Looking on the right side

19 01 2020

A short while ago, when our old broom bent out of shape and lost its head, I went out and bought this one. I spent a long time choosing this particular broom; it needed to be robust, but not heavy; easy to handle, but not flimsy; smooth sliding, but not too slick. It needed traction, stiff bristles that did not shed on the first sweeping. It needed a wooden handle because the previous metal broom had snapped under pressure from a Tinker-sized hoof. It needed a little shed space all to itself.

As you can tell, I enjoyed shopping for this broom – I have spent less time choosing winter boots – and I’ve enjoyed using it daily since. Because it is so well designed for its daily job of sweeping rubber mats clear of fresh horse droppings, it is a pleasure to use. This morning, it became my teacher.

Inspired by a thought-provoking horsemanship clinic with Kate Sandel on Dartmoor, I decided to test my ability to sweep from the right. Now, I am left-handed and I find it difficult to use my right hand for much except using a knife – not a bread-knife, or a sharp knife; I switch to my left for anything resembling cutting. As I prepared for my new challenge, I remembered signing for a package this week on one of those box screens. I also recalled the postman had automatically positioned the box for a right-handed person. Even he laughed at my infantile scrawl as he walked off down the path.

You’ll notice I had spent a long time choosing my new broom and precisely zero time considering how I was going to use it. I applied the same principle of utility I used for most objects in my life: pick them up in a way that feels natural and easy and get the job done. Today I learned how difficult it was to work with my right hand because my mind was continually priming my left. It was almost comical; I would start sweeping to the right, but in no time, I’d end up back on the left. It took total concentration to sweep the mats using my unfamiliar side and by the time I finished I was tired.

I wondered about amputees having to learn how to walk again with alien artificial limbs and how the mind often holds onto parts of the body that no longer exist in reality by creating a phantom version that pulses with pain. I saw in my own lesson with the broom, the seed of something fundamental about the way my mind tries to support me by turning most of my daily tasks into a shortcut. My mind saves me from getting overly involved in tasks it can do automatically so that I can move onto more important tasks such as teaching or reading or spending time with people I love.

If I lost my left arm tomorrow, I would find it difficult to drive, to type, to wash up, to lead a horse, to clean my teeth, and I would have to use my right arm. With time and patience, I would probably master it. I would acquire a new perspective. Understanding that there are other ways to sweep a mat means recognising that my habitual way of doing things is simply one perspective on one experience. Operating through habit most of the day, I’m not particularly looking out for new perspectives. Like most people, I’m scanning the world for threats and opportunities and trying to get through my day with ease. Being left-handed can be frustrating when I’m tired and forget how to use light switches, pour from a saucepan, or try to open a box. Mostly, though, I don’t think about it.

In between chores, reading some essays in Zen Buddhism has given me a glimmer of a new perspective. Like really good philosophy, Zen makes me think hard about all the little things I do (and don’t do). Japanese Zen students call this acquiring of new knowledge: Satori, which is another name for Enlightenment.

“The essence of Zen Buddhism consists in acquiring a new viewpoint of looking at life and things generally. By this I mean that if we want to get into the innermost life of Zen, we must forgo all our ordinary habits of thinking which control our everyday life, we must try to see if there is any other way of judging things, or rather if our ordinary way is always sufficient to give us the ultimate satisfaction of our spiritual needs.”

Essays in Zen Buddhism. D.T. Suzuki (1949)

Developing a different point of view is one of the most difficult tasks I face daily, and like sweeping from my favoured side, I often take a shortcut to what feels easy and familiar. Every day, I rely on my knowledge and experience to solve problems and meet challenges. Sometimes, though, I come up against a question for which my professional knowledge and experience has no answer.

Zen Buddhism points to a new, fresher way of solving problems and meeting challenges – not by sitting cross-legged on a remote mountain or retreating to a cave – but by overthrowing the mountain of habit itself. Acquiring Satori, is in Suzuki’s description “the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through with in life. It is no easy task, it is a fiery baptism, and one has to go through the storm, the earthquake, the overthrowing of the mountains, and the breaking in pieces of the rocks.”

Wow…now I see why it is so much easier for me to sweep from the left.

What Bella did

12 01 2020

Bella has many talents. One of her favourite things to do is to get her teeth into whatever we give her, and some other things she finds for herself: fence posts, rails, plastic buckets, plastic trays, grooming kits, j-cloths, hay-nets, Jo’s bonnets, including the vehicular kind. This morning I put down a new bucket filled with salt water ready to clean Bella’s hoof, and while my back was turned, she drank it.

