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Riding Between the Worlds
Expanding Our Potential Through the Way of the Horse
By Linda Kohanov
New World LibraryCopyright © 2003 Linda Kohanov
All rights reserved.
DOES the HORSE HAVE a BUDDHA NATURE?
Shortly after completing the final draft of my first book, I retreated to the comfort of my herd. Dazed by the barrage of words that had long been circulating through my mind, I was incapable of training or even saddling a horse to ride. Instead, I walked down the line of corrals and flung open the gates. The impulse to run free was overwhelming. Cooped up for too long themselves while I was writing, my horses raced across the property, bucking chaotically through the dust, dodging hitching posts, wheelbarrows, and each other, finally settling around the hay stacked at the edge of a bone-colored wash that hadn't flowed in six weeks. With no fresh grass to nibble, they haphazardly removed the thick blue tarp protecting bales of alfalfa more from sun than from rain. I sat under a gnarled tree and watched them graze Arizona-style, heat waves rising around me even in the shade, blurring the landscape, baking away the chatter in my brain.
A half hour later, when I was as calm inside as I appeared to be outside, my old sage of a mustang Noche turned and stared at me, as if seeing me for the first time. Leaving his celebratory feast, he wandered over and stood next to me, lowering his head, matching his nostrils to the level of my own, transmitting secrets stored in the breath.
Between us, a feeling of ecstasy began to rise. This horse, who had been beaten into submission by his first trainers, had not so long ago found his way back from the dissociative trance that robs trauma victims of their souls. As a part of my equine-facilitated therapy practice, he had gone on to single out, of his own free will, human beings possessing hidden wells of sadness. Time and time again, he would stand beside them, unrestrained, as their hearts melted in his presence, and they finally sobbed out memories they could never speak aloud. Now, this horse, who knew so much about pain, was teaching me something about its opposite.
Though to anyone passing by we appeared to be relaxing in the sketchy shade of a mesquite, Noche and I were ascending. The warmth between us was gathering force, escalating into the rarefied experience of a love I can't adequately describe — a radiant, pulsating combination of gratitude, empowerment, and unconditional regard for all we were and all we had healed in each other over the years. The sensation was feeding back with increasing ferocity. I fought the sudden urge to run away, surprised that something so exquisite could simultaneously seem so threatening. Just when I thought I couldn't bear another minute of it, the feeling began to subside. Noche stayed with me until it dissipated completely. Then he sputtered, shook his head, and walked over to the herd. I started after him, my body contorting in clumsy attempts to regain what I was hoping to escape moments before. "But, but how could you just ... leave," I said. "Can't we hang onto that feeling a little longer?"
Noche glanced back, his eyes piercing my heart with an insight that circulated through my bloodstream and flooded my brain with words so clear I could have sworn he spoke them out loud:
"Joy is. Sadness is. You try to lasso one and chase away the other. Yet in finally meeting what you've been craving all along, you're not sure whether to capture it or flee from it, because even great beauty is too wild for you. This is a suffering my kind has never known."
Without the slightest hint of pity or judgment, Noche elucidated the restlessness humans feel. Like every other two-legged creature I knew, I was constantly chasing after so-called positive emotions and running away from the negative. Yet by example, Noche gave me a kinesthetic sense of how to live the Buddhist ideals of nonattachment and nonaversion. He easily saw through the social masks people wear, drawing attention to the truth of what was, while trusting in the wisdom of impermanence. If he felt sadness lurking behind the smiles of my clients, he would step forward and not only dislodge the emotion, but create a safe space where the tears could finally be released. I still don't fully understand how or why he does this, but in his strong, compassionate presence, people are able to mine the depths of despair and come out the other side, finally realizing that, like the thick black clouds of a summer thunderstorm, tempestuous feelings run their course and evaporate, leaving behind a clarity impossible to achieve through suppression.
With a heart open enough to embrace the sorrows of strangers, Noche could also handle a level of ecstasy intimidating to me. As I struggled to contain this overwhelming sense of joy, he flowed into it. As I tried desperately to call it back, he ambled over to the hay pile with the same casual enthusiasm he often exhibited waiting for a carrot after one of our clients made a major breakthrough.
I have seen this horse stand in the rain, the snow, the sun at 110 degrees, with the patience and equanimity he carries in the face of emotions that send most people running for cover. Does Noche have a Buddha nature? Most definitely. But can a horse become a practicing Buddhist? I would have to say no. In Noche's case at least, he doesn't seem to need the practice.
