Starting to stare more?

29 03 2020

Have you noticed that you are staring at people more often? On my outing to the supermarket yesterday, I sensed that social conventions on staring seemed suspended. Browsing the shelves at a distance, I saw people looking at me intently, and, of course, I was doing exactly the same. None of this staring seemed threatening, more of a relaxed: check this person out, focused looks replacing the usual, awkward British muttered ‘sorry,’ if I accidentally got too close. After a while, I found I began moving out of the way automatically and even anticipating when someone was about to appear in an aisle.

We know instinctively that staring at someone from behind can make them turn around and many of us have had the experience of thinking about someone only to have them text or call. African bush hunters are known to be able to communicate over vast distances, starting supper preparations back at the home fires, long before they appear with their haul of fresh meat. Could it be that in these socially estranged times, communicating from a distance is an ancient element of our human experience that is now usefully coming into play?

Being more in tune with their senses, animals make use of stares more frequently than we do. I’ll never forget the time Dragonfly stared at me as I left the yard, forgetting to let the ponies out of their stables. The intensity of his gaze stopped me in my tracks and gave me time to remember what I needed to do. If I spend too long on the laptop, Rosie will stare at me to let me know my time is up. No matter what time of day I arrive, the horses seem to know when I’m coming and will magically appear at the gate when I walk quietly down the track to their meadow. 

Deer and many other herd animals are extremely perceptive at reading intentions. In his illuminating book The Sense of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake shares examples from  hunters and wildlife photographers, who know to keep their eyes averted from the ones they intend to capture. One old and very stiff horse I knew gave his owner the run-around for years. It amused me to watch this horse change from sedentary old man to sprightly colt the minute he saw this person come to get him in. Apart from making his owner swear a lot, his other favourite game was to taunt Sheranni by dropping a single pony nut from his feed bowl into the deep groove in the grille separating his space and then step back and stare as the young horse tied his tongue in knots trying to reach it.

As a biologist, Sheldrake is interested in studying the idea of mind as an extension of the brain rather than being contained within it. His case studies exploring what he names ‘the seventh sense’ include a detailed study of a parrot who was recorded speaking 7,000 different sentences and who had an uncanny ability to know and name what his human was thinking and doing even when she was in another room. These studies make for fascinating reading, inspiring a broader view of animal nature and human nature.

“If the seventh sense is real, it points to a wider view of minds – a literally wider view in which minds stretch out into the world around bodies. And not just human bodies, but the bodies of non-human animals, too…our minds are extended into the world around us, linking us to everything we see.”

The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Rupert Sheldrake. (2003)

This intriguing idea of stretchy minds seems particularly relevant now as we prepare for weeks of living apart from most of the human race. It could be that our survival depends on realising that although we are physically separate we are linked in mind. That might sound scary to some, imagining the thought police hovering over your car as you idly consider making a non-essential journey. Reassuringly, Sheldrake reminds us that most seventh sense conversations are between people who are already close.

With many people now living with a cat or dog for company, conversations between humans and animals have never been more important. The daily dog walk is no longer routine, but a focal point of the day. I know that I’m anticipating my daily walks with an excitement that is eagerly shared. Animals must live with our moods, whether it’s joy, fear or sadness. They read our emotions with a sensitivity that can remind us to soften our sorely worried hearts. None of us know what will happen next in our human world, but knowing our animals are safely by our side is especially comforting at this time. 


Surprise! Captured during a group session last summer: the very moment I shared my feelings of appreciation for my horse, he arrived from the far end of the field as if I’d called him.

This extended pause

22 03 2020

The old safety net has gone and we are in free fall. When I forget my fear of heights (and remember to breathe…), the new view is exhilarating. Clean skies, clear beaches, quiet roads; the pulse of bird-song, wind-song, spring-song. The world is singing and I almost can’t bear it because it may not be long enough for us to hear it out and learn the lessons of this time.

We want the old noise back because we’re human and desire security, which for many of us (me included) means predictability. We keep calm, carry on, follow advice in the hope that one day things will get back to normal. In reality, the view from here is wide open. While those on the NHS frontline deal with the casualties, we wait in relative safety. There is nothing we can do except receive this extended pause.