It would be easy to become irritated with Bella. She watches your every move, and carefully chooses the moment you take your eye off the ball, to let herself out of the field and destroy a storage box to reach the sack of feed inside. On this occasion, she worked in tandem with her partner-in-crime Sheranni. Bella’s timing is impeccable and maybe the less crafty horse used this to his advantage. I would have loved to have been present, witnessing the interaction between them…’go on Bella, you know how to split open that plastic box in just the right place to pull through the feed sack, just make sure you leave room for me, so that I can have some too!

Bella, who was born a hill pony on Dartmoor, uses her native intelligence to her advantage, and she understands very clearly what she needs to do for survival. She knows how to work with other horses and she knows what she wants. Her actions show an ability to visualise, an understanding of cause and effect, forward thinking, an ability to work things out and an ability to take both independent and collaborative action, which I think is pretty sophisticated cognitive behaviour for a formerly-feral animal.

It used to be thought that some attributes such as taking a visual perspective were limited to the human species, but animal behaviour pioneers such as Charlie Menzel conducted experiments that showed that many animals were much more intelligent than some in the scientific community wanted to admit.

In one experiment to test the mental abilities of chimpanzees, Menzel hid food, while watched by Panzee, a female chimp. Digging small holes in the ground, he hid packets of M&M sweets in the forest around the outside of her enclosure. Contained in her area, Panzee could not reach the hidden goodies. She needed to remember where the treats were hidden and wait until the morning to find someone to help her to unearth them. Her caretakers were not aware of the experiment so Panzee had to find a way to ‘tell them.’

In his illuminating book exploring animal intelligence Frans De Waal, explains that the caretakers had a ‘high opinion’ of the abilities of the chimpanzees and this, remarkably, was essential to the success of the experiment.

“All those recruited by Panzee said they were at first surprised by her behaviour but soon understood what she wanted them to do. By following her pointing, beckoning, panting and calling, they had no trouble finding the candies hidden in the forest. Without her instructions, they would never have known where to look. Panzee never pointed in the wrong direction, or to locations that had been used on previous occasions. The result was communications about a past event, present in the ape’s memory, to ignorant members of a different species. If the humans followed the instructions correctly and got closer to the food, Panzee would vigorously bob her head in affirmation (like Yes, Yes!), and like us, she’d lift her hand up, giving higher points, if the item was further away. She realized that she knew something that the other didn’t know, and was intelligent enough to recruit humans as willing slaves to obtain the goodies of her desire.”

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are. Franz De Waal 2016.

Bella recruited me one day. She met me at the gate and kept looking at me intensely as if she needed to tell me something. When I picked up on her focus, she started walking purposefully across the field, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to check that I was following. The other horses did not follow; this seemed to be something between Bella and me. I followed Bella from one side of the field to the other, and she kept checking to see that I was with her. When she reached to water trough, she dipped her nose into it once, and then looked round at me with a different expression, an almost puzzled look. Curious to see what the pony was pointing to, I went to have a closer look. The trough was empty.

I was still disbelieving what had just occurred as I called the farmer who let me know there was a water leak. The day before, he had turned off the mains and forgotten to turn it back on again. He came out immediately and the old trough filled up again.

My opinion of Bella rose that day. How impressively she had let me know what she knew and understood that she needed to show me so that I could take some action. When I shared this story with Jo, she said: ‘you took Bella seriously,’ and I realised that noticing the pony wanted to share something was key, just as it had been the key with Panzee’s caretakers. I might have discovered the empty trough anyway, but Bella was not going to leave it up to chance.

The big picture

5 01 2020

Another lifetime ago, I lived in London and most weeks I visited art galleries. Art was an important part of my emotional landscape, and I viewed my gallery visits as exciting adventures. I loved looking at tremendous works that had started as ideas, and through an impeccable commitment to a vision had grown into masterpieces. These great works were seemingly complete, but they still compelled me with their mystery.

One day I had an insight into the long and sometimes tedious process of working on a vast painting. An artist I met had been commissioned to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which itself had been copied several times, and had set up his studio in his North London flat. Each time I visited, he would talk me through his progress, which to my untutored eyes looked like nothing much. I wondered how he stood it, working on the same thing day after day: to me, it seemed about as rewarding as factory assembly work. Often painting by candlelight with the curtains drawn, the artist admitted it was a long labour of love. His whole world had become concentrated to the singularly devotional act of putting paint onto canvas.

