Welcome to my classroom …
When I first heard about Wu Wei* (the Taoist practice of “non-doing”) my immediate reaction was “Do nothing? Are you kidding me?”
It came up as an exercise we FEEL (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning) program participants are to incorporate into our regular routine with the horses. Let me explain.
Being more in tune with the needs of my horse and understanding the context of choice in his life requires mindfulness on my part. People say that animals are dumb, but based on my experience I don’t believe this for a second. Horses know the difference between a hand that hurts and a hand that heals. They know from the moment someone appears on the horizon if their intentions are fair or foul. They read our body language all the time and respond accordingly. So, it’s up to us to be mindful of how we interact with these beautiful beings. It can literally make, or break, the relationship.
If we want to know what kind of an impact the environment is having on a horse’s frame of mind it’s really simple ~ read the horse’s body language. For instance, if you look at the image above, Bear’s relaxed stance, floppy ears, semi-closed eyes and level head tell us that in that moment he’s happy just chillin’. ;-)
There’s more to it than that, naturally, and perhaps I’ll write more of it at another time, but the bottom line is horses respond to whatever energy is present in the moment.
Part of the curriculum of the FEEL program is learning to understand energy ~ how it works; how it connects us; how it heals; how it can hurt. One way or the other it’s all a matter of intention. Intuitive impulses, when we are in touch with them, can alert us to trouble and allow us to make the choice to move away or put up a fight. As prey animals horses are imbued with this instinct. They sense danger even when they can’t see or hear it, and will respond appropriately to survive.
This is what makes them such valuable teachers in the human pursuit of self-discovery. Since horses can only ever reflect the truth around them they are the perfect mirrors for helping us to see who we are.
For some people, naturally, this is an uncomfortable prospect. For others it offers a marvellous healing and personal growth opportunity.
For instance, how a horse reacts to two different people depends entirely on the energy each person brings to the relationship. As an equestrian coach it always botheedr me when one student would say to another: “You won’t like Mouse, she’s mean/won’t canter/ is really hard to ride,” etc. Or, conversely, “You’ll love Mouse, she’s so sweet/has a brilliant canter/is lovely to ride.”
The fact is, Mouse will respond to each rider differently based on whatever energy they carry around with them. For instance, Mouse may perform well under the gentle and confident leadership of a rider with a quiet hand and light, effective leg aid, but become resistant and anxious with another, more fearful, less educated rider who kicks mercilessly and pulls on the rein at the same time, sending the poor horse mixed messages. The riders’ experiences with the horse will be much different based on what they bring to the equation. The horse can only respond according to the information she’s receiving. Perhaps the most that can be said about Mouse is that her response to each rider is totally honest.
Still, I’m getting a little side tracked here. I’m merely attempting to show that the energy we emit is inevitably what comes back to us.
Understanding this and other truths of emotional energy is teaching me to honour the privilege of having the trust of a 1,200 lb prey animal like Bear.
So, what about Wu Wei?
Loosely translated Wu Wei is the art of “non-doing” or “non-action.”
“In our culture,” as author and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov, writes in her book The Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self-Discovery, ” … those who work more, buy more, try harder, and seem busier are the ones we’re taught to admire and emulate. The art of not striving has been lost, and we’re suffering from a host of stress-related illnesses as a result.”
Of course, I live in “this culture” and what has been my stress-related illness in recent years? Adrenal fatigue.
So, the challenge of Wu Wei is to do nothing constructively and see what happens. It’s not about being a couch potato on a Sunday afternoon watching reruns of your favourite TV show.
No, it’s about being in the moment and allowing all distractions to subside; to engage with nature and feel it’s impact upon us. To do nothing.
A foreign concept for most people.
With the FEEL program our task is to practice Wu Wei in the presence of our horses and, in the process, create a deeper connection with them and, potentially, our inner selves.
My first attempt a couple of weeks ago was nothing if not magical …
Before bringing Bear in from the paddock I allowed myself a few extra minutes to practice just “being” in his presence.
