Taming our sacred Zen Ox

Can a personal crisis begin a journey of self-discovery?

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There is a Zen tradition which describes a special, personal journey of inner discovery, spiritual awakening and wisdom which is an account of the sacred ox.  This journey is of course a metaphor for human spiritual awakening particularly after a crisis, a struggle, a death, or some sort of loss. It involves travelling into the forest, discovering the ox’s tracks and coming face to face with it before taming it and finally releasing both the ox and the self to live in unified harmony within the world.

Awakening calls out to us in a thousand ways whether it comes through suffering and dissatisfaction, isolation or disconnection . Awakening experiences are more common than you know and not always far away. From personal experience and numerous accounts in literature - they don’t last, can be slow and steady or hit you quickly,  yet they are sometimes enough to present the reality of the world to us which bringing about transformation. You don’t have to be special or a spiritual guru to experience an awakening. Suzuki Roshi once said “strictly speaking there are no enlightened people only enlightened activity”. Awakening cannot be held by anyone it just exists in the moments of freedom.  Pir Vilayat Khan head of the Sufi Order in West said “Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to the West, get them a house, two cars, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance and taxes they would all have a hard time”.

Awakening experiences came onto my radar whilst reading for university. I read The Leap and Out Of The Darkness by Dr. Steve Taylor and After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield. This quote really jumped out from the page - “Where we are going is here in front of us. Where we already are is the path and the goal” (Kornfield 2000). I realised that I had encountered several awakening experiences over the years and at the time I didn’t understand what was happening to me and it would have been helpful to be able to have spoken to someone who could help.  Years later I was studying at university and awakening experiences were a topic during our transpersonal psychology module. Awakenings may come from reading a spiritual book or having a  conversation with someone spiritual, they may be during travelling to a foreign culture, or simply walking in nature and common experiences occur while listening to choral music or being present enjoying a concert. For me they are moments that seem empty, timeless when I feel totally at peace with no problems. In this emptiness of self the world becomes uncomplicated and I have an inner knowing that I am connected to a collective consciousness.

So what does a westerner’s spiritual journey look like in the midst of a complex society? For me it was developing a meditation practise after I suffered a breakdown following the untimely death of a close friend, in fact it was meditation that saved my life.  A universal theme you will find is that crisis is an invitation to our spirit whenever our life passes through suffering leading us to seek an answer which is already inside us. My biggest awakening experiences reminded me that I was here on a great errand. We live in demanding, disordered times, complicated with so many distractions we are never truly alone to experience our inner stillness. Meditation was my journey into the stillness of the forest.

The wanting, striving mind or the neediness in us that always wants more than we have now is the same mind that tries to use external experiences to fill the voids rather than work with its internal landscape. As a psychotherapist and somatic trauma therapist I often observe how clients’ personal stories are held in their bodies. When we learn to quieten the mind and become attentive to ourselves, we see/feel the unprocessed, the conflicted or what is unfinished, show itself. As we develop a regular meditation practise whether it involves sitting quietly or walking in nature, we quieten the mind and observe how much of our life is governed by our unconscious stories. Central to the stories we tell ourselves is the power of thoughts and assumptions, together with the contractions of the body create a limited sense of self “the body of fear” and when we live from the body of fear our life is simply one of habit and reaction.

During meditation we can begin releasing the old patterns of holding in the body. We consciously open up to deep emotions that underpin repetitive patterning in the mind. Through my own ox taming,  I have found myself face-to-face with the powerful beast which became tame through mindfulness and meditation so I could release it and live in harmony with my ‘self’.  In spiritual practice, awakening can be  encountering periods of hardship and personal crisis which I now see as initiations that force a shift in my identity so I can transcend my small sense of self and release all my fear.  In order to keep in harmony with my ox I have observed a recurring theme which is forgiveness. Forgiveness of myself, of others and the world in general.

The taming of my ox was to leave my job, pay less attention to my ego and psychological attachments.  I set up a community wellness provision which included a meditation circle, yoga, retreats, Qi gong and Sound therapy. I then re-trained as a psychologist, somatic therapist and psychotherapist, I have written  two books around mental health and recently I have become the director and founder of a non-profit trauma centre.  All this has taken me ten years but it did all begin with suffering and my subsequent journey into the forest. Awakening experiences aren’t always born of suffering but that is often the common entry point, they can occur over a period of regular spiritual practise such as prayer and meditation too.

If you would like to listen to a ‘loving kindness’ free meditation you can find one amongst many others on my website  www.gaildonnan.com

The above is not intended to replace any medical advice or treatment you are currently receiving and it is always advisable to seek therapy help when going through a personal crisis.



After the Ecstasy, The Laundry – Jack Kornfield

The Leap – Dr. Steve Taylor

Out of the Darkness – Dr. Steve Taylor


Gail Donnan

Interdisciplinary Psychologist, Trauma-informed EMDR Psychotherapist, Director and Practice Lead, The Trauma Centre - Ripon

I have been working in the wellness industry since 1995. I have a Master's Degree in Interdisciplinary Psychology (Leeds), I am a trauma-informed EMDR psychotherapist, Director and Practice Lead of the Trauma Centre, Ripon which is a community interest company.  I am a qualified teacher, assessor and IQA. I am a trained Meditation Teacher, Bach Flower Essence Practitioner, Qi Gong Instructor and Reiki Master Teacher Practitioner.  I specialise in mental health issues arising from trauma, anxiety, depression and am the published author of two books -"The Gateway - A journey to re-claim your power from Stress and Anxiety" and The Gateway Junior Edition - children's mental health. I have a huge interest in somatic psychotherapy and have an interdisciplinary approach to mental health.