I saw the painting near the finish, and I was stunned by its radiance, its glowing power, and the artist’s faithful commitment to the work. In those dark hours, he had wanted to walk away so many times, metaphorically hand back the commission so that he would not have to see it through, but something, a deeper determination, and dry humour kept him going. He remarked that as he was leaving the painting one evening, he swore that Jesus winked at him.

The start of the New Year is a good time to think about the next steps in the bigger picture. Now that my nourishing landscape takes the shape of Devon hills rather than the National Gallery or Royal Academy, I’m drawing inspiration and strength from my reading, most particularly Fred Kofman’s work: Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, a work I approached with the same keyed-up excitement I remember from studying philosophy of art.

Kofman’s work is both an invitation and a guide, and it is personal, insightful and tough. You can’t read it and not be changed on some level, which I know is a strong claim to make. Kofman puts it this way:

You know that there is more to work than making money. You know that it is possible to experience great joy as you engage in meaningful work of which you are proud; soulful work that confronts you with challenges and develops your skills; work that is aligned with your mission in life. This is work you enjoy doing for its own sake, work that provides you with significant material and spiritual rewards.

While you do this work, you feel fully absorbed. Time seems to stop and you enter into an extraordinary reality. Difficulties become creative challenges. You feel in control – not because you can guarantee the result, but because you trust yourself and know that you can respond skilfully. This is an ecstatic world that “stands outside” everyday dullness, a world that captures you so thoroughly you forget yourself. There’s a sense of flow, an experience of hard work performed with ease. Life seems to be living itself effortlessly, and everything that needs to get done gets done.

An Invitation to Conscious Business. Fred Kofman 2006.

As someone who hasn’t been able to properly get back to work yet because my desk is such a mess, there is so much in this short extract which fills my heart with hope, so much practical wisdom that inspires me to work with impeccable attention, so much insight that reminds me of the world beyond daily doing and dealing with ordinary demands. I see that taking one small step at a time, dipping my brush into new colours, but always stepping back to take in what is already present in the bigger picture is the way ahead.

Looking ahead

29 12 2019

Around ten years ago, I applied for a job. It was the ‘perfect’ part-time teaching post in a subject I loved at a secondary school with an outstanding reputation. As I prepared for the interview and sample lesson, I felt nervous anticipation as usual, but also a strong conviction that the job was already mine. I prepared a Year Nine lesson I had delivered dozens of times, tweaking it only slightly, knowing it would meet with approval and secure me the ‘perfect post.’ Of course, I failed to gain the job.

Never in my teaching career have I been so disappointed. I took the devastating news on my mobile in the field where I gone to check on the horses. The Deputy Head was apologetic as he delivered the blow; he knew how much I had wanted the job. I was clearly keen and capable, but in the end they had decided the other candidate was a ‘better fit.’

Not only did I want the job, I also needed the job, and time was not on my side. Crumpling at the thought of another round of preparation and rejection, I put my head in my hands and sobbed…and sobbed, and then just when I thought I couldn’t cry any more, I felt a presence. Drawn by my distress, Sheranni stood softly behind me and as I sobbed some more, he gently nuzzled the back of my neck. After another round of crying, I emerged from my storm of tears to see my horse looking at me with what seemed to be surprise. Teaching toughens you professionally and I was used to robust criticism and strict standards. Not getting a part-time post was nothing to cry about; his expression suggested that something else was going on under the surface.

In the days that followed as I reflected on the process, I realised I had projected so much onto this particular perfect combination of hours and distance, that I had failed to overlook the most important fact: I didn’t really want the job. Acknowledging my own contribution in my failure was still painful, but useful. It allowed me to examine why I had sabotaged my own efforts by not preparing properly and by not facing up to what I really needed to do.

A decade later, I’m still living with the consequences of that profound disappointment. The insights I gained that day in the field with Sheranni, started something: what I now see as a honest inventory of my career decisions and my dream of working with horses. In that watery moment of grief, the two came together and found me at my most undefended. Recognising that I needed to move in another direction, one where there was no map and no career guidance, I stopped looking for ‘perfect jobs’ and found I was offered two teaching posts that greatly facilitated my fledging career as a social entrepreneur. Along the way extraordinary connections were made – most importantly meeting Jo one New Year, and seeing with relief that she could ride a very sensitive Arabian – and other doors opened as people stepped forward with support that seemed miraculous at the time.

