Taking in the Good

24 11 2019

DSC_0018I don’t have the heart to leave Sheranni and Dragonfly without rugs all winter because I have seen them shiver through the mildest of rain-storms, and come running towards me for cover when the sky breaks open unexpectantly. Their mud-spattered waterproof coats protect them and keep them well-insulated from the wind and cold.

I remember, though, a winter a long time ago, trudging through thigh-deep snow to check on some Arabian horses who had been left out. They were sheltered under a hedge and they looked surprised to see me. Their eyes were large and bright against the backdrop of snow-covered fields and their coats were long, soft and white, luxuriant as Arctic foxes. I’ll never forget the look these horses gave me. They seemed to ask: ‘And just why are you here?’ I left that snowy field feeling humbled and aware that these horses needed nothing from me. They were perfectly adapted when it came to living in nature.

Horses who live in nature are exquisitely attuned to shifts in the seasons, which means little adjustments all year round. Even rugged Arabs have beards and belly fur at this time of the year, and by the end of the day they are making encouraging noises when feed is served. After a cold, wet afternoon, they love to dip their noses and mumble their lips around something soft and nourishing. I enjoy watching them eating in the twilight because it satisfies my need to see that they are well-cared for, even though I know they would work out how to survive a snowy night by sheltering under a hedge.

As a human who cares, I’m drawn to doing much more for my animals than I really need to. Because they don’t have the daily ritual of feeding and because they started life without humans on the horizon, our Dartmoor ponies Bella and Tinker need human intervention even less than Sheranni and Dragonfly. Nevertheless, these ponies certainly know what feed is, and if offered soaked sugar-beet they choose not to turn it down! When the light is fading and time is short, it is tempting to think that feeding the herd is more important than spending time with them.

I have come to realise, though, that sharing time with a pony is an opportunity to tune into what is happening in my own interior world. If I’m busy and distracted by yard jobs, Tinker will be fussing with my coat and asking for her chin to be scratched. If, however, I take a few deep breaths and choose to savour the moment, she relaxes and lowers her head. Just by taking my mind off ‘the next thing’ has a powerful impact on her.

In my reading this week, I’m learning from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson that slowing down and taking a few seconds longer to enjoy brief moments that feel good is good for my own well-being and can over time actually influence the neural pathways in my brain.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson outlines four simple steps of taking in the good: 1. Have a positive experience. 2. Enrich it. 3. Absorb it. 4. Link positive and negative material. This process does not mean using positive thinking to somehow drive away the bad, which we all know doesn’t work. If you’ve ever shared something that was stressing you out only to be told: ‘you need to think more positively,’ you’ll know what I mean. Taking in the good doesn’t mean you ignore the stress, sadness or suffering surrounding you. It just means you use a tiny bit of your attention to focus for a tiny bit longer on something that makes you feel warm, supported and connected as and when it happens. It might be something as simple as noticing the moon, or tuning into the warm feeling of someone offering to give you an extra pound coin for your parking ticket as a kind gentleman did for me last week, or savouring the aroma of a small cup of coffee.

Hanson points out that our brains have evolved with a negativity bias, which means that we’re constantly scanning for threats, criticism and problems just in case we need to run or club someone. It’s not our fault our brains are still stuck in the Stone Age, and given the nature of the cauliflower nestling inside our heads, we are doing the best we can:

‘Our reptilian, mammalian, primate, and human ancestors typically spent long periods in the responsive mode punctuated by brief bursts of reactive stress followed by another long stretch of responsive recovery, Modern life violates this ancient template with its pervasive mild to moderate stressors. Consequently, the reactive mode has become the new normal for many people, a kind of chronic inner homelessness that has harmful effects on mental and physical health and on relationships.’

We don’t have to live our lives in a state of hyper-vigilance, on alert for the next worst thing, snapping and snarling at all who get in our way. Hanson writes: ‘Peace, contentment and love are important aims for most people.’ Achieving these aims is possible. By practising taking in the good, moment by moment, we can transform our brains because taking in ‘the sense of feeling safe, satisfied, or connected, you stimulate responsive circuits in your brain. When you stimulate a neural circuit, you strengthen it.’

Looked at this way, pausing with your coffee to watch the sun come up over the sea, noticing the honeysuckle in sweet flower in late November, or teasing tangles from a resting pony’s mane are not incidental moments to be swiped through on our way to the more important, hard stuff; these ordinary moments are vital for well-being, the rewards we harvest by not letting the good slip through our fingers before we’ve had a chance to notice it. Hanson says: ‘It’s just a few jewels each day. But day after day, gradually adding up, they become the good that lasts. It’s the law of little things: lots of little bad things take people to a hard and painful place, and lots of little good things take them to a better one.’


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2 responses

25 11 2019
conversationswithnell

Wonderful writing as always Belinda. I know exactly what you mean. There is an innate wisdom in animals that we have lost along the way. Thank you for this. X

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25 11 2019
belindaseaward

Thank you, and keep up the good work with your own writing! x

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