If we will allow enough breathing space, we will see this pause as an opportunity to reset the imbalances in our ordinary routines, stretch into more open, less hurried, ways of being. We can learn from our animals who know nothing of daily news-feeds, panic-buying or social distancing.

We can find new encounters in the realm of the familiar. The scent and touch of horse is wondrously reassuring. I struggle to describe its peculiar intensity. Mushrooms on toast? Wood-smoked velvet? Fresh popcorn? There is equal delight at being welcomed into a herd that recognises you as a fellow feeling being, a sense of coming back to ground and returning home.

Naturally, our work will be changing to reflect the new times. Like many people who run small businesses, I’ve felt fragile as I think of the months ahead and what it means for our company and our community. But I’ve also felt a new shift in thinking around how we might do our best work in spite of the insecurity. In the brief space of a week, I’m sensing new possibilities, small green shoots, seedling ideas shyly appearing amid the creative challenges of keeping things going. In spite of everything, I’ve dared to feel hopeful.

I’ve also been inspired by poems and podcasts, by conversations with family, friends and colleagues, by simple acts of unselfish love. My reading this week has included The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, choosen because the sub-title leapt at me from my bookshelves: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

“At times almost all of us envy the animals. They suffer and die, but they do not seem to make a ‘problem’ of it. Their lives seem to have so few complications. They eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, and instinct rather than anxiety seems to govern their few preparations for the future. As far as we can judge, every animal is so busy with what he is doing at the moment that it never enters his head to ask whether life has a meaning or a future. For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate present – not in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.”

Alan Watts. The Wisdom of Insecurity. (First published 1951 Pantheon Books)

Being with the horses at the moment, it is tempting to envy their complete lack of awareness of the human crisis and feel even more isolated in fear, but I think the message I want to take from Alan Watts is the simple and timeless truth: pay attention to what is happening in the immediate present, and make that, fiercely and only that, my concern.

Women’s work

8 03 2020
Team spirit: Wendy, Jo, Belinda, Lindsey

For years, I worked in male-dominated professions where the atmosphere was often punishing. My Saturday nights were spent staring at a screen in an office with no windows. In between bursts of keyboard activity, I made trips to the nurse for paracetamol. One night she refused to give me my dose, saying I had taken enough. Snippily, I asked her how I was supposed to get through my shift. I had seven stories to write before the paper went to press. She sent me away without pills or pity.

I was in my element: a young journalist with a notebook filled with interviews, which I simply needed to work into acceptable news stories for a national newspaper. I worked hard, had little social life, but I was paid well and worked with incredibly committed and talented colleagues. Anxiety, stress-headaches and exhaustion were simply the price for working in a profession I knew was going to push me to the very limits of my capacity.

Two images from that intense time have stayed with me: the first is of a young man, one of the most talented of the team, counselling me on my anxiety by sharing that when he first started in this news-room, he regularly threw up before conferences. The second: another young man, lifting his head from his keyboard to share that he had been too exhausted to go home, and so had decided to sleep at his desk.

At the time I thought there had to be another way to get the best from people, but I was too junior to do anything about it. Nevertheless, those scenes burned into my mind when I began to think about creating a different kind of professional culture. What I longed for was a working environment where everyone had an opportunity to thrive; where work itself was the way to flourish. I carried this vision in my mind, and continued working at jobs where competitiveness, shaming and rigid thinking were the norm.

Today, my working life is enriched by colleagues, both men and women, but the core of our organisation just happens to be a group of wonderful women. Jo, Lindsey and Wendy are talented, wise and so wholly committed to making our social enterprise a success, it warms my heart. The energy from our connection with each other and with the horses is the solid fuel that fires us to keep working from the heart.

A visitor remarked not long ago that he was impressed at the professionalism of our team. On that day, we just happened to have had a morning melt-down, a late finish and an early arrival, but we worked around it. His observation made me appreciate how everyone on the team responds so intuitively when events don’t go to plan. We are nimble when we need to rebalance. We don’t have heavy meetings. We drink a lot of tea, check in when we need to and focus on doing our best possible work.

From our light-touch approach something wonderful has emerged. On days when we fully and wholeheartedly show up without worrying about the car that won’t start, the torrential rain, the last-minute change in participants, the work flows and seems to find its own level without us having to push ourselves to exhaustion.