Looking back over the year, I see traces of that old disappointment glinting like shards of glass and still influencing my decisions: in not giving up on a grant application, which was turned down twice on a technicality; in working long hours knowing that I have never felt such profound job satisfaction; in knowing that whatever happens I’m surrounded by an incredible committed and talented team whom I love more each year; in knowing that every day I will face challenges that will strengthen me and, in spite of my fear and doubt, will show me the way forward to work with creativity and joy. I see how my disappointment seeded my purpose, and how I might so easily have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Still showing me the way: thanks to Jo for capturing this shared moment with Sheranni.

The gift of harmony

22 12 2019
Walking through the woods

Horses are drawn to harmony. Discord bothers them as I witnessed this week when the herd stopped what they were doing to focus on the sound of someone talking on their mobile phone as he walked down the lane next to their field. The tone of the phone conversation was impossible to ignore: a ferocious exchange consisting of four-letter expletives, fired one after the other. All four horses were on high alert.

Now I know that tempers can be short at this time of the year, and our horses are used to swearing; they live next door to farmers, whose choice of language can be colourful, but there was something about this incident that started me thinking about harmony. It seemed to me that the horses were alerted because something felt peculiar in that particularly charged conversation; it seemed to project even over a high hedge a certain force, and lack of balance that had an immediate ripple effect on five other beings, who became part of the exchange.

It was only when the man on the mobile had walked out of hearing range that the horses were able to resume eating their bale. For horses, returning to balance is an essential part of living in harmony, but it is not so instinctive for us humans, especially those with Christmas trains to catch or cars to park in crowded supermarket car-parks. Humans under pressure often resort to self-interested behaviour, and we justify it because we notice that everyone is really out for themselves, and we’d be a fool not to whip into the last space in the car park even though we’ve seen the person next to us has been waiting just that tiny bit longer. Small actions make up our daily lives, and it’s tempting to ignore what we would rather not acknowledge. Because we often gain from our blindness, it’s tempting to live life pretending we ‘didn’t see,’ or ‘didn’t notice,’ or ‘didn’t think.’

Horses are so interesting to observe because they have a talent for harmony. Mean looks, threats, and quarrels flare often, but are resolved in seconds, as each horse looks for a way to become settled and at ease. Expletives, grudges and long-running personal battles are unnecessary within a harmonious herd. Imagine if our lives were more like this?

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, a book of immense practical wisdom from which I have gleaned so much to inspire my teaching, believes it is possible for harmony to become our home base. This is not a utopian vision, even though it sounds like one.

“Imagine a world in which a critical mass of human brains – 100 million? a billion? More? – spend most if not all of each day in the responsive mode. Eventually there would come a tipping point, a qualitative alteration in the course of human history. People would still lock their doors at night, still reach for a profit, and still disagree and compete with one another. They would still need to be guided by values and virtues. But the ancient internal fires of fear, frustration and heartache would be banked low or extinguished for lack of fuel. Remember how you feel, yourself, when you are resting in a basic sense of peace, contentment and love. Remember what it’s like to be with others who are also rested in this state of being. Imagine what your family would be like, your workplace and your community, too.”

Imagine needing nothing except the gift of harmony. The horses show us the way.

Life on the edge

15 12 2019


Belinda at Beer 1

I have always been drawn to edgy places. Cliff tops, rocky promontories and river banks, inspire me and open my mind to new possibilities. My brother Stefan loved these places, too, and during his life found a form of freedom in living life on the edge. On a still, hot day this summer, we released his ashes from the cliff at Beer Head.

Ashes are not dignified; they fly wherever they want to fly, and on this hot August day, they did not fly across the sea as we had imagined. Each dipping fuelled the wind, which whipped the ashes into clouds that brought to mind tiny specks of birds amassing to migrate. Looking back over the photographs I took that day, etched into the sky was the smoky shape of my brother’s last flight.

That moment of release stayed with me for some time. Later after the ceremony, I went to see the horses and sat in the meadow for a long while, thinking of my brother and the conversations we had shared about death and dying. Stefan told me several times that he was not afraid of dying; in some ways he was almost looking forward to it, of finding out what lies at the ultimate edge. Before his final operation, one of more than thirty surgical procedures in his long struggle with Crohn’s disease, he joked in his usual edgy way that he might not come back this time. He survived the operation, but the strain of many infections and complications, including two serious episodes of sepsis weakened his heart and he finally lost his grip on life in July.

I reflected that day in the meadow that Life and Death are thoughts we can hold simultaneously. After releasing my brother to the cliff winds, I could climb to the top of another landscape and find there two horses who would purposefully come and stand on either side of me in silent support as I gathered myself for what would come next. I could feel the suffering of loss while felt I sustained.

