Pick Up Your Cow

There’s an old story I remember hearing, though I can’t recall the exact source. It seems that in ancient China a father died and left each of his sons half the family farm. The older son, however, was greedy and a bully and forced his younger brother to given him the other half of the farm as well. With no way to support himself and no way to overcome his larger, stronger older brother the young man left the village and traveled to Shaolin monastery.

He asked the monks to teach him Kung Fu so that he could return to his village and defeat his brother and reclaim his inheritance. The monks agreed to take the young man in and teach him. On the first day of training, the abbot brought him a young calf and told the younger brother to put it across his shoulders and run to the top of a nearby hill once in the morning and once in the evening each day. Aside from that the young man didn’t get any training at all but just worked in the monastery’s kitchen. Still, he trusted his teacher and so everyday he would put the calf over his shoulders and run to the top of the mountain.


Cow Family by Sunny Ripert via Flicker

This training went on week after week and month after month and soon the calf was a full-grown cow and still the younger brother hadn’t been given any training except running up the mountain twice a day with the cow across his shoulders. Finally the young man grew impatient and complained to the abbot: “When are you going to teach me to fight so that I can reclaim my farm?”

The abbot said, “But you already know everything you need to get your farm back. Take your cow and go back to your village and when your brother comes out to fight you just put the cow across your shoulders and start running towards him.”

So the young man did as the abbot said. The older brother was so shocked by his brother’s display of strength that he instantly surrendered and gave the younger brother back his portion of the farm.

This story does an excellent job of illustrating the transforming power of daily routines. Your routine might be a daily stretching or yoga session. It might be walking around the neighborhood or doing body weight exercises such as pushups or crunches. You may even be lifting weights at a local gym or running up hills with a cow on your shoulders (though I doubt it’s the latter). Whatever your routine might be there are some lessons to be learned from the younger brother’s story.

Lesson 1: Start with a baby cow. I have a lot of patients come through my clinic door with injuries they got from pushing their bodies too hard too fast. Sometimes the push comes from competition, or from trying to perform the same way they did years ago but most of the time it comes from trying to get results as quickly as possible. Start with what feels comfortable and gradual build from there.

Lesson 2: Consistency is key. In the story, the younger brother carried the cow twice a day each and every day. If he had taken a week or two off he might have come back only to find that the cow was now too heavy for him to lift. There are, of course, many exercise programs on the market that are built around the idea of 4-6 weeks of intense work followed by a week or two of rest and recovery. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but if you are trying to make an activity a daily routine you should be able to do it every day without needing excessive recovery time. If you find yourself wear out you’re probably pushing too hard.

Lesson 3: We can’t always see our own progress. Because daily routines create change slowly over long periods of times it’s often difficult to see what progress has been made. The younger brother didn’t think that he had accomplished anything too amazing but his brother certainly did. Friends and family are a valuable outside perspective that help us see what we’ve accomplished.

Daily habits, done right can produce some of the most profound and long-lasting changes imaginable. Even Aristotle recognized their importance when he said, “We are what we continually do. Excellence, therefore, is not a virtue but a habit.” What new excellence would you like to see in your life?

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