Compassion, With Consequences

   I spent the past two weeks in the busy, crowded city that is my hometown. It is allegedly the 3rd most livable city in the world, yet I barely got any sleep due to the sheer amount of noise and constant attack on every sense. Even on the paved suburban forest trails near my brother’s home, people are distracted by their smartphones and controlling their dogs while balancing Starbucks coffee cups, many simultaneously pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, dodging cyclists and runners on the pathways. Near the house, tunnel construction for the new transit line operates through the night, while trains run hazardous materials through the terminal at the water’s edge and large tankers loom in the distance.

 

   “Survival” is the word that comes to mind in an overstuffed urban setting. Although I’m told Vancouver is nothing like Shanghai or any other enormous metropolis with millions of residents. It is a wonder to me that people don’t go completely crazy when everywhere you go it is shoulder-to-shoulder and very high-density living. Or maybe they do, as I think back to the expressions of obviously over-committed suburbanites on the trails. So when I found out it was “Horse Day” at the Pacific National Exhibition, I decided to attend since the fairgrounds were accessible via public transportation. This particular route into the downtown area is particularly challenging for drivers of cars and busses, as shortly past the racetrack and fairgrounds is one of the worst sections for homeless people in pretty much any city in the civilized world. People who are mentally ill and/or under the influence of mind altering drugs and alcohol spill from the sidewalks on to the streets, and at any given time of day, a sense of mayhem ensues.

 

   The bus was standing room only on that Wednesday morning, and it was hot. I got off a block early simply to get relief from the heat and the packed vehicle. I knew exactly where I was headed and easily navigated through the usual array of food stands, vendors hawking all kinds of fascinating, tacky objects, colorful rides with screaming patrons, and chatty teenagers looking forward to a fun day at the fair. Up ahead was Hastings Park racetrack with its deteriorating barns and uncertain future, hidden by the cupped roof of the old Agrodome and high fencing. The PNE had been a tradition in my family as early as I could remember. Mom took my brother and I there every year, with Dad dropping us off at the main gate, as he did not enjoy the racket, the rides or the exhibits. As an adult, I was showing horses in the annual competition, many of which were thoroughbreds that had previously raced on the track next to the agricultural building. They were frequently unnerved by the proximity of the track and the cramped, dark, smelly barns attached to the Agrodome’s indoor arena.

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C. (photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C.
(photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

 

PNE

In the barns at the Pacific National Exhibition (photo: province.ca)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I entered the barns and made my way past the goats, cows and chickens, up to the horse stalls and the Horse Council of British Columbia’s display of breeds and horse-related businesses. I was impressed with the selection of brochures that were clear and concise with regards to safety, nutrition, and guides for new or newly interested riders. Many breeds were represented, as were a number of disciplines, each taking turns in the big arena with the huge domed roof. It was always an odd experience riding in there, as the acoustics amplified every footfall of the horse and every breath you took. I could see the stress in the horses that were in the tiny stalls, as groups of school children made their way through and sounds from the midway rattled down the shed-rows. Everyone survived their demonstrations however… the Pony Clubbers jumped and nobody fell off when the odd pony decided to buck, the vaulters performed without a hitch, and in spite of a raucous Friesian foal, everyone held it together during the parade of breeds.

 

   I returned to the barns afterwards to look at more horses and chat with some of the riders, and noticed a small pony with a watery eye. I looked closely and saw there was a chunk of alfalfa hay stuck to its eyeball, probably only minutes earlier as the irritation appeared fresh. The piece of hay was not budging as the pony blinked, trying to relieve its discomfort. In the next stall was one of the young Pony Club riders who had just returned from the arena. I asked if the pony in the next stall was hers. It was. Then I suddenly felt like I had a bit of dilemma. Obviously, the most compassionate thing to do for this little guy was to get the foreign object out of his eye and relieve his pain. The stream of fluid was now running all the way down his face. I remembered how annoying it was when I was showing horses at the fair, as members of the general public would come up with all kinds of strange things to say. We would all be tired and somewhat on a short fuse after being in those noisy, smelly, crowded conditions for even a day or two, and then have to deal with people and their opinions on top of that, some of which were inadvertently unkind, or at best not very mindful.

