1. No need to throw it out or sell it: instead take a closer look.
Lisa hadn’t owned a horse for some years when a neighbour’s spare horse caught her eye. Keen to repeat the fulfilling relationship she’d had with an earlier horse, Lisa enthusiastically bought Doug. As Doug had missed the critical early years of training there was much catching up to do.
Unfortunately, it started badly.
Lisa suffered a debilitating injury when Doug jerked away unexpectedly on the lunging rein, tearing her shoulder. The damage put a halt to Doug’s training and things went from bad to worse. Doug started rearing and striking out with his front hoof whenever Lisa approached. What to do? She started carrying a big stick when around him.
The months went by. A year went by. Selling seemed the only option.
When the potential sale fell through, Lisa took a fresh look at the situation.
2. Appreciate the Profound Effect of the Energy You Give Out
Something had to change. Lisa started attending mindfulness classes to deal with the pain of her injured shoulder. Mindfulness is well-known for treating chronic pain: http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/stress-reduction/
Then the unexpected happened: Lisa found the benefits of mindfulness extending to her relationship with Doug.
After repeated practice of mindful awareness, she started to notice the tenor of her reactions around Doug. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware in the moment, to observe our ordinary reactions without the usual automaticity, judgement and reactivity.
She noticed how early her panic manifested. She noticed a shift to rapid shallow breathing as she approached the horse. Armed with her newfound awareness, Lisa taught herself to slow and deepen her breath around Doug.
She found that by connecting with her breath she could make her energy go soft. By softening her energy, the atmosphere changed.
Doug responded beautifully. To her surprise, Lisa realised she’d been infecting Doug with her own tension, panic and fear. She realised that by emotionally shutting him out she’d made his behaviour more overt.
“I’m really careful how I am around him now” Lisa tells me. “I have to watch every little ripple of energy. I can’t afford to go out to the paddock if I’m cranky or rushed. If I’m not ‘really there’ with him, it doesn't go so well. If I am right there with him, it goes very well. “
Can you relate this model to your difficult teenager or colleague?
3. Replace Force with Gentleness and Self-Empathy.
While pursuing the mindfulness path, Lisa discovered the Natural Horsemanship movement. She read up on its techniques and adopted some of their guiding principles. www.australiannaturalhorsemanship.com
Natural Horsemanship parallels mindfulness in many ways. For example, the emphasis is on being kind and gentle rather than inflicting pain and fear: mindfulness in a nutshell.
Gentleness starts with oneself. Self-empathy is a major pillar of the mindfulness approach: it helps find a way forward.
As Lisa’s self-empathy grew, the way she handled Doug physically changed also. Previously she’d pushed him around forcefully, trying to match his brute strength with her own inferior strength.
Now, following the advice of Natural Horsemanship, she gently motions to his flank with a flat hand, leaving a gap between her hand and his body. By doing so, she effectively encourages Doug to move as she wants him to. “What a change” gasps Lisa. “Before, it was like I’d been ‘yelling at him’ when I pushed him around. No wonder he freaked out.”
In the same way, a parent’s struggle with a teenager can transform through mindful empathy. A friend told me that she decided to ‘be on her son’s side’ instead of in stringent opposition. As a result his behaviour became far more responsive, mirroring her own.
4. Install boundaries. Watch your body language.
Doug’s intimidation tactics around Lisa were his way of ascertaining how much ground he could take. (Are your difficult co-workers doing this to you?) Meanwhile, Lisa gave the message “I can’t stand my ground”. Doug was setting the boundaries, not she. The vicious circle continued until Lisa changed her approach.
“I now make a point of being mindfully responsible for my own energy around Doug” says Lisa.
“The tenor of my energy field creates the boundary, as does my body language. Both have such a profound effect on a horse”. And on people too, of course.
The power of body language has been highlighted recently by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist from the Harvard Business School. Her TED talk, Your Body Language Shapes who you Are (2012) has attracted nearly 20 million views.
According to Cuddy, body language influences the outcomes of critical choices such as job interviews, with employers favouring people who stand tall. Indeed, the way we stand even determines the way we feel about ourselves.
It’s kind of obvious, but the obvious things often escape our attention. Particularly when under the sway of distraction. When we generate fresh attention through deliberate mindfulness, the obvious comes into full focus and can be acted upon.
5. Sit with your problem in a paddock. Give your mind space.
“Sit in the paddock with your horse” instructs Natural Horsemanship. In the case of mindfulness, we ‘sit in the paddock’ with our own hard-to-handle mind.
The usual temptation is to force our minds into submission, to fight our thoughts, which leads to frustration and anxiety.
There’s an old meditation story that likens taming the mind to taming a horse, just like Lisa’s real-life experience. Go stand by the fence, says the story: let your horse get used to you standing there. Then go sit in the paddock. When the horse gets used to you it will approach, out of curiosity. Then you can stroke it. Next, you can walk around with the horse. When the horse relaxes you can put on the halter and eventually hop on.
In other words: we need to be patient and befriend the mind. It won’t pay to take the mind head on. We need to give it space. Pasture.
We can sit in the paddock (chair/meditation cushion) with our unruly mind. The trick is to simply witness our thoughts and feelings as they come and go. By doing so, we create space and activate the observing aspect of our mind. Witnessing thoughts frees us from the compulsion to believe in them and react to them.
In the spacious ground of observing-mind we discover we are not our thoughts. We discover that our ranting mind does not have to control us.
Lisa discovered big powerful Doug did not have to control puny little her.
Your paddock might be the soccer field, watching your kids play on a Saturday morning. It might be a beach you can stroll along undisturbed. It might be ten minutes watching your breath before bed or first thing in the morning. It might be a lengthy soak in the bath.
Out there in the ‘paddock’, your solution might just come along unexpectedly and nudge you.
“It was a turning point” says Lisa. “I sat and sat in that paddock. I sat there and practised my mindfulness. Then one day (my eyes were closed) I felt a nudge. It was Doug. He’d come up gently to greet me. “
“What a relief. Everything changed after that.”
6. Appreciate that Adversary can become your best Ally.
“I discovered that adversary can transform into an ally. The Doug situation taught me to be centred in my power. Doug is an incredible teacher; he has taught me so much about myself. It’s been a journey all about finding my own power and strength.
“How you are around a horse is a reflection of where you are at. You can’t fake it; around a horse you are exposed. It was a painful journey to start with but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“Thanks to my mindfulness practice, Doug and I have both blossomed. We’ve blossomed together.”
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