Writing about how to THRIVE instead of just survive
Enter Senior Year of College
I was sitting in cross-cultural philosophy class thumbing through the syllabus. As my eyes gently skimmed the pages, a bolded phrase broke my gaze. “The Ten Zen Ox-herding Pictures,” “What the hell is that?!”- I mentally exclaimed.
My interest was piqued. A flash of recall crossed my mind. I may have heard of these articles before - but I wasn’t sure.
I was struggling with the obligation to pay attention to class or to read on further.
The tension built the longer I sat. Finally, I caved and rushed ahead...
“The ordinary, everyday self doing everyday activities can reveal the "true self" through enlightenment. The ox-herder does not retreat from the world.”
Reeling from this powerful quote, I vacantly stared into the chalkboard; contemplating its deeper meaning.
Little did I know, this impatient curiosity would lead to a fundamental perception shift in how I viewed change and reality.
A shift that occurred over 700+ days ago and still has a lasting impression.
The purpose of this post is to share the ten zen oxherding articles with you - so that they can alter your life too.
But first, let’s answer the most important question...
What the hell are the ox-herding articles?
The ox-herding articles are ten illustrated steps to Zen Buddhist enlightenment.
Now you may be saying, “But Moose, I am not interested in ‘Zen Buddhism’ or “enlightenment!”
Regardless of your religious affiliation - if you are looking for a change in your life these pictures can help you succeed.
They serve as a framework for you to strip away the inessentials engrossing your life and free you to share your personal gift with the world.
To aid you in understanding, a path to personal mastery shares common stages.
For those of you unfamiliar with the full version of the articles, check them out!
Now let’s talk details...
A Powerful Framework for Mastery & Change
“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
- Leonardo Da Vinci
These pictures depict the process to master one’s self.
How to silence that “restless” feeling inside of you. The one that is trying to tell you that you are meant to do something and elegantly drives you to towards it.
Picture one depicts the path to discovering your unique purpose and meaning in life. The final picture, ten, demonstrates how you successfully share your gift.
Illustrating the journey of change has a common path, by answering:
“What does the path to achieve greatness look like?”
“What are the steps I need take to get there?”
You can super-impose your personal journey over these following images and poems. In so doing, you take the raging, rebellious Ox, which symbolizes the change that you want to make in your life, and tame its power to accomplish more than you ever could have imagined.
I know when I first started my personal development journey, after hours of reading books I could barely find any tactical material on “What does mastery look like?”
Every book preached, “Master Your craft!” or “Focus on your core genius”.
But I had no idea what that journey was supposed to look like! I was frustrated.
These articles have served as a perfect relief.
Let me show you how…
Stage #1 The Search for the Ox
Looking for Your Best Self
"In the pasture of the world,
I endlessly push aside the tall
grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers,
lost upon the interpenetrating
paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality
exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirping
through the forest at night.
“I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search..,” describes the emotional thrashing that can be associated with the beginning of change.
The volatility, the emotions, and the pain.
Find solace in the fact that it is all part of the journey to mastery.
Change must have resistance: for every action has an opposite but equal reaction.
When you are beginning your journey towards personal mastery you will go through a period of search.
Where it feels like you are running from one idea to another… or from one opportunity to another… Seemingly without any direction.
This is where the herder is saying "I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull."
Having felt like the man “searching for the ox”, when I spent hours reading personal development books and deeply searching for meaning lead me to understand…
The crux of this stage is to “try things out” and “experiment.”
The frame of “experimenting” provides a cushion for testing and a buffer from frustration.
Here is a book to help create that frame.
Remember, this stage will take the amount of time that it will take. Each piece of the puzzle that you pick up along the search will be essential in later part of the journey.
The search may be frustrating, but it is essential.
You know there is something powerful to move towards, which is why you are searching for “Books, movies, music,” even distant mountains through travel.
However, you are unclear of what it looks like.