Photo: evaequinevet.com

Photo: evaequinevet.com

 

   I thought the least I could do is try to sound as caring as possible and not appear to be judgmental or blaming, knowing how sensitive horse-people are when told something may be “wrong” with their horse. I couldn’t believe the memories that were coming back and how I felt when somebody just “had to” tell me about something that, in their opinion, was wrong with my horse or something I had done was incorrect.

 

   I told the young lady her pony had a piece of hay stuck in his eye and that the eye appeared irritated as it was now watering profusely. Blank stare. I repeated myself. She said “oh, he got very upset when the other horses left for the arena.” I acknowledged her statement and agreed that the environment in the Agrodome and barns was very stressful for horses. I mentioned again that perhaps she should take a look at her pony’s eye. She thanked me but still did not leave the stall of the other horse to check on the pony. So I left, and can only hope the eye was properly taken care of.

 

   In The Compassionate Equestrian I have written, from experiences of my own and those of others, that as much as we want to “help”, sometimes it is construed more as “unsolicited advice” and not necessarily welcomed by the recipient. In the horse world, “helping” when you are not being asked for assistance, can be dangerous. I knew of a rider who was trying to get her horse over a jump at a show when somebody on the ground decided to cluck and encourage the horse to go forwards. It bolted through the jump, and then the rider fell off, sustaining a life-threatening head injury and long term coma.

 

   Many people are very compassionate by nature, and truly do want to alleviate the suffering of others, especially if they have the means to do so. I actually could have gone over to the next row of exhibits and asked the veterinary techs who had a display booth if one of them could help with the pony’s eye. Should I have done that? Or would that have been construed as “interference” and perhaps set up a chain of ethical and moral events that would have caused potential liability issues for myself, the pony’s owner, her parents, and so on. After all, the injury was neither severe nor life threatening and there was no need to involve an authority.   

 

   There is a law of physics, Newton’s Third Law, which states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This sets us up for a dilemma such as the one I was experiencing when with thinking about caring for the pony and taking action to alleviate its suffering. This makes me wonder if something in the field of consciousness responds to our intentions and the compassionate actions we take, and why we feel compelled to do or say something to another person or horse if we perceive them to be suffering. What are the consequences of the action we take, if we are even privy to know those consequences? Could this have anything to do with the “human condition” and why it may be so difficult to solve some of our most pressing issues of humanity? Of course I would not have expected anything in return for helping the pony, nor do I ever expect anything in return for assisting someone or an animal, yet don’t we at least expect our good intentions to result in positive feelings and an increased awareness of gratitude for both our own lives and the lives of other beings?

 

   I left the fairgrounds and the horses behind, getting back on the same bus route that continued into downtown. A mile or two down the road was the sight that never fails to make me stare in disbelief.

 

   There are hundreds of people out on the streets, many of who are in terrible mental and physical condition. They are addicts, mentally ill, destitute, and homeless. Every time the city adds housing or more care, more people appear looking for assistance. It has been like this for decades in this otherwise bright and shiny west coast utopia; a blight on the city’s “green” image and international reputation. It is overwhelming, and it seems endless, no matter how many people the agencies, the city and individuals try to help. The film school I went to is only a block from this district, and it is a frightening place to be. When I see these people, I wonder if any amount of compassion can save them. It is no wonder so many care givers, both of human and of horses or other animals, can reach a point of complete exhaustion and “compassion fatigue.” There seems to be an endpoint to the amount of personal and emotional resources we are able to give to others, in spite of our best intentions and desire to help everyone and every animal in need.