On International Women’s Day, I want to wholeheartedly and proudly thank Jo, Lindsey, Wendy and all our wonderful women colleagues and partners in the NHS and other organisations (you know who you are!) for working in a way that honours the human spirit. Heart-felt actions are not always appreciated, and many women long to do more work that inspires them rather than enslaves their souls. We undoubtedly face more challenges ahead, but we know how we want to face them. We know that when women look out for each other we are all stronger for it.

How not to make things happen

1 03 2020

It always fascinates me when people first arrive at the farm. They way they get out of the vehicle reveals a lot about their state of mind. These young people had travelled with their teachers from a Community College in Cornwall. They were curious, shy and a little anxious as they clung to the sides of the minibus, changing from clean trainers into boots and outdoor shoes. On hearing the rule for working safely with horses was to watch their feet, they all glanced down. When invited to move more slowly than they were used to, and to be quiet around the horses, they instantly dropped their natural temptation to banter, and spent the entire two-hour session in near silence.

Now anyone who has worked in a school knows that the classroom is a vacuum of noise. We just don’t expect young people to be quiet. As I led our new visitors to meet the horses I was surprised at their immaculate behaviour, following every instruction like model students. Glancing at each other, their eyes were alive with intrigue as we walked across the paddock and stood watching the horses. As we entered and began working, it was almost as if these young people were ambassadors for consideration, courtesy and composure. Particularly interesting was that this group had been referred because some were at risk of exclusion for challenging behaviour.

It could have been the effect of taking them out of school and bringing them to the farm; it could have been the effect of removing them from an audience of peers; it could have been that they were learning in a very small, select group, or many other contributing factors but I watched something emerge that had little to do with the environment and everything to do with the way these young people were showing up in that moment. Without even trying, they were giving each task their total concentration and effort. In opening up to try something they had never experienced before, they forgot who they were supposed to ‘be.’ Instead, they allowed themselves to connect and learn how to influence a horse with the most subtle of signals. It was a joy to witness.

Their comments after the session were reflective, insightful and inspired. One boy said: ‘When I calm down, things can actually happen. I don’t have to make it happen, it can happen all by itself.’

When coached on leaving some slack in the rope to get a better feel between him and the horse, another boy commented: ‘It’s like that with people, if you give them a bit of slack.’

On the surface, it looked like nothing much was happening. We were showing these students how to handle and lead a horse and get a nice, flowing feel between them. We had created a container for their curiosity to emerge. We didn’t have to try very hard at all to ‘make’ these students see the links between how they were being with the horse and how they were behaving at school or with other people. With honesty, courage and commitment, they filled in that gap by themselves.

Since that session, I’ve thought about how often, especially in my early days as a teacher, I dreaded certain classes. Not even whole classes, usually individuals who pushed my buttons. I let them because I didn’t know any better. I thought I had to ‘make’ my young pupils behave and if they didn’t, I was a failure as a teacher. Now I would love to have that time again and be able to see my ‘misbehaving’ pupils understand how acting with composure, consideration and courtesy is their natural state, and the other ‘behavioural stuff,’ is just noise blocking out the quietness all young people secretly seek. Knowing I didn’t have to make them do anything, knowing that I could just allow them to be who are they are, would truly melt my heart.

Evie and Rose are pretty laid-back teachers while Jeff is the master of ‘less is more,’

On laughter

23 02 2020

As many people who have visited us know, we love to laugh in our work. It’s not something, we consciously plan for. The way we are with our horses gives them the freedom to make choices, which often results in hilarity. If you think that a very intelligent horse is going to take you seriously just because you have two legs instead of four, you will be surprised and outwitted, over and over again.

There are many different ways to understand animals, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being with horses is their incredible curiosity about the human species. I often think that if you looked like a unicorn with sculpted features, elegant limbs, dreamy eyes and flowing mane and tail, why would you bother with slow-moving, boggle-eyed, clobber-clothed people? What could they possibly offer you except regular fodder?

It remains remarkable to me that in spite of our human tendency to lumber about like the apes we are, we can offer a horse a meaningful connection. When we extend an invitation to the horse to join us in something that truly matters to us, they will choose to join in. For example, a group of guests seated in quiet meditation often proves irresistible to our horses and ponies. Even though they are free to eat grass and wander, invariably they will come and be with us, selecting to stand and quietly breathe with someone they have never met before. Why they should choose to do this remains an exquisite mystery to me, but when I witness it, I am always moved to tears.

