• Jill Hance Bakke

All the Sacred Cows Aren't in India

The term “Sacred Cow” makes us think of India where cows are literally considered sacred in the Hindu religion and allowed to freely roam the streets. However, we have a few of their offspring in the United States. Here they roam in our minds and lives and have the capability of throwing us out of balance.

Merriam Webster defines the term Sacred Cow as “one that is often unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition.” Sacred cows can be associated with an institution such as the religion we practice, the work we do, our government, or even specific individual programs or practices. All of our Sacred Cows are tied to long-held assumptions and deep beliefs.

It is easier to see sacred cows in organizations and institutions than in ourselves. For example, finance says saving a specific percentage of your paycheck is important. Many religions consider giving ten percent of its members’ income to their church an unquestionable law. One of medicine’s sacred cows until recently has been the vaccination of children. Attacking a sacred cow creates a great deal of disturbance in society. And while politics, religions, the environment, and the very structure of our country is loaded with sacred cows, our personal lives are filled with dozens more.

To find the markers of sacred cows in our personal lives we need to start looking at our personal shoulds and oughts—those things we believe and habitually do without questioning. The sacred cows in our life are seeded by our parents, society, religion, and school. We see them as normal and important. And these sacred cows roaming through our lives can make as much trouble for us as the cows in the streets of India.

If we have children, there is a long list of sacred cows we think we should take care of: attendance at PTA and teacher appointments, addition of extra activities for our child’s social and physical growth, attention to their proper diet, inoculations, and the need to make enough money to cover all those territories and more. There are sacred cows in many areas of our personal lives including in our work, our religion or spiritual path, and even in our relationships.

We need to look at our sacred cows and discover where we are overcommitted and spend too much time and energy. We need to stop and use our hearts as our guide when seeking balance. When we are out of balance, we become stressed and often ill. We cease to enjoy things that give us pleasure and relaxation.

The sacred cow may be a big bull or a small calf, but a cow is a cow. They come in all sizes. The idea that I had to make my bed or clean the dishes before I left for work every morning would be a small cow. Having everyone at my home for celebrations and holidays might be a calf, but the idea I unquestionably held that family comes first in my life came as a huge bull. I never questioned that belief; it was a solid fact to me. I followed it for decades until I suddenly realized that there were others able to share those tasks. I saw I was spending most of my time and energy attending to the needs of others and not enough attention to my inner ones such as relaxation, creativity, exercise, personal and spiritual growth. And when I finally looked at what I was doing, I saw that I was also depriving family members of their own growth and development.

Here is another example. I feed the birds every morning, sit down and write in my journal, have a cup of coffee and watch the birds scramble for their share of breakfast. When life squeezed out all but throwing the peanuts on the deck for the birds, I saw that all habitual actions are not sacred cows. Yes, the birds got fed, but I noted I didn’t get fed with the appreciation of watching them, the gratitude of having the means to feed them, or the joy of a few moments of calm to begin my day.

There is a verse in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:3) that speaks to this problem. It tells us we can “have faith, give away all we have, deliver our body to be burned,” and ends with “but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Love is action that is guided by our heart, not our head’s oughts and shoulds. I can feed the birds, but I will not reap my reward for a task that becomes mindlessly a habit, and my life can get so entwined in the musts, the oughts, the shoulds that I do not even realize that imbalance has occurred.

The cure is two-fold. First, we need to step into awareness and give up practices that no longer serve us. To do this means we question the action, investigate it, and do some personal-based research into its value for us.

Society is starting to do this more than it has in the past. For example, questioning childhood vaccinations is a current example. As more and more research is made in medicine, we see old unquestioned ways of handling health issues changing. Another example is the Catholic Church putting aside the earlier injunction of not eating meat on Friday. In fact, religion has a lot of sacred cows. Many take their religion to be the only path to salvation. Others hold that to be a priest, one must be male and celibate. One of science’s first sacred cows was the world is flat. We know how that turned out. Now quantum physics is changing our Newtonian thinking from the idea that our environment controls what happens to our world and us, to our thoughts and emotions control what happens in our environment.

The second aspect is to find a practice of gratitude or connection to the universe that sustains our well-being. Change is all around us, and we need to find things that ground us. They don’t have to be something big and showy. But they need to be heart-felt. Many things exist for us to choose from. Anything creative is good medicine. Other possibilities include meditation, exercise, reading, writing, spending time in nature, music, sound, and dance, as well as practicing gratitude in what we may consider little things such as blessing our morning sustenance – that first cup of coffee or the sunrise. Anything done from the heart is life affirming, even the smallest of things like my greeting the morning with my birds. These are the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.

We will undoubtedly retain a few personal sacred cows, but thinning the herd with a bit of awareness can clear our lives for a more balanced and nourishing existence.

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