The Fifth Step

   Mindfulness is a method of paying attention to ourselves, and the small details of habits, thoughts, and behaviors that affect our interactions with others. We come to know ourselves better, and understand the basis for feelings that may sometimes pull us into negative territory. You may recognize the feelings as the cause of agitation, pain, embarrassment, frustration, sadness, confusion, or any number of other identifiers. When these emotions arise, it is generally because there is a deep need that is not being met. Something is missing that is blocking your joy and happiness. Mindfulness affords us the opportunity to observe our mental experiences and change the way we respond to them.

In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf 2011), Karen Armstrong[1] writes: “Just as musicians have to learn how to manipulate their instruments, and an equestrienne requires an intimate knowledge of the horse she is training, we have to learn how to use our mental energies more kindly and productively. This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds. Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.”

Unfortunately, our analysis, especially when it comes to our riding and our horses, can become very self-critical and judgmental. When we are hard on ourselves, and seeking a high standard, we can have the reverse effect of positivity and instead appear to become obsessive or unrealistically engaged with our self-image. Mindfulness practice allows us to observe, but also cautions against self-judgment and realize our need to disengage from negative thoughts and emotions. It is about training the brain to respond in a kinder, more compassionate way.

Karen notes on page 106 of the chapter, Step Five—Mindfulness, “the Tibetan word for meditation is gom: familiarization.”

When we have that “intimate knowledge” of our horse, we usually know how the day’s training session might progress based on the horse’s apparent mood, or when he may need a day off. When we go to a horse show, we go with the knowledge that we will be judged by the standards for that breed and/or parameters for that particular discipline. If the judge’s opinion doesn’t meet our expectations, or the horse has a bad day, the ability to respond mindfully and kindly can make a huge difference as to how productive training rides and horse shows will be in the future.

Take the horse out of the picture for a moment, and visualize how you feel when somebody makes a critical statement about you. Perhaps you are told you are judgmental, even though you had no intention of sounding that way. Maybe you are accused of being angry or impatient, but what you’re really feeling is disappointment and a sense of helplessness. When we communicate with an awareness of the unmet needs behind those feelings, we come to accept that those experiences are part of being human, and perhaps it is that we are seeking understanding, consideration, and emotional safety, but were unable to effectively convey such needs to the other person, or even recognize those as our own needs in order to feel more compassionate and caring.

When we are not familiar with our imprinted patterns of communication—let’s say “the aids” in reference to communicating with your horse—it is easy to be misconstrued by another, and we end up ping-ponging hostile words, thoughts, or kicks and rein-pulls, at one another until finally one or the other, or even your subconscious self, ends up hurt and in retreat without an effective resolution.

Many people go through life in somewhat of a “trance,” existing, but not really being vital and alive. The one thing about being around horses is that they connect us to a present moment, to nature, and to the need to be vitally energized, yet calm, as is their natural state when roaming freely with a herd.

On page 107 of Karen’s book, she writes, “We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us. When we are enraged, we tend to exaggerate a person’s defects—just as when we are seized by desire we accentuate somebody’s attractions and ignore her faults, even though at some level we may know that this is a delusion.”

We humans are constantly shuffling from one emotion to another, one desire to the next, and other preoccupations. When we step back and observe what brings us into conflict with ourselves, other people, and even our horses, we may see how easily we inflict pain on others, as well as how distressing it is when somebody behaves in such a way toward us. There is also an awareness that arises as to how little it can take, even as much as a smile, a thank you, or a pat on your horse’s neck, that can brighten the day or change somebody’s mood for the better.

One of the world’s great mindfulness teachers, Tara Brach, Ph.D. writes in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, page 20 (Bantam Dell 2003), “Wanting and fearing are natural energies, part of evolution’s design to protect us and help us to thrive. But when they become the core of our identity, we lose sight of the fullness of our beings. We become identified with, at best, only a sliver of our natural being—a sliver that perceives itself as incomplete, at risk and separate from the rest of the world. If our sense of who we are is defined by feelings of neediness and insecurity, we forget that we are also curious, humorous and caring. We forget about the breath that is nourishing us, the love that unites us, the enormous beauty and fragility that is our shared experience of being alive. Most basically, we forget the pure awareness, the radiant wakefulness that is our Buddha nature.”

Being with a horse is a glorious opportunity to practice mindfulness. Watching and learning from them, and observing how they respond to our moods, behaviors, and actions, is a chance to put that awareness into action in all of our daily activities. By doing so, we will ultimately make ourselves feel better, and enrich the lives of others around us with compassion and loving kindness.

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[1] Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize in 2008 and began working on the Charter for Compassion. The Charter was signed in 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She is the author of numerous books, including The Case for God (Anchor, 2010)

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The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book.

Stillness

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Loving Hearts

(please note – The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written exclusively by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com)

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Sometimes the best relationships of our lives appear when we stop looking for them. Perhaps circumstances have occurred that hardened our hearts, shattered our confidence, and made us turn away from the things that bring us the most joy.