It is not simply the quiet life they seek. Our horses are also moved by laughter. Often, if Jo and I are laughing uproariously about something, one of the horses will come over to investigate. It amuses me to think that maybe the horses really do share our signature sense of humour, as extended family members who have grown up in a particular shared culture, which includes regularly laughing together.

Laughter is perhaps more important than we think. Psychology Professor and author Dacher Keltner makes an intriguing case for laughter as vital for social harmony in his book Born to be Good. I know I always feel lifted after a bucket of tea in the shed with my fiercely, funny friends who laugh long, hard and true. Sharing my sorrows and disappointments inevitably means laughing at my own tendency to get caught up in my woes. Sometimes the worst, most awful things that have happened to me have generated the biggest laughs months or years later. Keltner’s deeply fascinating enquiry about the impact of laughter, based on longitudinal studies of bereaved participants, elevates it even further.

“A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition.”

Born to be Good. The Science of a Meanginful Life. Dacher Keltner (2009)

I love this idea of laughter as piercing wisdom, as another form of knowing. And I also love the intense creative energy that is generated when a group of people work with humour and goodwill on something new and untested. Instead of striving to pin down new ideas on charts, notes and sheets, allowing time for the freefall and counter-play of light-hearted ideas is the way to make magic happen. It’s certainly a lot more fun. We often say that our best business ideas pop into our minds when we’re grooming or taking the horses out for a walk.

The liberating effect of laughter cannot be underestimated. I don’t think Keltner is being provocative when he says ‘laughter may just be the first step to nirvana.’ The original meaning of the word nirvana means ‘to blow out,’ which makes Keltner wonder whether the term means not only blowing out the flames of self-interest, but also having a good exhale, blow-out, belly-laugh.

“When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state, incapable of flight or fight. People see their lives from a different point of view, with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds, through the firing of networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play.”

This makes me see why our laughter feels so good to our horses, who are naturally drawn to living peacefully. When they’re relaxed, they frequently enjoy a good blow-out, too, and are often quite playful afterwards. Laughter, I’ve learned, is older than speech and is part of a repertoire of emotions forming a universal social language. Chimps laugh, rats squeak with joy when their tummies are tickled, and horses just wait for humans to get serious.

And begin

16 02 2020

Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us what is important. Getting through any storm takes immense energy, whether it is a storm of wind and wild rain or a mind storm of disappointment and depression. Storms stop us in our tracks and make us notice our every move. Coming back from the yard along lanes running with deep red pools, I noticed my instinct to flinch as I drove under a low hanging branch.

Our horses understand how to weather storms by conserving energy. When the wind whips across the fields, they find a hedge and hunker down, heads low, hooves cocked, ready to sit it out for as long as it takes. Arabians are known for their flighty spirit. Poetically described as Drinkers of the Wind, a strong breeze often intoxicates them, inspiring balletic displays. But they behave differently in serious storms. They know when to play and when to keep their heads down.

Witnessing them in this place of quiet, I often wonder what happens to their minds. Normally sharp and intelligent, where do they go? Is there some place of deep mental tranquillity the horses enter when the storm is raging at full intensity?

My reading this week includes a series of beautiful essays based on informal talks on Zen meditation and practice by Shunryu Suzuki. Aptly, the book begins with some thoughts on the beginner’s mind and recognizes how difficult it is for us to retain a beginner’s mind when we have reached a certain level of mastery in any discipline.

I know in my own teaching, there is at times this lazy tendency to assume the role of the expert so that I can give my students what I think they need to learn. When I remember that I am a beginner, too, that this lesson I’m about to teach is as new and fresh for me as it is for my students, my teaching miraculously improves.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centred thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki (2011)

This little gem of a book contains immense ideas, such as the idea of ‘original mind,’ the mind we share with all living beings. This vast mind is rich and sufficient within itself. It requires no input from us. Nothing at all. Not a single thought, not a single idea, not a single reason. This powerful idea is so forceful it truly stops me in my tracks when I’m busy thinking, thinking, thinking about the next thing.

Could it be that the deep, quiet mind I see the horses rest within is beginner’s mind? Could it be that their absence of self is why we are so drawn to them as sources of wisdom? Could it be that their effortless ability to know what is required without over-thinking is why it feels so good to be in their presence?