 

   I watched the attached video with great interest, as it does provoke considerable emotion:

Unsung Hero

It is like a short documentary about an “unsung hero”, an extraordinarily compassionate young man who gives everything he can to help people in need and those less fortunate than himself. It is a well-done story created by Thai Life Insurance as an advertisement for their services. Their motto is “Believe In Good.” The script, music, the close-ups on the eyes of the giver and his recipients are all elements of a cleverly crafted film, exemplifying everything I was taught in film school that makes for a impactful message. It makes you believe that everything you give, and everyone you give to will result in a positive return, for the benefit of all those involved. It makes us admire the compassionate young fellow who neither asks for nor receives anything material in return, and we weep at the sight of the young girl who rises from poverty to become a scholar at the end of the story. We really can believe in good after watching this narrative video.

 

   When Dr. Schoen sent me the video for discussion, it was embedded in the San Francisco Globe’s blog page, which sports a number of stories with headlines designed to “hook” a reader. The kinds of headlines that really draw your interest and make you want to click on that link. Looking at the comments below the video, we are reminded of the “human condition.” Some people react as though the actor in the commercial is actually a person in real life doing all of these daily good deeds. They seem  to be unaware that it is an advertisement for an insurance company. Yet others who have made comments are aware of the commercial context, and have made the kind of comments that raised ire in those who believed the young man to be legitimate. To get the code to embed this video, I went to the YouTube site, and found, as expected, an even broader array of interpretations and comments, ranging from the very tearful and emotional to degenerative uses of language and harsh judgments of others. Sigh. Yes, the human condition, and the filters each one of us comes through.

 

   We know that “compassion fatigue” is a legitimate term. Dr. Schoen has experienced it as a caring veterinarian doing his absolute best for animals and I have experienced complete burnout as a horse trainer, leaving the equine world several times. We have to ask, what are the real benefits, in the real world, of our offering of compassion to other sentient beings, and how do we do so without expending our own selves to the detriment of our own health and welfare? What about those horses that are asked to work for many hours with a herd of distressed humans who are looking to them for compassion and psychotherapy? Do those horses experience compassion fatigue and burnout too? Chances are they do if we compare their tasks with those of captive zoo animals, as research with “enrichment programs” for the animals’ environment has discovered.

 

   In developing our compassion, how do we apply ourselves to real-world situations, knowing that it would be almost impossible to cultivate the degree of loving-kindness exhibited by the fellow in the insurance commercial? How do we apply ourselves to offering compassion in the horse world without appearing to be interfering in somebody else’s affairs, giving unsolicited advice, or even offending others who may not actually be suffering in a way that we think they are? How do we avoid the effect of Newton’s Third Law as a consequence to our compassion?

 

   I have been thinking about this a lot since returning to my writer’s retreat on this pretty little island in the Pacific. The contrast of experiences in the city are still fresh in my mind, and I am actually hoping to catch up on some sleep this week, hearing only birds and waves crashing on the shoreline each morning. I think about all the times I felt compelled to “help” somebody and was given a nasty look, a blank stare, or even a “thank you”, but then there would be other events that occurred as a result. Sometimes it is all too easy to overthink compassionate action, and over-thinking something can be paralyzing. Is it best to simply act, or take the time to go through a list of what might happen if you do? Do you pull that last $5 out of your wallet and give it to the beggar, leaving yourself without bus fare, or do you walk past him, bless him with kind thoughts, and say a prayer for his health and recovery from whatever may be the root cause of his having to beg?

 

   Oh my, that does make things a little more complex doesn’t it? Well, life with other life forms actually can be complicated, especially in today’s world of having so many choices available to us in an instant. There are possibly more details involved when offering compassion to others than we may be aware of. Maybe we are more powerful than we could even know, and perhaps there is a “field” of compassionate energy we can work with, instead of giving away our last dollar, exhausting ourselves by taking care of another, or allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of by someone who may see us as a means to support their own wants and needs?

 

   Unlike the lovely fellow acting in the insurance commercial, our experiences in giving without expectation may be different than what is illustrated – or they may be as eloquent. Everyone has different experiences in life. What we can do is use our consciousness in extraordinarily unlimited ways, and tap into that pool of compassionate energy that has built up over eons of mindful meditations and the prayers of others. The joyful, heartfelt mantras and perpetual wheels of wise words directed towards the benefit of all beings has set up a never-ending field of compassion, like an ocean of love for all to dive into whenever one wishes. It is simply “there.”

