Love, Grief, and the Four Kinds of Horses

Wow, it’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since I first started this blog! It has me feeling just a little bit reflective. Perhaps I should begin by letting you all know what an incredible experience this has been for me. The opportunity to touch people on a deep level all over the world, from perhaps fifty countries or more, (I haven’t actually counted them all) is one for which I am very grateful and humbled. I’d also like to thank you all for following, reading, commenting on, pondering, and sharing these posts. I really, really, deeply appreciate it.

When I first began contemplating the writing of this blog I was just beginning to feel once again the lightness of being that is so easily taken for granted when our lives are proceeding in so-called ‘normal’ fashion. Up until then I’d been navigating a “Bardo realm” of grief after the dissolution of my marriage. You know, really deep grief is something I would not wish on my worst enemy (not that I have any) and yet, as I reflect back on those dark days, I can see that when we experience grief within the context of spiritual practice we open up to the possibility of it propelling us towards a depth of meaning and understanding that we might not reach otherwise. In that regard I must be grateful for the opportunity to grow in ways that I hadn’t even known that I could or needed to grow. Of course, I’m also very grateful that nobody had to die in order for me to open up to such growth. By the way, The Bardo Realm of Grief is almost certainly going to be the title of my next blog post, so if my use of that terminology is bewildering at the present time please be patient for another week.

It is impossible for me to know the totality with which this blog is received by any given individual. Perhaps I have been truer to my original vision than I am able to comprehend. Having said that, part of my original vision was that I would explore deeply the raw, fierce, and excruciating feelings, and the cold, dark, and empty places that the process of grief can drag us through. (Oh and by the way, I’m not speaking of the emptiness of shunyata when I mention those empty places.) In order to do that responsibly I felt that I needed to provide context for such an exploration; I felt that I needed to make accessible to the potentially unprepared reader the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to make such a journey successfully. And so, much of this blog thus far has related to spiritual practice in general, and Buddhist practice in particular. I now feel, however, that the sorting through and inventorying of our equipment is reasonably complete. Sure, we could go through the checklist once again, but perhaps it’s time to simply sling our packs over our shoulders and head off down the road.

Oh, but that’s not all…. Life in all of its wondrous glory is suddenly inestimably enhanced by the fact that I’ve fallen in love once again after all these years! What a wonderful ‘problem’ for a Buddhist to have – one who realizes all too well how suffering is rooted in our clinging and desirous and acquisitive approach to life! And so, long time readers will probably notice a change in the tone and content of the posts that follow. The highest highs of human existence (at least as I experience them) might be accompanied by or followed by the lowest of lows, and vice versa. Perhaps this is as it should be – it suddenly feels so, anyway – that we consider any individual emotion, phase, or stage within the full range of all emotion, phases, and stages just as we consider our individual lives within the context of all life everywhere.

It occurs to me as I write these words that the wonderfully swooning sorts of emotions related to falling in love and the very traumatic ones related to grief are at least somewhat similar in that they both involve a loss of our sense of self. However, whereas in the former we experience a much valued and even longed for transcendence of the self, a willful letting go as we merge with our chosen beloved, in the latter we experience an unwanted and very much feared dissolution into the darkness of the unknown. It has also occurred to me (as a spiritual practitioner who has experienced deep grieving) that spiritual practice is for the most part (with the exception perhaps of the sudden onset of ‘born again’ or kensho or enlightenment sorts of experiences) an individually selected and relatively steady and controlled process of self-transcendence. The grieving process, on the other hand, begins with a precipitous, uncontrolled, and unexpected loss of self – be it from disease, injury, trauma, death of a loved one, etc. So, it is from my own understanding of grief as the unexpected and unwanted loss of our sense of self that I will begin this exploration.

For now, though, let me introduce this new focus with a story related in Dogen’s Shobogenzo – a passage from the fascicle entitled Shime. This translation is courtesy of Hubert Nearman (2007) of Shasta Abbey:

The Buddha once told his monks that there were four kinds of horses. The first, upon seeing the shadow of the riding crop, is startled and forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The second, startled when the crop touches its hair, forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The third is startled after the crop touches its flesh. The fourth is awakened only after the touch of the riding crop is felt in its bones. (p. 1045)

How far along are you in clarifying the great questions of life and death? Are you too busy living in order to contemplate dying? Some amongst us need only to reflect upon the impermanence of our existence in order to be motivated to begin resolving such matters. Others merely need a minor health scare or a close call in some accident in order to be awakened to the reality of our lives. Still others might need to actually experience the loss of a loved in order for impermanence to have any real meaning for them. Lastly, some amongst us only begin to understand the reality of this impermanent existence after being struck down by grave illness or injury – after being delivered a death sentence, figuratively or literally, as the case may be.

Is this a downer? Does contemplating such matters diminish your ability to enjoy life to its fullest? Or might it be the case that not contemplating such matters, blithely waltzing through life as if it will somehow last forever, is what keeps us from really living – keeps us from really appreciating that each moment with our loved ones (and with our practice) is a precious gift – keeps us from knowing that each sunrise, each smile, each breath might be our last.


Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo – The treasure house of the eye of the true teaching, by Eihei Dogen (tr. Nearman, H.). Order of Buddhist Contemplatives Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, CA. (Original work published 1255)

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. I think it's definitely possible for people to identify with more than one horse, depending on their individual circumstances. I've been experiencing a grief-like process over the last week or so, and I find that I can relate to more than one horse.

    During some of my exploration, I've come across some interesting writing. I think you might find it interesting as well (some of it might be info you're already aware of), so here it is:

    Hope you have a wonderful weekend! Stay warm!

  2. Hello Kristen. I hope you remain open to whatever your grief might have to teach you. Great lessons can be missed if we minimize our feelings or rush to push them away.

    I like the link. It is a nice article. While it doesn't much deal with grief I will borrow its image of the two overlapping circles of self and other in the following way: Grief has a tendency to have us withdrawing into our own small-self world. If we can stay in touch with the universality of this experience, however, I think we will be better able to learn from it.

    I hope you have had a nice weekend, as well!

  3. Well, I've experienced almost every possible feeling that can be associated with grief, from sadness to anger to guilt, often simultaneously. I'm learning a lot about myself, although I wouldn't necessarily recommend grief as a teacher to anyone.

    You're right, the article doesn't deal much with grief. Honestly, I liked all the articles on the page. I think sometimes love and grief are the same thing. They certainly seem related, anyway. (Oops, I just realized you already said that - silly me!)

    I had the weekend from hell - hopefully this week will be a better one. :)

  4. Hello Kristen. I hope this week is going better compared to your weekend from hell!

    I think we can continue loving as we grieve. And perhaps love sometimes encompasses feelings of longing that are much like grief. It's hard to describe feelings sometimes, isn't it? The feeling is just the feeling. It's the words that we end up mashing together (the ideas related to the feeling) as we wrestle with trying to describe and make meaning of the feeling. Sometimes it's interesting just to notice the physical sensations of the feeling without trying to judge it or attach meaning to it.

    I think it was in 'A Wheel That Just Won't Stop Wobbling' that I noted how sadness (suffering) is present in even the most joyous moments - because we know that the joyous moment will come to an end. It seems that love and grief could be similar. The deeper love grows the more profoundly we realize what we will lose as life inevitably causes us to part in one way or another.

    Hmmm... I think there's a blog post in there! :D

    I think living a spiritual life DEMANDS that we remain open to pain and suffering - our own and that of others. Please don't minimize it or push it away. It becomes the soil in which seeds of great joy take root.

    Peace, Maku


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