It’s just a feeling that you are following.
So keep experimenting.
Write a play in your spare time when you could be moving up the corporate ladder, start testing the business ideas that are in “the back of your head,” and start that project you’ve always wanted to do- NOW!
With each small experiment, you begin to forge your personal style.
There’s a chance that this hobby could “be something,” but sometimes you find yourself questioning, if the feeling is real.
Emotionally you can feel ‘exhausted’ after the search and even potentially coming to the conclusion, “I don’t think I’ll ever make it to the change I want.”
However, this feeling doesn’t last long. As this is when I looked towards picture two for guidance...
Stage #2 Discovering the Footprints
Finding traces of Your Best Self
"Along the riverbank under the trees,
I discover footprints.
Even under the fragrant grass,
I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces can no more be hidden
than one's nose, looking heavenward."
Finding the “footprints” represents finding glimpses of your best self.
When you see small traces of your potential greatness, you can breathe a deep sigh of relief.
Because, the risk of searching for your best self paid off.
Now you begin to capitalize on your experiments, Where one of the experiments worked in your favor and you start to see “glimpses” of the “bigger picture.”
Remember, the struggle with this stage is you haven't shaken the fear and the doubt of the previous stage- so you may be “pulling your punches.”
For example, You can feel your heart beating a "thousand miles a minute" against your chest.
As you say to yourself, “Why did I take this path?" "I should have stuck with the 'traditional' path!” "I should have done something easier."
Desperate to quench your thirst for certainty- in an uncertain world.
Please don't - as you would be depriving the world your greatness.
“This is where I begin to reap the rewards of my work.”
Simple signals that you are on the right path could be…
Note, this is where you are realizing your personal strengths; finding the greatness that lies within you.
If you need a reminder, I recommend reading Theodore Roosevelt's Speech, “The Strenuous Life.” (Definitely a game-changer)
I had this moment at my first speaking engagement, 18 years old and nervous as hell.
Heart beating out of my chest- I told the event organizer that I was completely qualified to speak at this event. I was- kind of.
How I got myself in this situation was like this:
Reflecting back on the “footprints” of my life, I noticed throughout high school I was a solid public speaker.
I followed the trail.
I let that “feeling of I know I can do this,” guide me without any real evidence other than my sense of confidence.
I took the leap...
Terrified, I went out on stage- uncertain of the outcome.
The speech was a blur. But...
The risk paid off!
A glowing testimonial was the reward: “ I have been in the business world for twenty years and have attended many seminars. For the most part they are motivational and inspirational but never give the necessary roadmap to success. Mustafa’s presentations provide that roadmap with clear examples.”
This was a huge first win.
When you reach this first win, the cycle of accelerated returns kicks in.
The glimpse of seeing what you are capable of- makes you yearn for more.
You become hungry.
The enticing allure of dancing on the edge of what you are capable of seduces you.
This is is called flow.
Akin to feeling your outstretched hand swiftly yet haphazardly breach through the murky waters of your intuition, guided ever so gently to grasp your grandiose vision.
The feeling is addictive; and it leads to the next stage.
Stage #3: Perceiving the BulL
Hints of the larger picture
"I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild,
willows are green along the shore -
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head,
those majestic horns?"
This is the stage where emotionally you’ve become “calm” and have created space. Tying back to earlier stripping away the inessential, to move towards what is essential. Gaining glimpses of your earlier power.
This is where you've locked your sights on your power. You are no longer searching for it, you've found it and you are running towards it. Full force.
Where you start to barrel down the path of what you are capable of... this is where you trim down your life, to only focus on what matters to you and your personal gift.
You become acutely aware of the “inessentials” aka the decisions that get in the way of creating the result. Think Steve Jobs adopting his black t-shirt and jeans “uniform”.
Effectively signaling to the world, I have other things to think about and work on.
Things that were once important become trivial.
