The Zen of BoJack Horseman

In case you aren’t familiar with Netflix’s animated show, let’s get this out of the way — it’s about an anthropomorphic talking horse named BoJack.

He starred in a 90s family sitcom that was a hit in the same way sitcoms like “Full House,” “Family Ties,” and “Charles in Charge” were hits. Present day, BoJack is a washed-up actor clinging to his past success and trying to regain relevance by getting back into the limelight.

Sound crazy? It gets crazier.

In this world, animals and humans coexist as a normal way of life:

  • BoJack’s roommate is a human who freeloads off him (kind of like Kato to O.J., though BoJack hasn’t stabbed anyone to death…yet).
  • His agent is also his ex-girlfriend, and she’s a cat (a cat with a great name: Princess Carolyn).
  • His “kind of” nemesis is a lab named Mr. Peanutbutter (peanut butter is one word don’t write one word).
  • His love interest for part of the second season is an owl who was in a coma for 30 years (“To be fair, I haven’t had sex in 30 years. I hope.”).
  • And the one who got away — who he thinks could have been his true love and made him happy — is a deer with human kids living in New Mexico with her human husband (“Kyle and the kids? Please tell me that’s the name of your band.”).

Are you still with me?

If so, put the craziness to one side because “BoJack Horseman” captures the essence of the human condition better than any show on television. This talking horse is a brutally honest and accurate portrayal of all of us, and the struggles and suffering we face in life.

BoJack can be a terrible…person. He is haunted by his childhood, which was marred by mentally abusive, alcoholic parents. BoJack himself can be mean — sometimes even cruel — and he constantly makes bad decisions driven by a huge ego and self-centered desires.

He’s not immune to screwing over his friends. He doesn’t keep promises to them, and he sabotages their efforts. But, to be fair, he usually sabotages his own efforts too.

Despite these shortcomings, you’ll probably like him. A lot. He’s easy to relate to, and you’ll no doubt see yourself in him and his actions (minus the Hollywoo(d) lifestyle, of course…unless you’re an actor).

I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation for more than twenty years, and teaching for 13. I’ve published over 100 articles on topics related to mindfulness, meditation, living in the present moment, and happiness. Amazingly, everything I teach and write about is represented in BoJack.

For example, he’s full of judgment — of those around him, and especially of himself:

“I have no self-control, and I hate myself.”
“I hate you, and you are a horrible person. And you not understanding that you’re a horrible person doesn’t make you less of a horrible person.”
“I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that — deep down — I’m a good person and I need you to tell me that I’m good.”

“I spend a lot of time with the real me and believe me, nobody’s gonna love that guy.”

He lives in his mind, and is constantly caught up in thoughts, emotions, impulses, and urges. Quite often they drag him down into pits of despair:

“I don’t understand how people…live. It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say, ‘Yeah, another day, let’s do it.’ How do people do it? I don’t know how.”
“I want…to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take a shower so I can’t tell if I’m crying or not.”

He’s a victim to conditioned behavior, and it seems that no matter how hard he tries to change, he slips back into it:

“The same thing that always happens. You didn’t know me, then you fell in love with me. And now you know me.”
“Am I just doomed to be the person I am? It’s not too late for me, is it?”

He has a hard time living in the present moment, because he’s either dwelling on the past or planning for his future return to fame. He doesn’t understand the concept of equanimity. He has trouble being compassionate. He labels everyone and everything. He’s attached to his opinions, the image of who, what, and how he should be, and his desire to be relevant.

But most of all, he is constantly searching for happiness “out there” — in people, places, and things. All of us fall into this trap, and I wrote about it last year — it became my second most popular article on Medium because practically everyone can relate.

This never-ending quest is summed up by BoJack and his friends in the following quotes:

“When you get what you want, you inevitably end up wanting something else.”
“You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie! What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?”
“I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast!”

BoJack is like most of humanity — we go through life never realizing that the search for happiness in external objects and circumstances is futile.

We try to find it in our next relationship, our next purchase, our next job, our next vacation — at best, these things only deliver temporary relief. Once the “newness” of external change wears off, we are back where we started. Sometimes we are worse than where started, and we try to escape reality with alcohol, drugs, the Internet, and anything else that can distract us for a while.

And, sadly, most of us believe this is just normal life.

Some of humanity wakes up and realizes the futility of this type of existence, however. And that’s the hope we hold for BoJack. At times he gets close to seeing that his suffering is self-imposed, and his happiness will never be found “out there.”

One such moment was the culmination of a storyline about Hollywood being a tar pit, and needing to get away before you sink in it. When revisiting this message with his long-lost love, BoJack asks if she still thinks that’s true. She says no, “you’re the tar pit.” And then adds the most insightful comment of the series:

“It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s who you are. And that’s not gonna change whether you’re in California or Maine or New Mexico. You know, you can’t escape…you.”

BoJack shows signs of understanding this:

  • When we first meet him, he’s so self-absorbed that he isn’t even aware of his problems.
  • As Season One ends, he becomes more self-aware and it seems that BoJack wants to change. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the past, re-living his glory days or dreaming about the life he could have had. He wants to be a good person.
  • The beginning of Season Two sees him attempting to change. He’s listening to motivational tapes, looking to get in shape, and trying to be better. But, as the season progresses, he succumbs to more bad decisions and self-imposed suffering, with some heart-breaking consequences.

His journey is remarkably similar to the one most of us make. We want to improve. We want to be better — for ourselves and for others. We want to get off the roller coaster of ups and downs that we call normal life.

We want others to tell us that we’re good people.

BoJack is depressed. BoJack is depressing. And BoJack’s doing what we all do: trying to find a way to be ok.

So we pull for him because we see ourselves in him. If he can figure it out, maybe we can figure it out. As we watch his life unfold, it’s easy to see everything he’s doing wrong — and we know exactly what he needs to do to fix it!

BoJack is stumbling through a life-long existential crisis, and we feel that if we could just give him a little nudge in the right direction, he could escape suffering and fall into enlightenment.

He’s so close. We all are — but it’s much easier to see in others…especially a talking horse. Rarely do we see it in ourselves, though.

We don’t stop to realize we are in similar situations — we’re basically the same people doing the same things. What we see in others is also true for us. Instead of giving BoJack a nudge, we should give ourselves one.

I don’t know what the future holds for BoJack, but the second season ended on a hopeful note:

Maybe BoJack will figure it out. Maybe he’ll be ok. Maybe we’ll all be ok.

If this article resonated with you, I set up a BoJack page with links to past articles I’ve written that address his (and our) struggles.

Awareness-based therapy:

Are you suffering from extreme emotions or unhealthy mental states? Awareness-based therapy can help. It teaches you how your mind works, and provides a path to help you move beyond “coping” to achieving and maintaining a more consistent state of well-being. Find out more about our online, self-paced program here.


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