Shades of blue

25 03 2018

 

Blue 1If we are human, we have suffered depression. We’ve been disappointed, discouraged and disillusioned. In the darkest, most painful times, we’ve touched despair. Depression visits us in many shades: some days we might be feeling a little off-colour, other days it’s the full spectrum. Each one of us has the ability to paint depression in hues of our own making. Everyone who has suffered through depression longs for relief.

Animals, too, suffer alongside us. Dogs who are treated without compassion grow listless or angry and afraid and sometimes need years of patient handling to gain trust in humans who have no interest in prolonging their suffering. Monkeys who have been used in laboratory testing are forever twitchy. One of the saddest things I have seen is a rescue laboratory monkey neurotically pacing the exact dimensions of his lab cage in his new open enclosure.

A few  years ago Dragonfly, our super sensitive Arabian horse, went through a prolonged period of depression. He lost his vitality and became deeply introverted. Walks out did not interest him. He picked at his food and hay. The vet could find nothing wrong. The farrier checked his feet and found them sound. We spent time with him and tried to work out what was causing him to be so subdued, but nothing was obvious.

One afternoon I arrived and saw the horse in the stable opposite had not been turned out. His head was hanging low almost between his knees and looking at him I felt close to tears. I learned that his owner often left him in all day and all night and rarely spent much time with him. Dragonfly was effectively sharing a home with another being who was profoundly depressed. I wondered then whether Dragonfly was mirroring the mood in that sad stable block. His vitality returned when I moved him to a new place where he could bicker with his neighbours.

Few of us would choose to be depressed, but depression is inescapable if we are to live as feeling creatures. What if we could learn to view depression differently, as something that protects us from greater harm? The view of depression as a defensive protective strategy in Paul Gilbert’s work The Compassionate Mind is intriguing and perhaps ultimately consoling. Professor Gilbert, a clinical psychologist, reminds us that our brains are still not really that mentally advanced to keep up with the pressures and stresses of contemporary life, and so when we reach the point of overwhelm, we shut down. We retreat into ‘the back of the cave.’ We ruminate on our feelings of despair and weave a negative, blaming, shameful circle around our state of mind. The rumination can keep us depressed for years.

Professor Gilbert explores with great luminosity the idea that depression is a normal, natural response to trauma of any kind, to being bullied, rejected, threatened or abused. Depression steps in to keep us safe. It protects our minds from further harm and allows us time out of life to heal. With this understanding of depression, it makes no sense to blame ourselves for being depressed or try to fight it. It makes little sense to medicate against it either because medication dulls the very system that is doing its best to keep us well. This is a beautiful example of the mind being designed through evolution to heal itself.

Nevertheless, the healing process, as we know so well, is horribly painful. And just as you wouldn’t expect to go through life-saving surgery without medication to support you through the physical pain, medication will often support you through the pain of a mind that needs to mend. It’s blaming ourselves for needing the medication that causes more suffering. And to blame a mind already in agony is to compound real suffering.

As Professor Gilbert argues so eloquently, we need a more compassionate approach to healing the mind. We need to understand the mind as a system that serves us so well and most of time acts in our best interests, when we remember to step out of the way. Here is an idea that might be too difficult to accept: if instead of blaming our tendency to go down when we are threatened, we could reach out to depression and see that it is trying to be our friend, our wise companion through the darkness, maybe that would change our experience?

I was going to finish with another shade of blue photograph, but have included this one instead because today in this hemisphere, we mark the Spring Equinox.

Lamb

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To be amazed

18 03 2018

Old Jon 2

Looking after horses in the winter months is routine and heavy-going at times. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been trudging through clay in my muck boots for weeks on end without much of a break, and so I welcome moments when I can gain a fresh perspective. Spending time talking to the farmer next door nearly always uplifts me. It’s become part of a spring ritual to hear about how each one of his new lambs made its way into the world. I like to listen to him talk about the ewes as if they were a flock of feckless daughters, the diligent ones obvious favourites; the lazy ones in their turn exasperating.

