Monday, July 28, 2008

Horsemanship and Mindfulness practice

by Sangha member Tamasine Smith,

Horsemanship practice and mindfulness practice, while it may be possible to separate them on paper and for the purpose of discussion, they become in-separable when put into actual practice.
When I was asked to write this I thought that it would be easy, however, when I sat down to write, it was much more challenging. When asked to describe one I find that the other is automatically there - I guess horsemanship is mindfulness in action as opposed to sitting practice. Suddenly “sitting is just sitting”, “reading is just reading” made more sense.

When I started studying horsemanship I heard a lot of phrases like “it is more about who we need to be (for the horse) than the method of training”, that we might need to be “many different people in one training session” in order to help a horse and that we would need to change from moment to moment. I also heard that we need to be “in the moment” because that is the only place that the horse resides - he does not live in the past or worry about the future, he is only intent on the here and now.

Teachers explained that “horses are our mirrors” and that the emotions they bring up in us when we work with them reflect us. At first this did not make a lot of sense, but over time, in particular once I started teaching, I noticed that when someone is ineffective and lacks leadership - the horse pushes them around and takes over because it does not know where it stands, if someone is too busy around a horse and can’t be still their horse tends also to be full of energy, maybe even a bit scared and erratic and if someone can’t pay attention theirs is the horse that is unfocused.

My teachers also spoke about compassion and how it is important when working with a horse to “ask and allow” not “demand and make” and that when compassion is not fuzzy and ill defined but firm and effective. Just be-ing “nice” does not get us anywhere, the leadership required must be reliable and consistent without buying into anger and frustration or getting emotive. I also learnt that we are human and that those kind of emotions do arise, often more frequently in our early practice, and that when they do, we should “let them go”. I was taught to become “aware of them” and attempt not to buy into them. It was made clear that such emotions are “OK” it is acting on them that can do harm to ourselves and our horses. I also heard how we should not beat up on ourselves if we have made a mistake - because “there are no mistakes - just opportunities to learn”.

Just as with Zen practice though, until I “did” rather than just “studied” horse-manship, I did not really “know” these things and once I had enough knowl-edge and experience to start teaching, things became even clearer. My hu-man teachers were (are) still wonderful and continue to guide me, but the greatest teachers have been the “horses” because they have given me direct experience. They showed me these things in practice and they showed me how mindfulness really is. They never miss anything.

I watch new students learning and it is very difficult. Often what they face in themselves is hard and it is easier to give up and return to old habits than create new ones. Often, when I am with a horse there is nothing else, we are at one and there is no beginning and no end. I have no idea how to explain it - there are no words that make sense of it - it just is. When I first attended the Centre in Robertson I was asked how do I know what “sweet” tastes like? We have to actually taste it and when we do, we just know. It often works like this with horsemanship - when we “taste it” we just know.

I was recently re-reading the stories about the students who wanted to attain Kensho in “The Three Pillars of Zen”... The writers all describe how they want it, that they must get it at all costs and that they will strive for it... The way they describe it and their journey to it is very similar to what happens to students of horsemanship.
“Feel” is the horseman’s “Kensho”. We wish to attain this “feel” and have it for ourselves. We understand that the only way to work with a horse is with feel but when we start out we don’t “know” exactly what it is. We have a theoretical idea of course, we can read about it and listen to lectures on it - but everyone’s individual experience, even when they “get it” will be different. No two people’s feel is exactly the same.
Students start to ask things like what is feel and how do we get it? How do we know when we have got it?! Students search for it, strive for it, work hard at it, get stressed about it, get frustrated for it, demand it, try for it... yet when they let that go and have a softness about them, when they let go of the reins and old habits, when they trust that it will happen and let go of their rigidity of trying - it appears. It’s the “ah ha moment”. When it happens there is the most amazing feeling of clarity and “knowing” - but often it is gone in a flash because the student tries to grasp onto it and the old rigidity comes back. However, once glimpsed, they know it is there. The trying harder, the getting rigid again is all just part of the journey. This is nothing to worry about though, because as one trainer puts it “It often gets darker before it gets dawn!
With horsemanship it can be frustrating for the student receiving instruction because things change from moment to moment. In one instance they are being asked to do one thing and in the very next, something completely dif-ferent and maybe the opposite! Horsemanship is the essence of change! When this is accepted and the student goes with it rather than trying to hold on to the past (even if that was a microsecond ago) then everything starts to flow.

