Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a man who loved horses. He loved everything about them and wanted to spend all his time with them, so it was not surprising that he became a horse breeder by trade. Whenever he was not taking care of horses, he would be watching them or talking about them.
His most favorite possession was a stallion of a rare and valuable breed. He looked after its needs with far more attention than his own needs. He would often use a basket to catch its droppings and a container to hold its urine, so he could quickly remove the bodily wastes from the presence of his beloved steed.
One morning, he followed his daily routine and brought top-quality feed and a sweet treat for the horse. As the horse was munching on the feed, he busied himself grooming the horse from head to tail. He admired the horse as he worked, thinking: "Look at its powerful legs! No question about it, I have done a great job with this one." He could not wait for the day of the unveiling, when he would trot out this prize stallion on display. How his peer would be envious!
The buzzing of an insect interrupted his pleasant daydream. It was a mosquito flying around. Despite his best efforts to clean the stables, there were still too many insects. Much to his annoyance, this particular mosquito landed on the horse near its tail. "Trying to feast on the blood of my stallion? I'll teach you!" Angrily, he slapped at it on the horse's backside.
The horse, startled by the sudden slap, reacted reflexively. Its powerfully muscled legs kicked out and struck the man dead center. Such was the force of the kick that the man died instantly. The horse resumed munching on the feed, without awareness or care that its master was dead.
As is usually the case with Chuang Zi stories, the elements in this story are not what they seem. The horse isn't really a horse, but a symbol representing an all-consuming attachment. The horse lover isn't just a character in this story. He is you, me, and everyone else; he stands for all of us when we become obsessed with something.
The signs of the obsession are easily recognized. Just as it was with the horse lover and his horses, when we get into anything too much, it begins to take up more and more time, and we find ourselves constantly talking about it. We may even focus on the needs of the attachment at the expense of our own needs, or the needs of our loved ones.
Life will take a turn for the worse when the attachment begins taking over your thoughts. More and more, you daydream about it and start making elaborate plans involving it. When real life intrudes into your thoughts - represented in the story by the mosquito - you react with annoyance, even anger.
The horse lover's slap is a metaphor for mistakes that cause the attachment to turn on you. Real life is full of such examples. When people become too engrossed in their various pursuits, they often injure themselves, cause accidents, or become victims of someone else's carelessness. Even when nothing disastrous happens, their neglect of loved ones can cause damage in their most essential relationships.
The horse's kick is a powerful lesson from Chuang Tzu. You know you love a particular thing, but does it love you back? Does it take care of you like you take care of it? This point is underscored by the horse continuing to feed placidly in the story. Your all-consuming attachment does not know or care about what happens to you. The love and affection you shower upon it goes into a bottomless pit, never to be seen again. On the day you die, the thing that you have obsessed over all your life will not mourn for you. It will not even notice your passing.
Chuang Tzu is telling us that we should never forget the human dimension while we indulge in our various pursuits. If we wish to live life with meaning, then we need to have other people, not animate objects, as our primary focus. This means you should never sacrifice quality time with the family. It also means your enjoyment of a particular pursuit should be shared. Sharing adds meaning to your activities and makes them all the more enjoyable for everyone involved; it elevates what you do from a solitary pursuit to a means of building friendship and community.
Understanding this story will lead you to naturally direct love and attention to the important people in your life. It will also lead you to naturally include others who share your interests. These are the ones who care about you as much as you care about them. You will never regret the time spent with them - each moment will be the very definition of living in the Tao.