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





What the horse knows No: 5

26 03 2017

Life lesson No: 5 Forgiveness

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Horses are forgiving. They know when someone has made a mistake and they are prepared to overlook the mistake to save the relationship. The human tendency is to blame when things go wrong. Resentment and misunderstanding are such familiar landmarks in our emotional geography, it’s easy to see how they can become ingrained. Some people lug grudges around for years like overstuffed holdalls and we all know the lesser burden of finding fault.

Skilled at building resentments, we have created a significant time in life to let them all go. Unfortunately, it’s often at the end of life that we have enough perspective to contemplate forgiveness, or perhaps we simply run out of the energy required to tend to our grudge. We ‘nurse’ grudges as pet illnesses. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has written movingly of visiting the sick and dying and waiting for the moment when even the ‘hard-knuckled ones’ release their pain. He describes the relief it brings. The faces of those near to death become younger and smoother, as some experience for the very first time, a lightness and ease with life.

In the animal world, perhaps because life is simpler, forgiveness is more ready to hand. Unless a horse has been calloused through abuse, forgiveness comes through clearly. When Sheranni was a colt he forgave the mistakes I made in  his early education, and there were many attempts to try different methods and pieces of kit. Memorably, after one useless training session which bored him within five minutes, I took a break under a tree, tempted to shred all the pocket booklets which made this particular method sound so easy. Sheranni wandered down the other end of the field. Caught up in self-recrimination, I didn’t hear him tiptoe up behind me.

Moments later I felt something soft land on my head and then dry beads of earth began to rain down into my eyes and mouth. My young colt had just dumped a heavy clod of earth right on top of my head. Wiping my face, I laughed. Not only had Sheranni forgiven me for my lacklustre teaching, he had shown me the utter absurdity of what I was trying to do. I’d got caught up in the details and lost sight of the bigger picture. Standing up, I dusted my jeans down and decided to start paying more attention to my bright student and less to my lesson plan.

It was the beginning of a journey that continues daily. Just when I think I can take a break, the horses remind me of the need to pay attention to what is happening right here and now. I get it wrong; they forgive me, and so it goes.





Life models

5 03 2016

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Aristotle believed that spending time with children was necessary and one of the ways to lead a happy life. Children could bring out the best in people, he thought. They could teach adults patience and kindness and deliberation. Aristotle’s no- nonsense practical philosophy encouraged people to look for activities that were good for their own sake rather than as a means to an end. Time spent with children was good and the parent, guardian or teacher who recognised this would feel the satisfaction of a job well done. No other reward was necessary.

In my early days of teaching before targets took the fun out of the job, I spent many lessons weeping not in frustration, but with the kind of helpless laughter that only a classroom filled with thirteen-year-old boys can generate. Their glee and game-for-anything attitude inspired me to take risks. One class acted out their own comedy scenes from Twelfth Night in makeup and hastily improvised costumes and I will never forget the boy playing Malvolio rolling around on the floor, school trousers stuffed into his pulled-up socks, so breathless with trying not to laugh he could barely speak.

Playing to the boys’ natural sense of irony and wit and wanting to puncture the competitive corporate male school ethos as well as liven up a drab temporary space, I put up fairy lights, lugged an old-fashioned typewriter into the room and set another group the task of making Valentine cards from Henry V to Catherine, the tackier the better, with chocolate prizes for the most schmaltzy. They went mad with red velvet, pink pens and glitter. Some of the boys were so determined to outdo each other they wrote their love poems in French. The cleaners complained all week about the mess, but we had the best fun.

Those boys have gone through university by now and some may even have young children of their own. I wonder if they remember those lessons as I do? It was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a more innocent time when there was no guilt attached in allowing pupils to play and improvise. Now that I have been so well schooled in lesson aims, agendas and learning objectives I know that were I to meet those classes all over again I would be a different sort of teacher: less spontaneous, perhaps, less experimental, less good-natured. More efficient, more measured, more professional. I wonder which teacher they would prefer?

I’m interested because few children forget their teachers. I still remember Miss Hayes, my teacher from infant school, who patiently showed me how to tie my shoe-laces again and again and ignored my embarrassment and frustration at not being able to tell the time. Miss Hayes was soft voiced, smiley and super efficient, which combination of virtues made her not only sensible but safe. I worshipped her. I loved my junior school and Sunday school teacher, too, Miss Smith because she took an interest in me and acted as something of an early mentor, gently drawing me out on my reading and my ideas. I even spent time at her home, unthinkable now.