The more I attend the Dharma centre, the more these themes come up and I could as easily be in a horsemanship lesson as in the Dharma Hall - in fact they are the same thing. There is a thread that joins the practice to the horsemanship and the horsemanship to the practice and they can not be separated.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Upcoming Kido Chanting Retreat

Chanting is a dynamic and energizing practice that is commonly used and form part of many religious and spiritual traditions. In chanting meditation we try to keep a not-moving mind – cutting off all thinking and just perceiving the sound of our own voice and that of others. With regular chanting, our sense of being centered gets stronger and stronger. When we are strongly centered, we can control our feelings and emotions, and thus the way we live our lives. Chanting meditation is a medicine to aid us in living a focused, centered and clear life – ultimately freeing us from the attachment to illusions and further suffering.

During this retreat we will practice at the Dharma Centre until after breakfast and work period when we will drive into the mountains to LongValley Farm - the home of Natural Horsemanship in South Africa. Here we will do two hours of continuous chanting - returning to the Dharma Center for lunch and a period of rest, followed by another two hours chanting in the mountains. Supper and evening practice will be at the Dharma Centre and will include more chanting. This routine will be repeated until lunchtime on Sunday.

In addition to bringing warm clothing, footwear, beanies, and neck scarves, participants are encouraged to bring percussion instruments to use during the chanting sessions. For those not used extended periods of chanting some throat lozenges might be advisable.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

MAIA in Helderstroom Prison

On Monday the 30th of June, we presented the third one-day module of the MAIA Program - Mindful Awareness in Action at Helderstroom Maximum Prison. The workshop was attended by 39 participants, all incarcerated for serious/violent crime.
During the first module participants were left with the question - WHO AM I? as homework for the next session. It is exactly this question, their understanding and interpretation of it that once again reminded us of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s repeated admonishment: “Try, try, try for 10,000 years nonstop!”
Some participants felt threatened by this question and thought it pertained to details of their crime, or perhaps even involvement in the Numbers gangs – prevalent in most correctional facilities. Once this misperception was dealt with, and they were given some guidance as to how to approach the question they were left to explore it in whichever way they felt most comfortable.
In most cases, participants gave details of their name, place and date of birth and levels of education or lack thereof. They also mentioned likes and dislikes with regards to music, food and clothing. One participant simply said that he could not write anything about who he was, as that would be a lie - because he really did not know!
The question “Who am I?” is truly inexhaustible and it’s underlying meaning cannot easily be transmitted and attained after only two sessions of Mindful Awareness instruction and working with I, ME and MINE! Hence Ven. Seungh Sahn’s encouragement “Try, try, try for 10,000 years nonstop!”
During the second module participants were again left with a question as homework. This time: “if you could give anyone a gift, what would it be and who would be the recipient of this gift?”
95% of the participants approached this question from a purely materialistic perspective and mostly said they would give ‘this gift’ to their mother in acknowledgment of her gift of life, as well as her ongoing suffering as a result of their incarceration. A few participants approached this question from the perspective of their personal lack of education and said they would give themselves the gift of a higher level of education, as they truly believed that their crime/ incarceration is as a direct result of their lack of or low level of education.
The emphasis of the first three modules of the MAIA program is to introduce participants to the concept of moment to moment awareness or present time awareness and working with ‘I’, ‘ME’, ‘MINE’ versus ‘i’, ‘me’, ‘mine’ using various forms of meditation to facilitate this process: i.e. Sitting and walking meditation, listening and pausing meditation, breathing and eating meditation etc.
Bringing attention to eating meditation elicited lively discussion and detailed descriptions of the smell and color of food they eat on a daily basis. “We eat as quickly as possible to get it over as quickly as possible,” was the common thread of this interaction.

A teaching from - S. N. Goenka, The Art of Living called: JUDGEMENT, concluded this session and set them on their way (hopefully!) to approach their meal times with a different mindset:
“A sensation appears, then liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind. We become caught up in the emotion, and all our better judgment is swept aside. The result is that we find ourselves engaged in unwholesome speech and action, harming ourselves and others. We create misery for ourselves, suffering now and in the future, because of one moment of blind reaction.
But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins--that is, if we are aware of the sensation--we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or to intensify . . . in those moments the mind is free.
Perhaps at first these may be only a few moments in a meditation period, and the rest of the time the mind remains submerged in the old habit of reaction to sensations, the old round of craving, aversion, and misery. But with repeated practice those few brief moments will become seconds, will become minutes, until finally the old habit of reaction is broken, and the mind remains continuously at peace. This is how suffering can be stopped.”
In July, during a two-day module, we will begin to explore the levels of consciousness – intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual in an attempt to make available some tools and processes to further explore the question: “WHO AM I?”