When I reflect on what horses have to offer us humans, a recent encounter comes to mind. The first is a feeling of pain in my right shoulder, a burning pain I have every winter probably from pushing wheelbarrows through soft, heavy clay. The second is a feeling of warmth and deep breath on this shoulder, just at the most sore place. Evie is resting her nose near my arm and the feeling of trust and relaxation is making me pay attention to her breath. I join my breath with hers. In that moment, the pain lifts.

The storms have cleared, the pain of illness has melted into wellness again. The fields will dry eventually. The soft mud will harden. The horses will lie down to sleep in the sun. Everything new is beginning.

Sheranni finishes his day at work, still fresh and ready for the next moment. There’s nothing much on his mind. He needs nothing, not even a halter. Why carry anything, when you have a willing human to do that for you?

On being late

26 01 2020

Horses make me late. They sometimes make me late for work, where on arrival I rush to a discreet space to brush hay from my hair, clean my mud-stained-hands and slip on a clean jacket. On really late days, I forget my shoes.

Last week the horses made me late twice. The first time, after feeding, picking out hooves and clearing the mats around their hay tyre, I climbed into my truck and headed off to teach a morning of philosophy. It was a beautiful frosty morning and all I could think about as I drove in my wellies was whether I really did have a spare pair of shoes in the back.

Thinking I might have to teach in my socks, I was relieved to find the shoes squashed under a camping chair and a horse rug. My day continued until I was late for another class because I had to wait for my students outside the drama studio, where I sometimes teach, to redirect them to another room. Some of the students were late to my lesson because they had been held up by the previous lesson.

My second late episode happened a few days later when I left the yard with just 15 minutes to cross town to reach a meeting at a primary school. In my anxiety to make the meeting on time, I missed the turning to the school and had to U-turn. Again, I was fretting because I thought I would not have time to change out of my muddy boots and waterproofs. I did change outside my car and then because I was unsettled, I went to the wrong school gate. By the time I cleared the school security, I saw that all the other meeting attendees were inside waiting for me. I was precisely seven minutes late to this meeting and I apologised, saying in explanation that I had ‘been with the horses.’

And so it goes, the horses ‘making’ me perpetually late. Sheranni made me miss a train to London once because he wouldn’t go back into his field fast enough. I was convinced he was playing with me as he slowly sauntered down the lane, oblivious of my need for him to hurry. That was hard to forgive.

My reading this week has inspired me to think differently about my lateness. Instead of looking to blame the horses for not getting me to my class on time, as if the horses really could be responsible for what is clearly my own failure to prepare or think ahead, I’m looking at response-ability.

“I define response-ability as the ability to choose one’s response to a situation. It’s about focusing on the aspects of reality that you can influence, instead of being victimized by circumstances that you cannot. It’s about being the main character of your own life. Instead of asking, ‘why is this happening to me?’ a person who is response-able asks, ‘what can I do when this happens? Response-ability means you don’t take anything personally. It doesn’t rain on you; it just rains, period. Instead of blaming the rain, you carry an umbrella to stay dry when it rains. And if you get wet, you know it’s because you didn’t bring an umbrella, because you were not prepared.”

The Meaning Revolution. Leading with the Power of Purpose. Fred Kofman 2018

Of course, blaming the horses is simply an excuse for lateness; my own version of forgetting to bring an umbrella when it rains (which I frequently do) and my excuse is sloppy. My excuse is embarrassing because each time I’m late, I’m looking for a way to duck responsibility for not being on time. The horses are ever-present in my life and I take my responsibilities for their welfare very seriously. Reading Fred Kofman, is making me wonder why I’m so selective about certain responsibilities. Could I be more response-able instead?

In his book, Fred Kofman goes into the lateness thing in some detail. You might think that it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t be annoyed with a friend for keeping me waiting because I know I have kept others waiting, but I also know how delighted and impressed I am when someone shows up on time for a meeting with me. I also know that when I reach work or a meeting without rushing, I feel better in myself. I feel that I am the main character in my own life. Knowing this won’t stop me being late. There may still be times when I am held up in roadworks or stalled in a flood, but my explanations for my lateness won’t be blaming the roadworks or the flood.

Spending time with horses never makes me late.

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