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.

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