 

   Consequences? Besides compassion fatigue from over-caring, there are detrimental consequences to our health and wellbeing if we give to someone or to an animal out of feelings of guilt, shame, or the assumption that we “have to” give to that person or they will no longer appreciate us. In the video the young man was met with a glare from the woman on the street when he hesitated to empty his wallet into her cup one day. It appeared he then felt guilty and gave her the rest of his money. What condition caused the woman to be on the street in the first place? Does the woman he leaves bananas for really use or need all those bananas or do they go to waste? What are her other needs? What is the nature of the young man’s suffering…because we know all beings suffer? Nobody in the comments seemed to feel as though he was in need of compassion himself, or at least no mention was made in that direction.

 

   With compassion, there is a benefit in also recognizing wisdom, mercy, and ultimately, love. All of these things we can give and extend to others from our heart, with infinite possibilities and no time or material things attached to them. As we pass by the ill and poverty-stricken on the street, we can offer blessings and prayers that the root cause of their suffering be alleviated, because the truth is, we really do wish for them to be well. It is the same for thousands of horses that may be suffering and in dire straits. The consequences of meditation and mindfulness training are that we begin to realize the subtleties of how effective and how powerful simply using our mind can be. It is not as easy to convey that concept in a short video however, and more difficult to arouse a strong emotional response in the viewer, as was the intention of the insurance company.

 

   So with the horses, and with my fellow humans, I try to live with a compassionate heart, and compassionate thoughts at all times. I have learned much from my compassionate co-author, Dr. Schoen in this regard. If I can legitimately help or give my time or finances to someone, I do, but I have had to teach myself (and am still working on this) not to feel guilty or ashamed if I cannot contribute. As most of us do, I get daily requests from organizations seeking financial donations or other commitments. It may be horses, the environment, an international crisis… it is overwhelming. I could have emptied my bank account a long time ago and filled my house with friends or strangers who need a place to stay.

 

   I find my greatest power and clarity comes in moments of solitude, and this is where I am most compassionate to myself first so that I can actually be of benefit to others. Less than a whisper, there are messages of love that seem to come out of nowhere, and I feel like I am “home.” I believe that when that feeling of being home in your heart arises, if you stay still and quiet, not necessarily taking action at the time, you will find the magical still-point – and you may call that still-point what you wish (some may say G-d) – and will find the answers as to what you need to do, if anything at all, or if the simple, potent, act of being compassionate within yourself will radiate through to all other sentient beings, for their benefit as well as yours.

 

   I also noticed in the video the compassionate young man feeds a big chunk of chicken to the dog. Those of us who have had dogs know not to ever feed them chicken bones because they can splinter and cause the dog to choke. I guess in that way the commercial was also a success…it is a good idea to be compassionate but have insurance too! And I sure hope that pony’s eye got taken care of in due time.

 

   A simple conclusion to all of this complexity and questioning is one of my favorite quotes by the 14th Dalai Lama, as he states:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least

don’t hurt them.”

 

 

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Joy to the (Horse) World!

Image

Silver

Our recent discussion about the Principles of Compassionate Equitation © turned to thoughts regarding “joy” and how all the seriousness of training and competition sometimes leads us to forget about what it means to be joyful.

Principle #10 in The Compassionate Equestrian states “the Principles accelerate the evolution of joy and respect between humans and horses and allow for a more expansive, conscious interaction between humans and our equine companions.”

Dr. Schoen and I both know that by practicing compassion, one does become happier overall, as you learn to keep your heart open and accepting.  It’s not necessarily easy to do, especially in the situations that frequently arise in our microcosm of the world that exists within every barn.  Tension can come from the management, the trainers, grooms, other riders, or even the horses themselves as they will also react to a stressful atmosphere by acting out in ways that may not be too much fun for us.

