Tag Archives: Mindfulness

Appreciating the Space

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

The ability to remain mindful, to hold that space Frankl speaks of is a great gift. To greet it without compulsion, habit or knee-jerk reactions is to face what comes as honestly as possible.

As Rosemary McGinn says in her article, Addiction, Meditation and Space,

Without some degree of mindfulness, it can seem impossible to distinguish between stimulus and response, between experience and association.

Life happens fast. So fast our minds have a hard time keeping up with it. Even our judgements lag behind. So our minds form little habits in order to keep up, to deal with all that happens. They do it by forming associations.

But, like experiences, our

associations tumble along so quickly that they seem indistinguishable from the experience that launched them.

The human mind, not always a model of efficiency, makes a valiant effort in these cases. According to Sharon Salzberg, we

tend to compound our experience, jumbling together stimulus and response,

and our minds can drag us, unawares, from experience to judgement to anger or doubt to self-hatred in a trice.

As clicker trainers and those who practice mindfulness meditation know, there is a space in there.

Remember the old adage about counting to ten when angered before acting? That’s a means of creating awareness of the space. There are all sorts of ways of remembering that space, of recognizing it in the fleeting infinitesimal instant of its existence, and using it to its best advantage: kindness. Kindness to ourselves and our horses.

How to spot the space?

Some people do it by stilling their minds on a regular basis. This is not easy, but bears fruit over time. A few seconds at a time to start. Counting your breath without falling into the habit of discursive thought, daydreaming, etc. Returning to the simple awareness of the breath when you find yourself thinking. That breath is the space.

McGinn says,

It seemed impossible that I would ever build the muscle enough to be of much use: when I tried to count breaths up to 4, I often found myself at 37 before noticing I’d wandered.

It’s a conscious choice to seize the chance to slow things down once you spot the space, to deliberately choose your judgement and reaction based on where you’ve gone off the track, and returning to the basics. To have compassion for ourselves and others. When you’ve figured out what you want to do with the space, it works.

What do I want to do with the space?

I know what I don’t want to do with it. I don’t want to fall into aggression, anger or fear. They are the usual responses, especially when the stimulus is new or particularly challenging.

Last week I had a chance to work with a horse who showed me some particularly challenging behaviors. My task was simply to assess his body for signs of physical distress that might cause behavioral issues. But I could not get him to stand still long enough to complete the assessment. While he was dancing around, my feet were in constant danger, as were various parts of my body that he threatened to nip. Clearly, there was something going on with this guy.

Initial reaction, without respecting the space: irritation with the horse: “don’t you know I”m trying to help you?” It happens in a flash. So fast I’m not even aware of it.
Secondary reaction: “I can’t even handle him for the 90 seconds it takes to complete the assessment.”
Tertiary reaction: “I’m not very good at this.”

Had I been more mindful, acknowledging the space would have allowed me to think,”Yes, there is something going on here. I can’t handle him myself and assess him at the same time.” I needed to ask for a second person. Focusing in on a spiral of thoughts on myself, my own little ego, obliterated the space between the stimulus (the dancing, nipping horse), and the response (self-doubt and recrimination). The efficiency and habit-following tendency of my mind did me no favors here. But I’m really in charge of that, aren’t I?

Now I know what I want to do with the space: Practice practice practice and awareness. Respect it.

Next time: see the space.
Choose the response (don’t let it choose me): it’s not all about me.
Ask for help if you need it.
Help the horse.

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I Don’t Even Need A Horse To Fall (Or, Multi-Tasking Is Not Your Friend)

I Don’t Even Need A Horse To Fall (Or, Multi-Tasking Is Not Your Friend)

I got the idea for this post from the blog at Beliefnet and from falling while walking Rubydog. How did this happen? Simply put, I wasn’t paying attention. In comments on Live In the Present Moment we’ve been discussing quality of attention and how it affects riding and our lives, and I failed to practice what I preach.

As Rubydog and I rounded a corner on our way home from our morning walk/jog, I waved to the construction workers who are adding the new lanais on our complex, and put a foot wrong. I fell with a comically spectacular splat, removing skin and flesh from a large portion of my elderly knee. Ouch. Hilarity and gushing of blood ensued. Road rash in Hawaii has a particularly jagged quality because of the lava.

In truth, I was not paying attention. I was multi-tasking. I was thinking of my daughter, watching the rare two cars that were passing, and anticipating the greetings of the workers. Most folks would say this isn’t too much. That’s not multitasking! But it was. