’m the third or fourth horse as an instructor of slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere and dedicate my efforts of bringing along every Brewster and Edmundson (slow learners described earlier in the book) who shows up at our aikido school, I’ll someday know this aspect of instructing all the way to the marrow of my bones.

So when you look for your Instructor, in whatever skill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when you discover one who pursues maximum performance. But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisite attention to the slowest student on the mat.

Now, when I look back or even encounter a tough moment, what appears to be a difficult person, I take a deeper breath.  In one program I was conducting to develop facilitators, one person at 10pm of Day 2 of a 4 day program declared that he had had enough and he was going to walk out because the program was too structured. Some of you reading this may be surprised since some have accused my approach to be too unstructured ;-). he had come from a specific facilitation school or paradigm. Anyway to cut a long story short, I listened deeply truly not knowing how to respond. But really wanting to understand his pain.

The next day, we discovered he had a bad tummy- loose motions. And promptly we picked up Louise Hay’s book, ‘Heal your body’ and discovered that loose motions are about ‘wanting to run away’, Much to my and our relief, he decided to stay. And the whole structure vs lack of structure became a key conversation.. and by the end it enabled us all to see that the truth always lies in the sweet spot between the polarities and also the sweet spot keeps shifting moment to moment. Structure has a beauty and so does flow. Structure can derail and flow can obstruct. In fact someone told me that the etymological meaning of structure is ‘movement’.

I was left with gratitude towards this person. He became a great friend. And I discovered the 4th horse in me which was willing to learn. Such grace. As we step out of the race, to pause, to reflect, to listen to life.

15 thoughts on “Deep resistance to learn, change … Zen story of 4 horses.

  1. Needed to read this… comes at a right time.. coz, i would have surely responded differently if I had read it anytime earlier!!
    esp. – “Structure has a beauty and so does flow. Structure can derail and flow can obstruct”….
    One always hears what he/she needs to hear, at the right times, through the right people..which is important too, since how many people do we really resonate enough with to follow :))

  2. Good One. Structure can derail and flow can obstruct. I am not able to understand how flow can obstruct.Pl enlighten at your convenience.

    1. Yogasharan.. well.. what I mean is that what appears to be a flow can sometimes be a flood!
      I have often seen people believe they are ‘in the flow’ but oblivious of what their ‘flow’ is doing to people around them.
      of course true flow can never obstruct.. neither can true structure!
      makes sense?

      1. Thanks, Kiran for the perspective. Your explanation on how the flow obstructs by transforming itself into a flood sometimes, enabled me to go back into vivid flashback of when I thought was in flow. I am lost and I know a new way would soon emerge.

  3. Kiran, very nice indeed! The world is full of fourth horses, but it is they who make it go around, day after day! My guru used to say that the true leader is one who can get ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Cheers!

    1. Indeed, TTS..
      And also the true leader is the one who sees the ordinary and the extraordinary inside himself/ herself.
      I wonder if you have heard/ enjoyed kabir.
      there is a song..
      hum sab mahi, sakal hum mahi.
      (I am in all , All in me!)

  4. when I read “the truth always lies in the sweet spot between the polarities and also the sweet spot keeps shifting moment to moment” I sense more acceptance in the way I have been viewing the polarities.lately….The story of 4 horses is such a meaningful learning for me rite now. Much love…..

    1. Lovely Purvi.. there seems to be much resonance in our journeys at this point which is worth paying attention to simply.. wonder if you have read some of the other blog posts.. eg. A love that doesn’t invade or avoid suffering..

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