More than details of the labour of sheep, I’ve learned to listen to a way of life that is disappearing.  At the age of 85, this farmer still cares about the nuances of his work. I’ve heard him dragging new-born lambs, mimicking their bleating, across the orchard to encourage reluctant ewes to follow him into the warm shed. Most weekends, he starts up the chainsaw to work through a pile of timber for his wood burning customers. When I said I’d spread the word, he was wise enough to tell me that he didn’t need the extra work. He knows precisely how much he needs to keep him going.

Talking to him, I get a sense that he sees things exactly as they are. He has been through so many seasons and knows the intricate rise and fall of life. Through his eyes, I see the span of a whole life lived through close connection to animals and the land. His knowledge of the subtleties of growing grass is beautiful and poignant to hear because few people care for that depth of knowledge any more. Chemicals and mechanisation speak a different language. Nevertheless, every summer he insists on inspecting each new hay cut as if it were something personal.

The farmer drives his own car to the yard, and if you see him out on the lanes, he will wave and smile as if you have delighted him to the very centre of his being. He remains sharp, curious and engaged and even though he could put his feet up at home and sit by his fire, he prefers to be out in the world and to be amazed by what he sees.

So, when my shoulders are aching and I’m longing for a cup of tea and a hot bath, I just need to remind myself that I’m out where I most want to be. I can witness the world as it rises and falls through the seasons and through my own being and I can also be amazed.

snow March

 





The art of acceptance

4 03 2018

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So, you get home after two hours of crawling along a road you usually drive down in ten minutes. You’ve been listening to local radio all the way and the Red Warning means you shouldn’t be out in your car because your life is in danger. You tell the announcer that you’re doing your best to get off the road. The trouble is, everyone else is trying to do the same and some roads are already closed. Light cars designed for zipping around a coastal town are in trouble, wheels spinning on ice and snow. A woman gets out of her car and advises another driver to use second gear. Drivers cheer and wave at the sight of the snow plough. The atmosphere is giddy and tense and uncertain.

When you turn into your road, there’s nowhere to park and you end up leaving your vehicle halfway down the street, knowing that you probably won’t be able to move it in the morning. When you reach your house, your steps are immaculately felted with snow, which naturally you plunge your feet into, enjoying the crumpling sound and the sense of relief at having reached safety. The central heating is on, and you make tea and watch from your window the curious sight of snow drifts creating soft islands around the pots on your balcony. Later the lime tree fruits will be crystallised and the fingertips of the palm tree will flaunt perfect jewelled ice beads. Much later, the wind and snow and ice combine into a storm that takes your breath away and keeps you awake, your feelings skittering from awe to worry to incredulity.

You try to go out the next morning but the path around your house is too slippery and you fear that you may fall and injure yourself. You’d like to go out and buy some milk, as people are saying that supplies are running low and you want to feel prepared. You know that you already have enough food and don’t really need to buy anything. The radio is advising people to make soup from leftovers in the fridge. You’re amused because you make soup from leftovers when it doesn’t snow, so what should you do that feels different or special?

You settle into staying at home and try not to worry about the horses because you know they have lived through worse weather conditions than this so-called beast, but your mind keeps thinking of potential disaster such as the barn caving in and burying the big hay bale, or one of the horses twisting a fetlock on the hard ground, or dying of thirst or freezing to death or going mad with fear.

The horses, you learn, from reports from your landowners who can see them from their front window, have huddled together for warmth, ponies on the inside, horses on the outside, and they are quiet and calm. They have ignored the dried food put down for them. When you last saw them, they were settled and even joyful, each one taking a turn to roll in the snow. You learn that the ponies know how to unfreeze a spot of iced-over water with their warm breath and keep it open so that they can drink when they need to. You have been smashing the ice with a mallet, which sometimes doesn’t work. When you think of the horses in the snowy field you can’t help but make comparisons with how the human world is reacting to what is an utterly natural event.

When you next see the horses, they come forward for their feed, and their faces are clean and rain-washed. They are unhurried, beautiful and serene, and you feel a rush of gratitude to them and for them. You feel the layers of care from the past day, has it really been only a day, slip from your shoulders, and you are relaxed. You watch them eat as if for the first time. You want to do something more for them but there is nothing you need to do.

