I was watching 60 Minutes last night and one of the segments was on the idea of mindfulness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was interviewed by Cooper Anderson, who attended one of his clinics. All of the participants learned how to meditate, to focus on the moment, and they were all made to give up their electronic devices.
It seems that we are constantly pulled from one device to another; we are focused on our phones, on our televisions, on what appointment we need to get to later, what someone said about a Facebook post we put up- essentially, we are focused on a thousand different things OTHER than what we are really doing right now. This inability for people to live in the present creates stress and can lead to hypertension and other physical issues. Honestly, how many times have you looked at your phone in the past ten minutes? Did you check your phone the last time you were out to lunch or dinner, even though there wasn’t an emergency? When was the last time you had a meal without reading or watching television (or was it blaring away in the next room)? Have you ever taken a walk and just enjoyed the walk, or are you thinking about what you need to do when you’ve returned? We are constantly engaging our brains, and yet we focus less and stress more.
Ergo, the need for the idea of mindfulness, which is, essentially, the idea of living in the present, of BEING, rather than DOING. This is almost a foreign concept to western idealism, especially in the United States. We focus on doing things so much better, faster and more efficiently that we lose sight of what we’re doing, or why we’re doing it. Thoreau summarized this idea by stating, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine tomorrow” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854). Do we ever ask what we’re saving all of this time for, or do we just fill up those saved hours with more stress-related things?
Is it any wonder that 30% of people in the U.S. over 20 are affected by hypertension? That the leading cause of death in the U.S. is a heart attack? That, for all of our riches, the United States is 42nd in the world in life expectancy? Why are these facts acceptable to us as a nation?
Obviously, there are multiple reasons behind these statistics, but I would posit that we have focused so much on the doing that we literally don’t know how to just be. Are we so good at multitasking that we have forgotten how to single-task, and how to enjoy the process? The idea of being over doing, the idea of mindfulness, is a primary concept to both Buddhism and Taoism, which may be why so many Asian countries have higher life expectancy rates.
The idea of mindfulness is also inherent to horses.
Yes, horses. In fact, horses are the epitome of mindfulness; they constantly live in the present. When you discipline a horse, you literally have three seconds before the moment has passed. When you are riding, you must learn to ride every stride; so many people lose in the show ring because they are focused on their previous jump, or the upcoming turn. When you are training, you have to take every movement, every action as it comes- if you are still thinking about how the horse acted five hours ago, or even five minutes ago (or even one minute ago), you will not be effective. You cannot keep a hold of anger, but must work with the horse in that moment; the horse will not understand why you are bringing anger to the table, because for him, that moment where he was naughty has passed. If you go into a lesson with an agenda, you will find that the horse has an entirely different agenda.
Being mindful means that we lose the agenda that defines how we go through life. By losing that agenda, we open ourselves to other possibilities that we may never have conceived of otherwise, “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas. Tolerant like the sky, all-pervading like sunlight, firm like a mountain, supple like a tree in the wind, he has no destination in view and makes use of anything life happens to bring his way” (Tao te Ching, #59). Sometimes our own brain imprisons us more than anyone or anything else; by liberating our brains from the prisons of our own minds, we find freedom in both the experience and possibilities. Being with horses allows us to release the shackles of our small-minded problems that prevent us from realizing how insignificant most of our issues are. In truth, working with horses is almost a way to be forced into mindfulness.
Perhaps forced is not the correct word; instead, perhaps we are highly encouraged to engage in mindfulness, as long as we are open to the concept. Horses will work to try to help us be more mindful; when we are too deep in thought, they might inadvertently move over and step on our foot. When we are focused on something else, they might swish us with their tails. They are literally not going to be focused on the doing, so it is up to us to be better at learning how to just be.
Once we learn how to be with the horse, we are not focused on the stressors of the world, but instead we focus on that moment. Just that moment. The next time you are working the horse, or leading the horse, or even brushing the horse, try to focus on exactly what you’re doing right at that moment. The horse is focusing on that moment, and by focusing on that same moment, you are mentally connecting with the horse. Try it the next time you’re out with the horses; if you are new to the idea, you may find your mind wander at first, but if you learn to focus just on being, just on that moment, you will find the beauty in sharing the same exact experience with your horse.
One of the first things a person must understand when working with horses is to give up the idea of control; there is no way anyone can really control a 1200 pound prey animal. After relinquishing the illusion of control, however, we also need to give up the idea of constantly doing, as all it leads to is more doing. Instead, we should engage in non-doing, or being, and experience life as it comes, “Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place” (Tao te Ching, #3). The next time you are out with your horse, try to think as he thinks, and the whole world will fall into place.