My early teachers weren’t so interested in my fun, but they were interested in my welfare and my development. They became role models because of how they conducted themselves and I admired them for this. Miss Smith was tall and wore big square glasses and long wool skirts and flat shoes and she was the most sensible person in the universe. As a wobbly ten-year-old she was everything I needed in a teacher. She had weight and grace and dependability. She was a woman of virtuous character and I knew that I could trust her to show me who I was meant to be. For this is the real purpose of teaching, as Aristotle understood. This is education as it is supposed to be.

In ancient Greece, children absorbed knowledge from spending time with adults who had enough experience of life to explain things properly and clearly. The philosopher believed that children needed the right role models if they were to develop good character and that education was much more important than wealth. Our modern system of education with its emphasis on passing exams in order to achieve success in a well-paid career would make no sense to Aristotle. He believed that finding fulfilment is our life’s work, and if we are going to reach our potential we need to know where we want to go. I’m grateful to my early teachers for showing me the way.

 





Adventures in Ethics

18 07 2015

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Is there anything you would be prepared to give up to save the planet from human excess? I put this question to one of my philosophy groups this week after admitting that I was trying to give up buying bottled water, not always easy when I’ve gone out in hot sun completely forgetting to take a drink with me.

Graham said that there were some things that he would be prepared to give up, but not at the expense of marital harmony. His wife was against any form of ethical living and his attempts to sort out their rubbish for recycling really annoy her. I joked that he’d have to start taking out the rubbish under the cover of darkness and he said that it was no joke. One night his wife caught him eating something perfectly edible from their kitchen bin, and went ballistic. He wondered whether ethical living was worth the hassle he would get from someone who thinks that people who care about such matters are basically nutters.

Painful as it was for Graham to be so compromised in his own household, antipathy and even downright aggression to people who want to live according to ethical principles is fairly commonplace. Judging by the amount of rubbish in my street and the road I walk regularly, there are more people chucking food wrappers and drinks cans out of cars than there are people prepared to pick up the litter. If I want to live ethically, I can’t walk past the grey, flattened bottles, the plastic bags and the drinks cans washed up along the hedge without picking them up, and most of the time I resent having to do so, even while I’m ranting at those who DON’T CARE.

There are many objections to living ethically. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones.

Living ethically is dreary

Living ethically is earnest

Living ethically makes others feel guilty

Living ethically is difficult

Living ethically will change who I am

Living ethically will make people dislike me

I’m too old for ethics

I’m too young for ethics

Ethics can’t make a difference, as the planet is already doomed.

I’ve decided that I can’t really teach ethics without at least trying to address some of these objections and practise some of the philosophical ideas I’m inviting people to explore.

So, I’m committing to a year of living ethically and I’ll be sharing my adventures in regular posts. For starters, taking the first objection on the list, ethics really needn’t be dreary. Ethics can be fun and it can also involve young people, who love to get involved, as long as the ethical is served up with a generous dollop of spontaneous play. I’ll offer an egg-hunt as my first example of how ethical living can be an adventure.

One the morning after their sleepover I’d promised Anna and Elen pancakes, but I had run out of eggs. We had a choice. I could either nip to Tesco Express and buy some and make the pancakes pretty swiftly, or we could go and feed the goats and ponies and buy the eggs on the way from a local farmhouse with a little roadside stall and a tin for the money. Guess what the girls chose? We went to the farmhouse, but the stall was empty. There are no guarantees of success with this way of shopping. I knew of another farmhouse with eggs and an honesty box, but it was two or three lanes away, and we were by now starving. The girls had to make another ethical choice: go to the supermarket or go to the second farmhouse. Guess what they chose?

The farmhouse had eggs, and what eggs they were, all different colours, from hazelnut brown to sky blue to olive green. We bought two dozen, some for us, and the rest as gifts. We admired these eggs. We talked about them. We wondered about the hens that had laid them. We put them on the counter and photographed them. And then we made golden pancakes and ate them.

If you’re willing to share, I’d be fascinated to know about your own ethical adventures.