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Let everything happen

7 08 2017

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What the horse knows: Life Lesson: No 10

What would life be like if we simply let things happen? If we allowed life to unfold naturally instead of trying to squeeze life into a container suitable for our own personal use? Letting things happen is not easy for busy-minded humans. We feel we’ve accomplished something if we squeeze as much juice as we can out of every day. Horses look at things differently; they live in what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls ‘the landscape of the now.’

Busy days, down days, difficult days, all are meaningless to a horse. For horses, there are simply days without judgement. Their lived days are rich with texture and meaning and create rhythms that move in and out of seasons. Horses weather their experience. We tend to think of experience as something we have set up, and if we’ve done well, a great holiday or family weekend or special meal, we feel a sense of satisfaction. We congratulate ourselves for ‘getting it right,’ and correspondingly, we feel low for ‘getting it wrong’ when our dream holiday disappoints and leaves us wishing we had stayed at home.

When we are prepared to let everything happen to us, we cannot be disappointed. We can stand the storms, the crazy times, the ups and downs, the grief. We’ve let life in and when we let it take its course without trying to divert it to a direction we would prefer, we see life itself, life in its startling fierce beauty. Life contains everything: pain, magic and the mundane are all mixed up together; it is never one thing and it is never ours alone. It is shared with every living thing.

A shared life is something horses understand. They don’t plot their lifescapes on charts or develop five-year career plans or business strategies or even make plans for the next day. They live moment to moment in full awareness. When I’m with them, I find I can let go of my relentless preoccupation with ‘the next thing’ (whatever it is) and stretch into a more elastic way of being.

I notice more. Coming down the hill in the meadow, I saw the fox, twice. The first time he ran across my path; the second time he moved past the horses, unafraid. I caught a good look at him. Long dark legs, heavy auburn body, neat head, nose to the ground as he high-stepped through the long grass.

Pillowed on the hill, the ground supported my back and held me together. The wind brushed my face. My body was warm, protected, the aches and soreness in my arm dampened by a wider feeling of an active aliveness. The skylark rose and released a braid of song, sequinned notes scattered into the air.

Tinker was resting when I came down from the hill. Her lower lip revealed a slim groove of pink. A single blade of grass clung to the side of her mouth. She has a lovely, neat muzzle. Soft, enquiring, yielding, it fits into the palm of my hand. Her neck was warm under the cover of her long dark mane, bleached in places from the sun. Her neck was smooth and shiny with her own conditioning grease. She looked polished, a light bay oak with gold highlights and darker ripples on her flanks and belly. Her legs were shining black to the knee, and finished in grey gleaming hooves. She glowed in the sun, a golden orb of health.

Sheranni came to me. I rubbed his head and behind his ears. Sometimes he’ll play this game for half an hour or more, but today he needed a stronger massage. He greeted Dragonfly with a kneading on his withers. Often Dragonfly will push him away, but he reciprocated. They swapped positions moving, bending their necks over their backs, splaying their legs so that they could stretch, using top and bottom lip to groom, lifting the skin, occasionally using teeth. Their lips gulped as they worked up a rhythm. The power and tenderness were compelling. At any moment they could lift their necks and break the flow and I expected some jousting, but they kept the rhythm going. This was boys’ work, masculine bonding, powerful, deep and strong. I held back.

Then an opening. The horses separated and cocked their hinds to rest. They half closed their eyes. A stillness. I saw that they had formed a circle with the others and I had been allocated a place. I stayed with them. Afterwards I felt altered in some slight but profound way. On the drive home, my motivation rose. I had ideas to follow. I could let them unfold. I was open again.

 

 

 





How to worry

19 06 2017

What the horse knows: Life Lesson No: 9

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Horses know how to worry. As highly sensitive flight animals, worry is part of being alive and aware and can be seen as beneficial. An exquisite awareness of danger is part of every flight animal’s existence. The more highly attuned, the more potential danger the animal senses. Growing up, Dragonfly, who is as highly strung as a rare violin, worried about birds twittering unexpectedly in hedges, bouncing balls, unpredictable gusts of wind, white lines on the road. One time leading him in from his field he encountered a feral cat eating from his feed bowl and his legs buckled underneath him in fear.

