A summer storm

13 05 2018

Meadow 2

As the evenings linger longer, I love being with the horses in the summer meadow. There’s a feeling of space and quiet here that refreshes my mind and allows all the thinking of days that seem to get busier to simply drop away. Just a half hour in the meadow, listening to the horses swishing through the long reedy grass, the drowsy bumble of bees and the bright notes of the skylarks spiralling into the blue, returns me to a more balanced and peaceful place.

It took me a long time to realise that looking after horses could be so natural and calming. In the early days, I would wake with a feeling of knotted anxiety as I drove up to the yard, convinced that today would be the day that I would have to call the vet for an emergency. I mentally prepared myself for all the incidents that could have happened in the night, such as a horse getting trapped in a corner of the stable and not being able to get up, or an eye pierced by a rusty nail I had missed removing with my claw hammer, or a gust of wind taking off the roof, leaving the horses exposed and shivering from cold. None of this happened. It was all in my imagination and in the early days, my imagination concocted such lurid dreams of disaster, I was convinced they had to be true. Unbelievably, I was sometimes disappointed when I arrived to find all was well.

Around a year into looking after my two fine-coated, highly sensitive Arabian horses, I received one of many life lessons that helped to shift my thinking. A summer storm broke in the early hours, and I was immediately awake, pulling on my jeans and boots in the dark, dashing for the car in torrential rain, blaming myself for not checking the forecast and putting on waterproof rugs even though it was July.

I drove like crazy, wipers on full, barely able to breathe as I clung onto the steering wheel, imagining the horses soaked and terrified. As I got out of the car, aluminium jagged lightening split the sky. Heart racing, thoughts tumbling in my mind, I ran to the field, climbed over the gate and another thunderbolt shook everything. In the metallic flash, I saw the horses with their backs up against a hedge looking into the spectacular theatre show of light and rain and noise. They were soaked and warm and perfectly quiet and still. They looked at me in wonderment, surprised I had come for them so early, and in that moment a whole layer of misunderstanding fell away.

“Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our wisdom mind.”

Pema Chodron

In the middle of the storm, we can find a point of calm, a place of deeper understanding. Indeed, the storms can show up what it is we need to see. Mental health awareness is having the courage to see what we need to see unflinchingly. When we know that we need not turn away from any experience because that experience is an opening for us, we can compassionately use whatever life gives us. And in this knowing, there is peace and freedom.

 

 

 

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Being seen as we are

29 04 2018

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One of the most curious things about being human is our inability to see ourselves for who we truly are. We must rely on others to act as our witness. As we know, being witnessed is often an uncomfortable experience. To sit within the gaze of another is to feel unmasked.

And yet when we are working in the fields of coaching, writing or education we are keen to lift the masks and peer at what lies behind. In our enthusiasm to educate, heal or interview, we may innocently come across as intrusive or unaware of the fear we are generating by simply asking someone to come out of hiding.

Last weekend, I experienced a way of witnessing that was simultaneously bold, searching and beautiful. I watched people from many different fields of experience from professional film-makers to therapists, a funeral celebrant, a pediatric consultant and an ontological coach practice sitting still.

People had travelled from Denmark, Finland and other parts of Europe as well as many parts of the UK to sit and watch another human being wrestle with being human. So many busy, highly accomplished people from all over Europe gathered together to do essentially nothing for a weekend. I found it absurd, provoking and utterly absorbing.

The frame around the weekend with film-maker Nic Askew presented it as a course on authentic story-telling for the video camera. We actually did quite a lot. There were plenty of technical tips on lighting and framing and all the usual elements of  making something look and sound great on screen, but that wasn’t what I learned.

I learned how to wait. I learned how to stop evaluating. I learned how to watch. On the first day, I hunkered down behind my writer’s mask and played around with my notes to make poems of the words that fell into place when the faces being filmed appeared on screen. The sitters were all nervous at first, but after a while their expressions cleared and their emotions shone through like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. I felt as if I were witnessing some sort of secret transformation. I composed my list of words: dignified delight; powerful focus; playful knowing; strength; kindness; quietness; intensity; timelessness; relief; wonder; acceptance, and I fell in love with the extraordinary beauty of the human face.

The emotional geography revealed an undulating terrain of knowing; it was fascinating to see life come to light through the lines of experience, every one a mark of the interior self, pointing to the soul. I saw people come out of hiding as shyly as young children, and in the act of being seen they met themselves, some for the first time.

Those present spoke of their joy at having been seen, of freedom, of respect, of a multi-faceted diamond turning its faces of turquoise, yellow and violet light.

I came away wondering why it is that we don’t love the world and each person who shares our world more than we do because when we see one another, we see life itself and that must be worthy of our full attention.

More about Nic Askew here: http://www.nicaskew.com

 

 





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





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.








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