By Andrew Peers
The recommended book was not easy to find.
Eventually a monk friend in Japan took pity on me, photocopied it and posted it on. The two large bars of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut chocolate (not available in Japan) this had cost me was worth it. In Gentling the Bull, the author Irmgard Schloegl comments on the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, which describe the quest for meekness in the Zen tradition.
But it is ‘gentling,’ not ‘herding’ she insists, and it’s a bull not an ox—a bull with raw aggressive energy.
The book of Numbers in the Bible says that Moses was a meek man, ‘the meekest of all people on earth’ (Numbers 12 v.3). In his younger years however, he seems to have been quite a hot-head, once even killing one of the occupying Egyptians. Realizing what he had done, the frightened Moses quickly buried him in the sand and fled. Only after many years in exile did he return as the ‘meekest man on earth,’ and ‘friend of God.’
Schloegl’s book concerns this same perennial struggle with our sudden and savage side, symbolized by the bull.
Carl Jung might call it the shadow. Before her departure for Japan, Schloegl has already undergone Jungian analysis. Fiery by nature, she knew from personal experience the sudden upsurge of anger and—if directed inwards—depression. Who doesn’t know these moments? Sometimes I think family life can be like a herd of restless bulls and bullocks stabled up for the winter.
Outside the house you may not notice anything at all about what’s going on inside. Schloegl describes this bull energy positively as potential ‘carrying capacity.’ As a ‘Sitting Bull’ on the meditation cushion, we can follow Moses into the strange landscape of our rejected selves. Yet, it is often in everyday interaction with colleagues and family where the bull makes his presence most clearly felt. Someone ignores us and there you have him, and the snorting is sometimes physically audible. The irrational heat of anger pre-empts the social mind and tosses it over the hedge.
The bull just appears, whether we like it or not.
So let’s not try to cut his balls off by suppressing the fact. Instead let’s cut away the red flags on which he has focused. Schloegl is concrete and practical: in this crucial moment, directly experience the energy of the bull’s primordial power before you act it out or turn it inwards. Let this pure energy fully flow through your body. Taste it fully. Simply this. Just this, already transmutes it.
That at such times you may need to speedily withdraw in the direction of the toilet is understandable. Better they think you have problems with your bowel movements than see the froth on your lips. Moses earned his spurs, his meekness didn’t just happen. Lots of humour and courage is needed to endure the times when the bull runs off with us. Warmth and generosity is needed to forgive yourself and lead the bull back to his pen yet again.
If we but once dare experience him directly in his ‘directionlessness,’ stripped of targets in the rawness of his energy, he becomes wisdom.
The bull that I’ve always been scared of, I am myself. If you don’t recognize all this talk of bull-energy, you are either already meek or else happily addicted. If you quite like smashing up china shops anyway, then please ignore these words.
But how mighty if this fire can be turned to fuel compassion! The broad back of the bull does indeed offer genuine ‘carrying capacity’ yet only responds to the gentlest touch of its rider.
Paradoxically, a distinctly feminine one.
Editor: Dana Gornall