This stage fuels your dedication of later stages. Thus, you see the ox-herder in the picture chasing the "bull down". With conviction, this is where you decide to devote yourself to your craft- in order to reach the highest levels.
You are getting out of your own way, so you can do the things you want to do and be.
By creating clarity of purpose, you engender a feeling of calm into your body.
This can also be the stage where someone else gets a glimpse of your power and helps you nurture it.
This stage leads to excitement. Note, that the calm that you have created in the stage is sets the foundation for the next stage.
Stage#4: Catching the Bull
Breaking Bad Habits
"I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power
He charges to the high plateau
far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes."
“ Holding the rope tightly means that he must work hard to overcome his bad habits of the past that developed through the ignorance, hatred and craving that gave rise to all of his afflictions.”
This is the stage of development where you are breaking old habits, mindsets, and behavior stopping you from the change that you want to make.
Relating to the Lao Tzu quote, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Personally, this stage was the most difficult stage. And, honestly, it is something that I am still struggling with.
The conflict of this stage is the tension of your greatness, that strong power you feel within, the vision of something better, must be matched by your work ethic, drive, and discipline.
As you have to strip away that things that brought you to this stage to be successful. The "inessentials" that are impeding your progress to mastering yourself. (Note: I recommend reading The 80/20 Principle to help)
This stage being the most difficult also makes it the most important stage. Because as you learn how to break old habits and create new ones (I recommend these two books to help you change habits: The Power of Habit and Designing for Behavior Change ) you start to create a surge of confidence.
Stage # 5: Taming the Bull
The Beginning of Mastering Yourself
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down
some dusty road.
Being well-trained, he becomes
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
This is the stage where you start to see the benefits of your discipline.
Your power has now submitted to you.
For example, let's say you've had an idea that you've always wanted to share. Instead of doubting yourself you start to steer yourself in the direction of expression.
The main lesson of this stage is: The results will come.
However, only after you embraced the process of training, daily.
Meaning you’ve put the “structures”, “systems”, “processes”, “routines” or “habits” in place to ensure your success.
Once you do, you will feel the indomitable power and spirit of success. Because success only becomes a matter of time.
The main struggle of this stage is: Embracing the process.
I’ve been going through this now of disciplining myself to wake up at 4:30 A.M. to get to the day and start my day with a powerful morning routine. The days where “tame the bull and get out of bed”, are days where the everything falls at my feet. The days that aren’t, the ox got away.
Remember, whatever you want is life is a repetitive set of tasks (aka Routines).
This stage is about creating the essential routines to express your power.
-Tony Robbins- Morning Priming Routine
-Lebron James- The Powder
-Stephen King writing habits- writes 10 pages a day
The struggle is to ensure everyday works in tandem with the next.
The end of this stage leads to something outstanding: You start to share your personal gift.
Because the habits you have created will begin to share your gift with the world.
A perfect example of stripping away the inessential to enjoy your craft is:
“Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”- Stephen King
But once you get it right, the next stage happens…
Stage # 6: Riding the Bull Home
The Hard Part is Done
"Mounting the bull, slowly
I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones
through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats
the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody
will join me. "
The above verse suggests that he has been freed from old fears and anxieties and that so he can now express his creative energies in celebration of life.
This is the stage where your new journey starts! The bull is tamed and you can steer your power in whatever direction you choose.
Creating “pulsating harmony,” within your own body.
Your actions are aligned with your dreams.
You’ve put in the hard work and now you continue the basic habits that brought you there- allowing for the next stage...
Stage #7: The Bull Transcended
Where things get esoteric
This is the stage where austerity is reached.
Similar to what the author Daniel Coyle, in The little book of Talent, “– Choose Spartan over Luxurious” as “luxury is a motivational narcotic,” for “Simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand”.
Where you want to do more of the exact actions that helped you reach “zen” in the first place.
Where you begin to enjoy the "journey."
