A joyful man wearing a business suit

I was recently sitting in the office of a senior executive of a major corporation in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a coaching client and we were meeting for the first time.  His eyes looked pained, and his shoulders were slightly hunched when he said, “How did I get so busy and yet manage to feel so uninspired? Why does my life feel stale? Why do I have a gnawing sense of defeat much of the time? Internally I am either churning or numb. What happened to the enthusiasm and excitement I had for life when I was young, just setting out in my career and marriage? When did my life get so out of balance?”

Behind him, I noticed a nearly life-size wooden cutout of a rhinoceros. How odd, I thought. What was this large creature doing lurking in the office of this senior executive? “What is that?” I asked. 

The man smiled for the first time during our meeting. “Oh, that was from an event that we held about fifteen years ago. Since there was no place to store it and I didn’t want it thrown out, this rhino has been living in my office ever since.” 

“That image reminds me of a story,” I told him. Then I shared old Zen story that goes like this: 

A teacher says to his attendant, “Bring me my fan, the rhinoceros horn fan.” Apparently, the teacher had a special fan that either had a painting of a rhinoceros or perhaps was made with some sliver of rhinoceros horn. The attendant responds, “I’m afraid your rhinoceros horn fan is broken.” 

I stopped and asked my client, “What do you think the teacher said?” 

He responded with a shrug; he didn’t know. 

I told him:

“The teacher stated sternly, ‘Then bring me the rhinoceros!’” 

We both chuckled. It’s a silly, preposterous story that made about as much apparent sense as the rhinoceros that was in the room. 

I asked my client to look at his rhinoceros. I suggested that he remember what he felt like when he brought it into his office many years ago. I imagined that it must have felt lighthearted, risky, surprising, and I shared this with him. 

“Yes,” he acknowledged and smiled. “I was new to my job – excited and nervous.” 

“Well, let’s see if we can bring back some of that surprise, and that energy, into your work and life right now,” I responded. “Some of that rhinoceros energy!” 

The Zen story is about joy, surprise, and creative energy. The teacher is saying to his attendant, “Wake up! Don’t take your life, and life in general, for granted. Don’t take anything for granted. Think, consider, and live outside of your habitual ways.” I explained this to my client and we spent the rest of the session exploring ways to bring a new perspective to things.  

No matter how you feel about your current situation, be it at home or at work, your whole life is right here, right now. Have you recently paid conscious attention to the simple and obvious parts of your life that you may be overlooking? Have you considered what is working, what brings you joy, as well as what you avoid, what annoys and angers you? This is not about avoiding or ignoring all that is challenging and painful. It’s a way of including what’s working and what is possible. Just as the teacher used what was directly in front of him, how do you work with what is right in front of you?

For me, that “rhinoceros energy” is seeing that I have a choice about how I respond in situations, and noticing that each choice impacts my state of mind and my actions. This is true in all parts of my life. I now have an 8-month old baby living in my house. Hearing the sound of a baby crying can be annoying or it can be beautiful, and it’s just a sound. I can choose my response, when I’m paying attention. Working with my consulting clients can be challenging and stressful, or challenging and an opportunity to learn and grow. It all depends on how I attend to the energy I’m experiencing, and how I choose to channel it.

Some practices:

  • How do you choose (or not choose) your response – to sounds, to events, and conversations?
  • Write about or reflect on what brings you joy; what makes you most alive.  
  • Describe a particular event or situation that made you smile, laugh, and that surprised you.