Keep Calm or Get Kicked by a Horse: On Forced Mindfulness

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Mindfulness and meditation aren’t easy for anyone. Whenever we dim the lights and sit in Indian style, there is a core part of our primitive brain that rebels like a hyper puppy in a choke collar: “Don’t do that to me! You know I need to roam!” 

But for professional ruminators such as myself, meditation can be damn near impossible. All deliberate attempts to hush thoughts seem to activate them, like the backward response of the white polar bear study – the more the participants were asked not to think about these cuddly guys, the more images of them popped into their psyches. 

Meditation 101

Still, eight years ago I was determined to master meditation so I enrolled in an intensive eight-week course at the local hospital. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program was designed to imitate Jon Kabat Zinn’s incredibly successful program at the University of Massachusetts. In addition to eight four-hour classes and assigned readings, we were instructed to meditate twice a day, each for 45 minutes.

The first day of class we did a mindful exercise that involved twirling a piece of fruit around in our mouths. Eight meditation newbies sat in a circle, closing their eyes, sucking on a small, round food – trying to figure out it was. Of course, I knew exactly what it is was because I had jumped ahead in the homework assignments.

We spent ten minutes concentrating on every defining feature of the fruit: its texture, its taste, its size, the way it fit neatly under your tongue if you had to hide it from someone.

The instructor invited us to guess what it was.

“It’s a grape!” someone shouted out.

“Does everybody agree it’s a grape?” the instructor asked.

“A blueberry!” another participant chimed in.

It required every ounce of restraint in me not to shout out: “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YOU PEOPLE! IT’S A BLOODY RAISIN!!!”

Brain Hush

I often think about that exercise in the moments I have succeeded at mindfulness – the rare times I have been able to shut my brain off, not because of any centering technique, but because I am so annoyed or scared or sad that there is no other possibility but to be in the moment.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving at the horse farm where I volunteer fit into that category.

My ruminations were especially intense that day. 

I found myself situated underneath the belly of a 1,500-pound horse using the flashlight from my phone to see the buckles of his blanket straps so I could secure the thing on him. A more experienced volunteer was holding his lead rope, repeating in a soothing voice, “That’s a good boy,” since the horse had exhibited some sass earlier in the day. 

It was dark, cold, and windy. 

Horses are mirror animals like dolphins. Not only can they detect attitudes that we think are buried a few layers down, they model them in their own behavior. If you are unsure, you can count on your horse feeling insecure, as well. If you are angry, this perceptive creature will politely tell you you’re not alone. 

I knew that if I showed any hint of anxiety in that moment, the grumpy guy might assert himself in a way that could send me to the ER. So I attempted to calmly fasten the straps of the blanket with my frigid Raynaud fingers in the dark. Like a surgeon performing surgery blindfolded, I concentrated only on the task in front of me. Once I finished, I realized my ruminations had vanished.

Faking It

Every afternoon at the farm isn’t that intense, but my work with horses has been more effective in teaching me mindfulness than any class I’ve taken or recording I’ve listened to. I suppose it’s because I don’t have a choice but to stay in the moment. Not if I don’t want to get hurt. 

Every time I push a horse butt out of the way to muck his stall, I take a deep breath and do what I did to get over my fear of dogs: fake confidence. When I’m leading a horse in a lesson, I stand up straight, push my shoulders back, and take long strides forward like I’m a professional equestrian because she can read my posture better than a psychic. My voice, my grip, my energy all tell her if I believe in myself or if I’m distracted in the land of regret and trepidations.

Knowing Your Limits

A horse will tell you when your insecurities have taken over before you figure it out yourself.

One wintry afternoon at the farm the winds were gusting at 50 miles per hour. Many of the horses were out of sorts. I attempted to lead one of the bigger ones to his paddock when he started to spook.

A woman with more horse experience saw it happen and asked if I wanted her to take him.

“Yes, please,” I said.

He immediately settled down in her care.

“All he needed was a little reassurance,” she said.

“I realize that,” I responded. “And I didn’t have it to give.”

Horses teach you how to honor your limits – when to recognize that your emotions are so knotted up that what you need more than a 1,500-pound mirror is a time-out. They are a reminder of our humanity, our smallness, and the interconnectedness we share with all creatures on this place called earth.

Deep breathing, body scans, centering exercises – they are all good stuff. But when I really need relief from my ruminations, I head to the horse farm and let those guys teach me how to be mindful.

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3 Responses
  1. Lisa Hillman

    Not familiar with horses, I can sense how they would be soothing if soothed? Maybe it’s they ask you to be totally focused on them. Cathartic. Like a challenging hike thru rocks and tree roots. The mind is forced to focus on one footfall at a time

    I love this Therese.

  2. Jane Benkendorf

    Love this Therese. Both of my nieces own horses 🐎 and one is becoming a Vet Tech.
    They both belonged to Pony Club and grew
    next to horses, but I like you went to a
    Summer Camp in CO and never trusted the
    “barn-sour” ones….Dogs are my JAM since
    my dad bought my first for me as a girl.

    I read your early email about your treatment
    @ JH for depression and totally 💯 understand
    your deep respect for the doctors, but not
    agreeing with the medical model of the
    treatment. I like you thought I would seriously
    consider it if my treatment resistant depression
    never improved. I pray each night that God will
    help scientists advance in discovery of diseases
    of the brain….it seems so slow and laborious.

    Congratulations on becoming a Chaplain! I think you would be excellent. I love ❤️ ❤️
    your writing and it is a wonderful respite to
    me at the end of the day.

    Your Friend from the JH Mood Symposium
    Jane

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