More Than the Mind

It was late afternoon, the sun cast a deep yellow film across the dry hillside. Something compelled me to go check on the horses. I spotted Lottie, the small pinto mare, and right away saw something was wrong. As I approached her, I grew increasingly alarmed, as I noticed large lumps covering her entire body. I ran my hands across her coat and realized the welts were bloody and raw. Fear and panic began to course through my body. I had never seen anything like this. It looked dreadfully painful. She was standing listlessly, her head bowed toward the ground. I could not tell if the bloody lumps were a result of wounds inflicted externally or lesions that had developed from the inside. The extent of her malady was so massive that it was overwhelming. Here was an animal in my care who had somehow developed an extreme, likely lethal, condition and I had no idea when or how it had happened, or what I could do to help her or make it better. I loved this horse. I began to feel dizzy with the alarm and the gravity of the situation.

I do not recall thinking or considering my options. I led the horse to a nearby garbage bin and I placed her gently inside of it and closed the lid.

Some amount of time passed, I do not know what I did to fill that time, but I know that I was not forgetting about Lottie. The pressure of the anxiety over her situation was crushing me. I realized that all I wanted to do was to save her. I thought to myself, “what a stupid way to have dealt with her problem! She is not going to heal in that garbage bin.”

I raced to the bin and opened the lid. She was still alive. She seemed more listless than before, slow to respond, but thankfully, still alive. I eased her out of the bin and stood her up in what was now the cool air of the evening. I began to reconsider my options. What could I do to make her better?

 

Then I woke up from the dream. My impulse was to run outside and check on Lottie. I recognized that it was only a dream, but I needed to satisfy some part of myself that wanted to be absolutely sure this situation was not real. In the early morning stillness, there Lottie stood with the rest of the herd, halfheartedly swishing her tail at the flies, and raising her head along with the others at the sight of me, anxious for hay.

I did feel a wave of relief in that moment. It wasn’t real. But underneath of that momentary relief was a brewing surge of anxiety. Something about the dream was real. What was it? What did it mean? What did I need to be aware of or look out for?

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How do I deal with issues and challenges that are enormous, complicated, and new?

What is my body’s first response? How does my mind contribute to trying to find a solution or resolution?

When a dilemma feels really huge, or when I am facing intense confrontation, it consumes my entire body. I feel like my system from my throat down through my gut is being squeezed to the point of unbearable pressure. Often I feel like I will lose bladder control.  If I do not consciously focus on my body becoming grounded, on my breathing staying full and regulated, I leave my body and in that dissociated state, I feel like I have no power, no choice at all.

Next, my mind will begin to clamp down and instead of helping to open up options, it tells me to give up, to run away. My mind reverts to an old recording of attacks against myself, such as, “You are a bad person,” “You are incompetent,” “You are ugly and unlovable,” “You should just give up and die.”

My spirit is not at peace with giving up and dying. I have been in an ongoing cycle of self-defeat and resurrection, thanks to the force of my own spirit and will to go on and try again. The spirit knows there is much to do in this life, and it is the dark horse in this race who keeps coming from behind to prevail, despite a lack of training and nurturing on my part.

For much of my life, I believed my mind. I allowed it to step in and defeat me in the face of battle. Even when I tried to overcome the destructive thinking, it would be another part of my mind that would step in and try to fight. To fight the mind with the mind was not enough.

What I know now is that my spirit is my fuel, my force of will, and my body is a powerful asset. The more I practice using it in new ways in the face of adversity, the more I realize my own strength, competence and beauty as a human animal.

 

Working with horses allows for daily practice in using the body before the mind. When I need to halter a horse who resists and backs away, I check in with my thoughts. If I entered the stall or the paddock with thoughts like, “I need to take you out to the farrier quickly,” or “My plan is to work with you right now,” chances are that my mind was overrunning my body’s ability to connect with the horse and invite the horse to participate in an activity. No one, including a horse, likes to be told what to do and when without an invitation or established trust.

If I find that I am stuck in my mental mode, I exit and reset my breathing, relax my muscles, and pry open my mind to the fact that my body will be the one doing the work. I can then re-enter, get close to the horse, sync up my breathing, move backwards and forwards with him, relate to his mood and energy level, and invite him into the halter and then the activity.

 

Acknowledging the success of that practice does not mean I can always succeed in my efforts, it means I ought to keep practicing, always finding new subtleties in the ways in which I can use my own body to both calm myself down and be open to others’ opinions and experiences. If I find myself facing another person who is in some way uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, upset or all of those at once, I ask myself how can I use my body to help keep the mind as well as the emotions from taking control of us both?

To date, I am still quite new at this practice. I find that my habitual mental response jumps in when I am first confronted or when I let myself forget to stay present with my body and I begin to dwell on the issues. I equate that habitual response to being as ineffective as putting a sick or injured horse in a garbage bin to recover. My intent in the dream was not to throw her away, it was the first thing I could think of to do in order to help her heal. The problem is, it was the opposite of helpful and healing, just like the way my mind tries to get me to run away, attack myself, and accept defeat or surrender. That is simply the first thing it can think of, but it is not the only choice. Fortunately, I usually have time to reset my body and mind together, and pull myself out of the bin to try again in a new way.

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