I entered through the paddock gate without calling to him, which is my usual practice, and parked myself in the middle of the paddock from where I could see him just over the rise of a rolling hillock. Standing there quietly and not drawing attention to myself, I focused on my breathing and and simply observed my beautiful boy as he grazed. Within a few seconds he raised his head and turned to look at me, as if acknowledging my presence. I stayed where I was; didn’t speak. He then turned his whole body toward me and started walking over ~ a slow, sauntering kind of walk which told me he was relaxed and happy to see me. I held my ground waiting to see what he would do next. I kept focused on my breathing. When Bear was about eight feet away he stopped for a moment, respecting an unseen but important personal boundary. I waited. About a minute later he walked right up to me. Sniffed at my hand, my back (found the carrot in my back pocket and helped himself), sniffed up my arm, down the outside of my leg. I didn’t move. Didn’t touch him. After a minute or two he drifted away a few feet and began to graze again, happy just to be near me. I smiled and waited, curious to see what he would do next.
Outside the paddock a slight commotion occurred as two horses being led in opposite directions were brought to a halt and their handlers had a brief and quiet chat. Being the curious boy he is, Bear left me and wandered over to the gate to check things out. I didn’t move; didn’t follow; didn’t say anything, and watched with interest as he indulged his curiosity. I will admit that for a moment … and just a moment … I was disappointed that he’d left. I felt abandoned. Our lovely moment, it appeared, had ended all too soon. Still, I tried not to judge and waited to see what would happen next.
As the two horses were eventually lead their separate ways Bear followed one up the fence line. Then he broke away and, much to my pleasure, wandered back to me. He put his muzzle right into my hand as if to plug into my energy once again. It was such a profound experience I almost wept with the joy of it. More than anything else he wanted to be in my company … in that moment. He didn’t want to eat (which is what horses do all the time except when they’re sleeping or working). He didn’t want to engage with other horses. He wanted only to be with me. :-) And I didn’t have to do anything but be.
Of course, the purpose of the FEEL program is to demonstrate how these concepts we learn with the horses can be applied to every day life …
As I observe it, we have become human “doings” and forgotten to be human “beings.” We’ve forgotten that periods of limbo are a natural part of the living and creative process. Part of my quest over the next several months as I complete the FEEL program and gain an even deeper level of self-awareness, is to learn to be comfortable in limbo ~ to honour the constructive and regenerative aspects of “non-doing” so my life takes on a more balanced way of being. This may be a tall order, but the more I practice the easier it it will get. As Linda Kohanov writes: ” … lack of control is infuriating and frightening for the intellect. For this reason, it’s beneficial to practice “not doing” voluntarily rather than wait until circumstances force you into those inescapable limbo periods. Training the mind with a regular dose of Wu Wei quite simply strengthens courage and creativity on all levels.”
I have Bear to help me with this, but practicing the art of “non-doing” can be as easy as standing in your back yard or other safe, peaceful area and observing as nature unfolds around you.
I’d like to challenge you to take 20 minutes to try this out. Put away your technical gadgets, clear your mind, focus on and slow your breathing. Be still. Spend time with nature by simply being and observing. What are the birds doing? How many butterflies do you see? How do you feel watching the squirrels chase each other through the trees? What sounds do you hear that you would normally miss? Should you choose to do this, I’d be curious to know what this experience was like for you. I find there is usually a natural conclusion to each session. That is, I don’t have to do anything … the end just is. ;-)
I try to spend 20 minutes or so two or three times a week just hanging out with Bear ~ either in the paddock or sitting in a chair outside his stall. It’s a pleasant exercise for him too because it releases him from the expectation of having to do something every time I show up at the barn.
This week I will get to spend more time in Wu Wei than I had planned as I am forced into limbo due to back spasms. But that’s a story, perhaps, for next time. ;-)
Nurture what you love …
* What Is Wu Wei? One of Taoism’s most important concepts is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu Wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which – without even trying – we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise. (Source: About.com)
©Dorothy Chiotti … Aimwell CreativeWorks 2014
Disclaimer: The events described herein are taken from my own experience, knowledge, and understanding and are shared for entertainment and information purposes only. Should you wish to try any of the techniques or exercises shared within the framework of this blog, please ensure that both you and your horse(s) are adequately prepared. And remember: while I have enjoyed some success using these techniques, you try them solely at your own risk.