As you understand that all of your success has stemmed from the "everyday" things that you had done to get you to enlightenment.
For example, Jerry Rice went back to running routes the day after the Super Bowl, because he understood that if he wanted to reach the same pinnacle again, instead of going off and celebrating and "taking it easy" he needed to go back to the everyday action that made him this successful.
Here is Jerry talking about the day after the Super Bowl.
Now you may be saying,, “But Moose, How do I get to this space of enjoying the everyday actions?” The simple answer, (and a bit of an overgeneralization is) curiosity and intrinsic motivation.
Research has shown that this makes change sustainable.
Once you reach this stage you understand that you enjoy the process of what got you to success.
The yeoman, a farmer who has a reputation for hard toil, works for the light-hearted assurance of success.
The work ethic ensures the result and allows that restless feeling to be calm.
You find solace and deep peace in work- Where you understand that processes you’ve created now just need to be “tweaked” to create elite levels of success.
Because by putting in the work that can be perceived as “hard” (It's really passion) You have effectively touched someone else’s life.
Another master of his craft, Kobe Bryant, shows the same mindset here (between 17:15-17:45)
Once you master your mindset- you become your craft.
The next picture illustrates this...
Stage #8: Both Bull and Self Transcended
Whip, rope, person, and bull -
all merge in No Thing.
This heaven is so vast,
no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist
in a raging fire.
Here are the footprints of
I have abandoned the whip and ropes.
This is the stage where you've reached true flow. Nothing else matters besides true self-expression.
This is where you get the feeling that you know an idea is going to be successful and immediately start the architecture of the experience and can execute flawlessly almost effortlessly.
This is where idea and execution merge together.
Harmony is created within you and conflict is gone.
You’ve reached personal mastery.
Call it “effortless expression”.
Where you decide and act immediately- with no internal resistance.
You just “flow."
Stage #9: Reaching the Source
Fuse with Your Genius
This is where you understand that every small task, the patience of the process is the joy. This is no longer where you are thinking about anything. This is where you just are.
Each simple action is now an action of a master.
The training has become embedded in your body.
No matter the environment- you learned that it is your training that will lead you to success.
You need nothing, because you have the ability to
Which means, wherever you go you will radiate your presence.
Creating the final stage for mastery…
Stage #10: In the World
Sharing Your Gift
"Barefooted and naked of breast,
I mingle with the people
of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden,
and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees
This is the stage where you share what you have learned.
All the work that you have done up to this moment has lead to this, where even the ordinary is extraordinary for you.
Where emotionally you have "the glow" and the "confidence" to know that whatever you set your mind to you can create, exactly as you imagined.
This sense of creative confidence is true power; and it lights up others around you, because it can give them permission to unleash their personal gift.
You will uplift people around you with the simplest of actions. People who may have given up on the journey to mastery, have their spirits rekindled by you!
That is why the poem says "Now, before me, the dead trees become alive."
The zen ox-herding articles serve as guideposts for personal change; Easing your doubts, coaxing your uncertainties.
When you are moving from searching for something (e.g. a creative idea or a vision for you life) all the through the process of taming that search, attaining what you want, and sharing the wisdom of your journey with others.
Now I want to be clear, sharing your personal gift will not come overnight. With that in mind, it is important to work to your goal daily, because it will provide freedom.
True freedom is the ability to navigate through the world as a creator; keeping fear in check- and sharing your personal gift with the world.
By sharing your gift, you change people’s lives.
Lives that may have been “dead” long ago, even though are breathing.
Let this post be your push to go out and craft your personal gift.
Spend the hours necessary in solitude!
Get really good at what you do! Because,”...what the world needs is people who have come alive.”-Howard Thurman
And so...Go out there and-
Make the dead trees come alive.
Special Thanks to:
Ryan Blake, Alex Kasinskas, Drew Bassini, and countless others who have helped me for months in putting this piece together. Your friendship has been exceptional in so many regards.