As fragile as we are, it often doesn’t take much of a spark to reignite feelings of loving-kindness and compassion in our hearts. We may have given up on ourselves, yet long for a chance to come alive again. When “it” manifests, we are ready. If we open our hearts to receive compassion—as much as we are willing to give—the exchange of energy is multiplied and embraces others in waves of happy interactions.

With mindful awareness, if we notice our reactions, we can learn to view them with clarity and perhaps create positive changes in the way we go about our daily lives. Sometimes there is a catalyst, such as a person, or a horse, who helps with that awareness, and gives us the opportunity to say, “thank you” for bringing this to my attention.

As Pema Chödrön* writes, “Until we can see our reactions, we can never know what causes us to stay stuck and what will help us get free.”

In the sweet poem written below, freedom came in the form of an unexpected meeting in the auction pen:

Photo and story: http://www.eveningsun.com/ci_20144447/rescued-horses-up-adoption-hanover?source=most_viewed (posted 03/10/2012 by Craig K. Paskoski, The Evening Sun)

Photo and story:
http://www.eveningsun.com/ci_20144447/rescued-horses-up-adoption-hanover?source=most_viewed
(posted 03/10/2012 by
Craig K. Paskoski, The Evening Sun)

“One Chance in a Million”

It happened so sudden, 12 years in my past,
For the rest of my life the injury would last.
The cars hit head-on, not a chance to slow down,
The next I remember, I lay on the ground.
My hip joint was crushed beyond all repair.
“You’re too young to replace it,” Doc said with a stare,
“You will walk again, but never will run.”
These words hit me hard like a shot from a gun.

Ten years came and went, the pain more severe.
I said to my wife, “Time to replace it is here.”
When the surgery was over, Doc said to my wife,
“He can’t ride a horse for the rest of his life.”
We own our own farm with a full riding stable,
So horses and riding put food on our table.
I could sell horses and tack, and some money I’d make,
But to ride one myself was a risk I can’t take.

And then it did happen, one night at the sale,
As I stood selling halters inside of the rail.
My wife came up to me with that look in her eye.
She said, “There’s a horse out back ready to die.”
As I walked to the killer pen and looked over the fence,
There stood a starved gelding whose frame was immense.
His eyes were three inches sunk back in his head;
If he were lying down, you would have sworn he was dead.
He stood sixteen-one, weighed about four and a quarter,
His hair was three inches and not one-half shorter.
A skeleton with hide stood before my own eyes.
If he walked through the ring, it would be a surprise.

As the barn door slid open and they led him on in,
The auctioneer said, “Two hundred is where we’ll begin.”
The kill buyer said, “Two-oh-five’s all I’ll give.”
I said, “I’ll give two-ten just to see if he’ll live.”
The bids then quit coming, not a sound from the crowd,
The next word was “Sold” he said very loud.
As the trailer backed up to the wood loading gate,
I said, “Let’s get him home before it’s too late.”
He had to have help to step up to the floor,
But we got him in and then closed the door.
As I drove home that night, I looked back at a glance
And said, “If he lives, we’ll call him Last Chance.”

Well, we made the trip home, and he lived through the night.
When the vet came next morning, he said, “What a sight.”
We floated his teeth and trimmed all his feet,
Gave him wormer and thiamine and a little to eat.
My vet said his heart was as strong as a drum,
If we brought him along slowly the rest may just come.
Well, his weight starting coming and his health soon returned.
He showed us his love he must have thought that we earned.
He would whinny and nicker as I walked to the shed,
As if to say, “Thanks, ’cause of you, I’m not dead.”
He would stroll the whole place without being penned,
He’d come when I call, just like man’s best friend.

Three months had gone by since the night of the sale,
My wife had him tied on our old hitchin’ rail.
I asked her, ‘What’s up?” as I just came outside.
She said, “It’s time to see if he’ll ride.”
She threw on the blanket, saddle, bridle and said,
“The worst that could happen, I’ll get tossed on my head.”
As her seat hit the leather, he stood like a rock.
With a tap of her heels, he started to walk.
He reined to the left and he reined to the right,
The bit in his mouth he sure didn’t fight.
He did what she asked without second thought.
She cantered him on and not once he fought.
When she returned from the ride with a tear in her eye,
She said, “He’s the one, would you like to try?”
I thought to myself as I stood at his side,
If this giant’s that gentle, why not take a ride?
It had been a long time, but the look on his face,
Said, “Hop on, my good friend, let’s ride ’round this place.”
We rode round the yard, then out through the gate,
This giant and me, it must have been fate.

He gave me back part of my life that I lost,
Knew then I’d keep him, no matter what cost.
I’ve been offered two-thousand, and once even three,
But no money on earth would buy him from me.
You see, we share something special, this gelding and me,
A chance to start over, a chance to be free.
And when the day comes that his heart beats no more,
I’ll bury my friend just beyond my back door.
And over his grave I’ll post a big sign,
“Here lies Last Chance, a true friend of mine.” Dave Saunders

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*The Pema Chödrön: Awakening the Heart wall calendar 2015 features quotes from Chödrön’s book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change and is designed to help us cultivate compassion, courage, and awareness within the challenges of daily life. These insightful quotes are paired with beautifully evocative and meditative nature photography.

Yellow Lotus

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About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old, and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1971), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book.

Stillness