THE COURAGE TO THRIVE
Passing a group of horses huddled together in pasture, I'm often privy to a secret bliss. Sometimes, they're resting peacefully in the shade. Other times, they only seem to be dozing. If I stand with them long enough, I begin to sense waves of feeling moving through the herd, generating a collective subsonic reverie so deep it vibrates through the bones and expands the heart, leaving the ears untouched.
Two years after my mind-expanding encounter with Noche, I have a higher tolerance for the wildness of great beauty, but I'm still haunted by my initial impulse to squelch the joy that rose between us. Since then, I've observed how authentic experiences of love, wonder, and connection can send people into a tailspin just as easily as any negative emotion. Fear — and its accompanying urge to fight, flee, or freeze — has long been known to arise when abuse survivors finally start to feel good. The traumatized nervous system interprets any elevation in arousal, including lifeforce fluctuations associated with intense well-being, as cause for alarm. Therapeutic techniques involve slowly and carefully separating anxiety from the feeling of being alive. Yet I've also seen successful entrepreneurs, counselors, artists, and educators panic in the face of positive emotions. While this initially seems paradoxical, and even a bit sad, there are numerous reasons for it, some quite logical, others more adventurous. Together they create a picture of the strange position we find ourselves in as our species turns ever so slowly from surviving to thriving.
The U.S. Constitution promises citizens the right to the pursuit of happiness, an ambitious pledge to make, especially in the 1700s. The vast majority of the world's population at that time toiled for the benefit of royalty. Noblemen didn't particularly care if their subjects were happy, or even healthy, for that matter. The ruling class expected people to serve and conform. Religious institutions reinforced this attitude by suppressing all kinds of simple pleasures. Adventurous souls wanting to explore the creative, emotional, sexual, and intuitive dimensions of life were condemned to hell, and sometimes to death. To this day, many people experience repeated surges of fear when they follow their dreams, and feel good as a result of their accomplishments, because the collective memory of humanity reverberates with the dire consequences that so often followed such efforts.
Rigid, narcissistic parents still inflict untold suffering on family members who assert their own needs and desires. Those growing up in abusive environments can feel downright terrified by success. Since the brain creates circuitry patterns in response to experience, physically and sexually abused children develop neural pathways associating stress and pleasure with negative, even lifethreatening outcomes. Attempts to set boundaries and move toward self-empowerment are met with more violence. These people are wired to expect any rise in self-esteem, personal expression, sexual excitement, love, joy, or connection to end in tragedy or shame. They often pass these debilitating behavioral and emotional patterns onto their children, even if, as adults, they manage to break the cycle of overt physical abuse.
The right to seek personal fulfillment, an incredible breakthrough in 1776, remains an unrealized ideal for many people. Over the last two hundred years, men and women of the free world may have grown a bit more comfortable pursuing happiness. Most of us, however, aren't sure what to do when we find it, and some are so conditioned to receive punishment for it we barely enjoy it while it lasts. This is perhaps the most frustrating dilemma we face in changing the unconscious patterns handed down by our ancestors.
Serfs, slaves, concubines, soldiers, refugees, and later, factory workers were routinely prevented from experiencing even the most fleeting sense of elation. How could they possibly teach their children to manage the curious power unleashed by emotions like joy, ecstasy, and bliss? The same wisdom eluded their leaders, who were so busy managing and defending territory they had little time to think of anything else. Survival of the fittest was the rule, no matter what socioeconomic class a person belonged to. This mentality affected the so-called objective sciences long after technology offered a sense of physical security unknown to previous generations. In the mid-twentieth century, psychology absorbed the Darwinian tendency to interpret emotion and behavior in terms of survival value. Researchers tried to explain everything from creativity and consciousness to a mother's love and a child's smile as an evolutionary innovation brought about through natural selection.