As we discussed the need for joy in our lives, I thought of one very special horse who brought joy to everyone who rode him, and always made me smile every time I looked at him.

The trainer I worked for at the time was looking for a horse for a young male student and we got word that a large Quarter Horse gelding was available on a feed lien.  His owner had abandoned him and he had been basically stall-bound for several months, so the barn had the legal right to sell him for board that was owing.

Not expecting much, we went to look at him and it took about 2 minutes to make the decision to purchase the big white gelding.  His name was Silver.

He was obviously happy to be let out of his stall as we inspected his conformation, jogged him for soundness, and tacked him up for a trial ride.  He was over 16 hands… quite tall for his breed.  His head was less than classic, with a bit of a Roman nose.  He had good bone though and while he wouldn’t win a conformation class, he was attractive enough that anyone could look good on him.

Not only was Silver impeccably trained, but he was the calmest horse one could hope for.  As we watched a young rider from the barn put him through his paces, Tim, the trainer, tossed a hat right in front of Silver’s nose as he jogged by.  The horse didn’t flinch.  Sold!  This was a beginner’s dream horse.

Back at our own barn Silver settled in immediately.  He got along with every other horse, and we rode him a few more times before having Tim’s student come to try him out.  Excited for the meeting of the two, who we thought would be a perfect match, the day finally came that Silver was to meet his potential new owner.

It didn’t go quite as planned.  At least not according to our plans.  Silver apparently had something else in mind.

He literally quivered on the crossties when the boy and his mother came to meet him.  Wondering what was going on, we thought perhaps they could bond in the round pen, with the big Quarter Horse roaming freely so he, the mom & her son could just “hang out” and study each other’s personalities.

Silver seemed highly suspicious of the two and was not his typical friendly self.  Tim and I had no particular answer as this seemed out of character for the horse even though we’d only known him a short time.  Finally, the boy’s mom said “I don’t think he likes us”.

Well, that’s not the way to sell a horse!  The pair left the barn and I put Silver back in the crossties to finish up with his grooming.  If a horse could look smug, I would say Silver definitely had a smug little grin on his face.  That’s when I looked straight at him and said “you want to be OUR horse, don’t you?”  Oh yes, the ears pricked right up and if he was a cartoon horse you’d have seen the little hearts circling his head and eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.

Tim agreed that Silver seemed to want to stay at the barn and be a lesson horse on our own string, and so it was.

I couldn’t even tell you how many kids that big guy packed around, adjusting himself to whatever level of rider climbed on his back.  Once we knew he was staying I tested him over jumps and he did that just right too.  I secretly always wanted to ditch the off-track training projects and just have some fun on Silver, who could give a thoroughbred a good run around the pasture when he felt like it.

He would memorize an obstacle course if I led him through it once, making a little 6-year-old girl feel like an accomplished rider.  He had a special “tranter” gait for youngsters just learning to canter… the front end would trot and the back end would canter, giving riders confidence until they could move him up into a true canter.  He was very happy in his job, and brought happiness and confidence to everyone who rode and showed him.

In all the seriousness of training, the stress of hauling horses and students to shows, and the everyday physical demands of working around a barn, I could only wish for everyone to have the chance, even once in a lifetime to have a horse like Silver who never failed to approach life with joyful abandon and an unsurpassed generosity.  Perhaps he was like most rescued and previously abandoned animals, as they always seem particularly grateful and eager to return the compassion that was shown to them.

Compassion takes practice, especially when we are faced with adverse conditions and situations that may make it more difficult to think about the suffering of others.  This is why I love rescued animals, and “recovered” humans, as they know how to come, literally, “from the bottom of their heart” – and with that, comes real and lasting joy.

Wishing a Happy, Joyous, New Year to All!

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

Recently Dr. Schoen and I were discussing the concepts of “giving” and “letting go” and how they metaphorically apply to both our lives and the aspect of equitation that allows a horse to move more freely forwards.  This is the time of year we transition from a season of gift-giving to that of self-reflection and New Year’s resolutions, making decisions we hope will allow us to move forwards in our own lives, perhaps letting go of old habits or thought patterns that have held us back in the past.