Later in the year, I came across Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax and found a work that is such a gift of inspiration, I almost can’t believe it exists. The author, a social activist, medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, shares wisdom she has gained from working with people at the edge, including her many years running health clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas, time spent volunteering in a maximum-security prison and sitting at the bedsides of dying people.

“The education I have gained through these experiences – especially through my struggles and failures – has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties and ‘crises,’ might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive emergent and wise – as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”

I love this idea of living from the widest perspective possible. To live from this position takes courage and an edgy openness. My brother lived in pain for more than half his life and even though he would never have chosen to live with Crohn’s, the suffering he experienced sharpened his appreciation of life. When I look back over this year, it’s been a journey of intense loss and incredible gain and I know, thanks to my reading of Standing on the Edge, that I want to continue to investigate every bit of it.

Why am I living this way?

8 12 2019

horse eye

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

Sometimes when Jake comes to the farm he spends the first part of the session with his head under a blanket. His comments, delivered with precise comic timing, show us that he is participating. Often, there will come a point when Jake can’t resist joining in fully and he will lift the blanket, fix us with a piercing gaze, and share what is on his mind.

One time Jake wondered why his life had turned out that way it had. Genuinely perplexed, he asked why he had faced so much difficulty, pain and suffering when it wasn’t what he truly wanted.

It was a powerful moment when Jake, who has been institutionalised for most of his life, examined, possibly for the first time, the question that confronts most of us at some point in our lives: ‘why am I living this way?’

What promoted Jake’s existential question was a simple encounter with a Dartmoor pony named Rose. When Jake met Rose he saw himself from her perspective, and it shifted something in the way Jake saw himself. After the encounter he reflected:

‘When I went into the stable, I could see my face in her eyes…I looked at her big eyes and fell in love with her, I could have poured my heart out to her. My heart was with her. They’re beautiful, lovely creatures. I wondered how they feel inside, how they feel about people, so much unknown beauty.’

Jake’s experience was transcendental and put him in touch with something universal. For a brief moment, he forgot his suffering, his situation and his disappointment and he touched something deeper, something that felt like love. And the feeling of connection prompted him to wonder if his life could be different.

The question of why life is the way it is perplexes human beings so much because we have no choice but to ask the question from the point of view of the life we have. Blinkered as we all are by our circumstances, adopting a universal point of view does not come easily. Which is why when we have moments of profound insight, we see things as if we were a different person, a wiser, more elevated version of ourselves, perhaps the mature version we would like to be, but just can’t because we’re too caught up in being who we think we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be.

Every now and again, life takes us by surprise and reminds us of who we could be, and who we have perhaps always been, but have forgotten. This idea of waking up to who we are and remembering our true nature shines through Plato’s ideas and Buddhist teachings. These very ancient ideas have been examined through fresh eyes, and interesting connections have been made, and are still being made, for example in the growth of interest in mindfulness, in the fields of Western Psychology and Psychiatry.

More than twenty years ago a young American psychiatrist Howard C Cutler spent weeks shadowing the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour of Arizona and made frequent visits to the exiled Tibetan leader’s home in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Their intense and spirited conversations resulted in a book: The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living. Two decades on, the book remains illuminating because it is essentially a conversation between ancient ideas and contemporary Western science. Understandably, there are moments of incomprehension and incredulity on both sides, for example when Cutler discovers that there is no word for ‘guilt’ in Tibetan, and when the Dalai Lama has to patiently explain to the psychiatrist that sometimes there is no obvious reason why people act the way they do.

Reading the book again this week, I’m struck by the psychiatrist’s willingness to expose his own arrogance and shame and rationalist-driven agenda. I’m also struck by the clarity of the Dalai Lama’s thinking on deep philosophical questions, such as the true purpose of life, and his ideas on happiness which mirrors the thinking of Aristotle.

‘Now we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness and compassion bring happiness. I believe that every one of us has the basis to be happy, to access the warm and compassionate states of mind that bring happiness. In fact, it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying or human beings is gentleness.’

During another session with the horses, when Jake was playfully invited to choose an animal he related to, he chose to our amusement a crocodile. Like the blanket he chooses to sometimes hide under, he wore his crocodile skin for a while, but we were not convinced. We had seen that Jake’s true nature was much more gentle. Rose had simply reminded him of what he already knew.

Note: Names have been changed.

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