Dragonfly’s worry was his way of meeting the unexpected. His hair-trigger reactivity meant that I had to be careful around him. I couldn’t be brusque or rush him or forget to take his feelings into consideration. I couldn’t make assumptions. I couldn’t expect him to ‘just get over it,’ either. I had to learn to read him and that meant taking his state of mind into consideration at all times. It meant taking him to places with ‘freaky’ stuff just so he could learn that he could handle buses, flyovers, farm traffic, road signs, ice, fallen trees, bogs, deer, umbrellas, bicycles, dogs, children in pushchairs, everyday sights in our crammed, colourful human world.

Over the years, Dragonfly matured from an anxious young colt into a gentle, soft and willing horse who remains highly sensitive. One some days, he gets into a state over something, which seems small to a human mind. He doesn’t like to be separated from his herd members, and frets when he can’t see the ponies. Wind still agitates him. Bicycles, buses and other big traffic he takes in his stride.

What he has learned is to rely on is his own steadiness. He has learned that when he perceives something dangerous, there is another option besides fear. He has learned that he doesn’t have to listen to his superficial thinking because there is a deeper understanding within.  This is a remarkable life lesson.

A worry-free life is impossible. Life without fear or danger would not be life as we know it, and would be strange, featureless and bland. A certain amount of danger keeps us awake and sharp. Nevertheless, we tend to want to eliminate danger because we blame an escalation of threat for our state of worry. We tend to forget that our feelings of worry come not from circumstances but from our own thinking. Sports coach Garret Kramer, explores this in his fascinating and insightful book The Path of No Resistance.

“A key difference between steadiness and inconsistency is that steady people become still and then find another option when they sense danger. Inconsistent people try to exhibit strength by plowing through it.’

 

Dragonfly used to try to force his way through his fears. Memorably we parted company once when schooling and I hit the ground so hard I couldn’t walk the next day. I wondered then whether he would become a ‘neurotic’ horse. It’s easy to see how horses and people with a tendency to worry acquire unhelpful labels that become defining. As Dragonfly grew up, he learned how to be more consistent and how to rely more on his inner sense. He learned self-reliance, resilience and steadiness.

Dragonfly learned that given time his fretful mind will self-correct. He learned that he could bring himself back into balance. His fearful feelings did not mean that he had to run or throw himself onto the ground. He did not have to react to everything he sensed or felt or imagined. His feelings meant that he had to wait for stillness and steadiness to return. This is mature practical wisdom in action and a true source of inspiration.





Wonder in the wild

4 06 2017

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What the horse knows: Life Lesson No 8

‘Animals know this world in a way we never will.’ The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue’s words are filled with simple wonder. He contrasts the deep quiet of the animal world with the distracted world of humans drawn by the lure of bright windows.

It’s true our world is colourful in comparison with the subdued natural world. We love novelty and change and noise. We lose ourselves in excitement. Sometimes it’s hard to slip away from the fairground and come back down to earth. We resist because doing nothing alarms us and makes us feel that we are nothing. Our restless screen-filled lives make it easy to be preoccupied. We forget that behind the demands of our do-lists there is a deeper purpose. Yet within our conflict we want our lives to mean something more than more things to worry about.

The horses remind us to listen. They remind us to move out of our worry-minds and into the unhurried world. It’s easy to forget that the world as we know it is not the only world. There is the grass world, the sky world, the bird world. There is the whole world from a million points of view, none of them ours. Observing the horses at rest, a spaciousness emerges from the rhythm of their breathing. When they are all together, they breathe in time and their breathing draws them closer. Being with them like this is more than merely relaxing; it feels like a invitation to wake up from a dream.