So often we think of “giving” as meaning something we have to pay for, wrap up, order online, transport, mail or otherwise involve ourselves in a complex set of activities in order to complete the giving of the gift.  For some people the act of giving comes with the expectations of getting something in return.  Such an attitude can create disharmony and stress for both the giver and the receiver.

When we give with compassion it is to be given from the heart for the benefit of the recipient, and without the plotting of what might be given back in exchange.  Ultimately, as we practice compassion, we soon realize there is so much joy in giving it’s an instant return to us in the feeling we personally receive from a genuine sense of contributing to the benefit of another being.

 Maynard's Pony Meadows, Vancouver

Maynard’s Pony Meadows, Vancouver
photo by Susan Gordon

One of the hardest things for me to teach a rider was the “giving rein”.  As with the letting go of aspects of our lives we want to stay in control of, most riders have a difficult time giving the hand forwards, releasing contact with the rein even if only for a moment.

Of what benefit is this to the horse? As an instructor, when I’m watching from the ground and I see the precise moment the horse is ready to reach a little further into contact, lift his back and shoulders, lengthen his neck, relax the poll, and open up the stride without increasing tempo, I will tell the student “give the inside hand forwards”.  I want them to learn to feel this moment for themselves and respond at first consciously and then subconsciously as a conditioned response that instantly rewards the horse for his willingness to move forwards.

This concept is fundamental to the traditional training of horses that develops their ability to carry a rider through all gaits and all activities, building a stronger muscle-bridge across the topline, allowing the horse to remain as sound as possible for its entire working life.

So why would giving a rein forwards, gifting the horse with freedom and relaxation, be so difficult?

Dr. Schoen and I related this to the personal filters people maintain as they interact with their horses.  There is such a connection between the hand and the horse’s head and we often don’t realize how much of our emotional “stuff” we are relaying to the horse via rein tension and how it may be affected not only by the level of skill of the rider, but the degree of mindfulness in applying the various rein aids.  After all, the only thing the horse has to go by in reading the mood and instincts of the rider is the feel they are receiving through the rider’s body.  The horse is an instantaneous biofeedback mechanism and even more so when we are attached to it with a set of reins.

“Letting go”, when combined with the concept of “giving” is a very personal thing.  To be compassionate to yourself and “let go” of the parts of your life that need to be released can be considered a gift to yourself with no attachments or expectations of the outcome.  Simply observing the results will tell you what you need to know as a response to that exercise of “letting go”.

There may be many old imprints and programs in your psyche afffecting both you and your horse in a controlling kind of way that creates continued stress in both your life and your riding.  Dr. Schoen treats many horses who are so tight in the neck and poll from being held rigidly and not allowed to reach forwards and downwards into the rider’s hand.  I see the same thing in almost every horse I’ve worked with as well.

When a student finally softens their hand forward in just the right moment and just the right amount, and I see two beautiful beings working in instant joy and harmony, I see the true meaning of “giving”.  It is a very subtle, almost imperceptible moment of awareness that occurs between horse and rider, rider and themselves, and then extends back to other horses and riders at the barn and inevitably, everyone who encounters that rider and that horse in the other aspects of their lives.

As those special “letting go” and “giving” moments are increased and become part of the subconscious practice, first with the self, with the horse, and then recognized by others, they become the personality and identity of that person and compassion becomes central to their lives.  Everyone, everywhere benefits from that very fundamental, simple concept.

Giving does not have to involve a credit card, rushing around through a shopping mall, stressing over what to buy for whom or elaborate trinkets.  Sometimes it’s ourselves we need to give to, which could mean reflecting on concepts that are keeping us on a tight rein and preventing us from moving forward in life.  Give a smile to someone who needs it, give a bit of your time to help an elderly person with their groceries, and give your horse a pat on the neck.  What you actually receive in return may be the greatest gift, ever.