As society became more industrialized and computerized, so did its metaphors for sentient life. One of our culture's most powerful and damaging myths insists that the universe and everything in it must work according to predictable, mechanical laws. This leads to a marked ineptitude in the more ephemeral realms of feeling, imagination, and intuition. Social institutions deny the wisdom of the body and the senses, deifying the mind in a vacuum, training people to stand in production lines or sit in cubicles at computers, sublimating their physical and emotional needs to the cold, objective logic of consumerism and competition. Many endure the drudgery of meaningless employment, or unemployment, by self-medicating. Recreational drugs, from alcohol to marijuana to television, lull the disillusioned into a comfortable stupor, providing just enough of a high to make a stilted life bearable. Those difficult souls who object through the inconveniences of depression, chronic dissatisfaction, and the proverbial "nervous breakdown" can be fixed with more sophisticated prescriptions and sent back to work. There's no need to pursue happiness with this approach. It comes in bottles marked "Valium," and more recently, "Prozac." With the right dosage, there's no danger of feeling too good. Staying at a nice, complacent, even keel is just what the doctor ordered.
While human beings routinely suppress their emotional and spiritual needs to survive, the ability to thrive demands uncommon courage and awareness, a kind of compassionate, creative intelligence willing to take chances outside conventional thought and behavior. To successfully pursue happiness, one must also work up the nerve to feel it, knowing full well that to finally open the heart is to encounter the other outlawed emotions in all their terrible glory. The root of courage, after all, comes from the French word coeur, which literally means heart. Most of us have been taught to see this organ as a mechanical pump supporting the fleshy robot that carries a cool, calculating brain around. In this metaphor, strong emotion of any kind is perceived as malfunction. It simply does not compute. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, mainstream culture is no closer to understanding the dynamics of happiness than it was two centuries ago. It has only succeeded in treating people more like well-oiled machines.
Yet it is possible to come to terms with a violent past, reclaim the soul, form mutually supportive relationships, and move gracefully through the sorrows and joys of life. If an old mustang like Noche could make this seemingly complex transformation, why not the rest of us? What lost knowledge do horses express through their simple yet profound way of being, and how can we regain a bit of this wisdom for ourselves?
Since Charles Darwin, the behavioral sciences have studied the "classic list" of human emotions: anger, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, happiness, and contentment. When social psychologist Dacher Keltner established the Berkeley Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being, he championed research moving beyond what he calls the "self-interested emotions." Based at the University of California at Berkeley, Keltner's brainchild explores "benevolent emotions" like hope, awe, love, compassion, and gratitude. Peace, he says, "is about social harmony in connection," and is "based, therefore, on a different set of principles and practices than personal well-being." In this sense, the individual's ability to thrive cannot help but be influenced by his relationships — a colossal conundrum, considering that while modern civilization has successfully curtailed threats from the environment, it hasn't begun to eradicate the pain and suffering that people, and the social institutions they create, inflict on members of their own species. The average human being is much less likely to be chased by wolves, hunted down by lions, and exposed to the elements than he is to be victimized by parents, lovers, bosses, coworkers, and, sometimes, his own children.
Yet, in my work with horses as co-therapists, I've repeatedly witnessed how the suppression of self-interested emotion actually inhibits true connection. Peace, love, and compassion can create social disharmony when worn like masks to cover unresolved anger, fear, sadness, and depression. No one has ever illuminated this paradox more clearly for me than my black Arabian mare Tabula Rasa. Her response to a woman with the best human and spiritual intentions illustrated that the art of creating peace and well-being requires much more than most people imagine. And yet the solution, like so many horse-inspired insights, is deceptively simple. It involves recognizing just how interconnected we already are.
The week before an extended equine-facilitated workshop called The Power of Authenticity, one of the participants, "Rhiannon," phoned to inform me she'd shown up early to do some sightseeing.
"Do you mind if I stop by and meet the herd before I head off to California for a few days?" she asked. Her voice felt like cool velvet — the result, I learned, of a morning spent in meditation. In town for forty-eight hours, she'd already visited the local Buddhist center, the vegan restaurant across town, and a number of other alternative attractions most lifelong Tucson residents have yet to explore.
"I'll be teaching until four," I said. "Why don't you come over after that, and I'll show you around."
When I noticed a slim, graceful woman with long, silver hair wandering around the property during my three o'clock riding lesson, I wasn't sure if she was looking for me or someone else. At the large public stable where I based my practice for three years, people I barely knew would come and go at all hours. The stranger standing at the south fence was outside shouting range, yet even from a distance, something about her made the hair on the back of my neck rise. "I hope that's not Rhiannon," I thought.
Sure enough, she opened the gate and walked confidently toward me. "You're Linda, right?" she said.
Excerpted from Riding Between the Worlds by Linda Kohanov. Copyright © 2003 Linda Kohanov. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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