Our mesmerising thoughts take us away from the world of animal being, of sky and grass and bird. Forgetting we are animal, we dwell in a dreamscape of our own making. In our shadow world, we get obsessed with the things people say or do or think. We believe the worst because, somehow, it helps us to feel safe. When we’ve had enough of our own loopy thinking, we start to wonder how we might clear out some of these negative thoughts. Believing that we need to manage them, tidy them up, we file them into neatly labelled boxes, or drive them away with drink or drugs. We wonder why they always come back. We wish we could escape our own dullness.

We can learn from the animals. For them, brightness is already there. As Plato observes, there is light outside the cave of ordinary ignorance and superstition. There is knowledge beyond going through the motions and living life on auto-pilot. There is clear sky. It begins in wonder. All life begins in wonder. The horses know this, of course. Their lives might seem dull. They might look routine to us, but that is because habitually as predators we scan the surface for anything useful to us. We are fast fish on a feeding frenzy.

Truly bright living requires us to swim up to the surface and take a good long breath. And then a good long look.





The knotted art of being human

7 05 2017

What the horse knows: Life Lesson No: 7 Self-understanding

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Caught up in our own knots of thinking

Horses know when you understand something. They feel relieved when the mental clouds shrouding understanding pass over and clear weather emerges. Their licks and sighs and deep yawning breaths let us know we’re onto something they already knew a long time ago. In so many ways, they’re worlds ahead of us.

Perhaps this is because they have one foot, or possibly all four hooves, planted in another reality. They wait for us to catch up from a deeper space, a clearing where the knotted everyday human concerns count for nothing. In this unravelled place they dwell patiently and knowingly. For horses, this open place forms the fabric of their lives and they know it so closely they do not even have to think about it.

Our thought threads ensnare us hourly and by the end of a busy day we can end up feeling like a nasty ball of knotted baling twine. We unravel with screens, with wine or gin, with running in the dark, and reaching out to our family and friends. This contracted way of living is considered normal. We congratulate ourselves on getting through a day without stress or anxiety. We believe life will get better and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. This is the human condition. We endure it mostly stoically.

The horse has none of this. The free horse – one who is not trapped, neglected or abused – has presence of mind. A horse’s ability to fully inhabit his own spirit is compelling. Daily, I’m magnetised by Sheranni’s ability to draw on his own life force and totally, beautifully and without reservation live his day. I’m stirred by his capacity to see straight through the noise in my mind that threatens to limit me to half-days. I’m moved by his preparation to meet me on a deeper, quieter level.

Many people say they are humbled by horses and I think I now understand more fully why we humans admire the equine species so much. It’s not simply their physical grace, it’s also their complete lack of pretence. A horse cannot pretend anything. A horse has to be more or less how he is. A horse is truthful because he embodies his own being.

Wait though, I knew an old wily horse who used to pretend. He used to wait until Sheranni and Dragonfly were quietly grazing along his fence line, and then just when they weren’t expecting it, he would sharply ping the fence with his nose and watch them scatter in alarm. I watched the old horse catch out the scatty young Arabs countless times and it made me weep with laughter every time. What made me laugh most was the way he retreated behind a tree so they wouldn’t know he was doing it. The old horse seemed to enjoy having fun at their expense.

Was he pretending or just making his day more interesting? I don’t know, of course, but watching him made me wonder whether horses have a sense of humour. Now many years on, I realise there is so much more to understand about animals. The space between human and other is no long a place of division, but, I suggest, a meeting place where we can discover who we are.

I’m fortunate to work as I do with horses. Each time I’m exploring something or unravelling a knot with a student or client I feel as if I’m also on a journey of discovery through a place that feels both deeply familiar and strange. Observing the horses assist people of all ages who are overwhelmed, caught or stuck is awe-inspiring.

Lately, I’ve been particularly moved by Sheranni’s singular commitment to deep security. His effortless talent for leadership through protection and safety inspires me. Sheranni has shown me how the great homesickness of being human need not inevitably make us ill or lonely or afraid. The deeper understanding that we are already home lies within our grasp. To offer this understanding is the greatest generosity from one species to another. Does he know? In the words of one of our young students last weekend: ‘He knows. He knows everything there is to know.’

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Sheranni knows how to teach his own version of musical statues








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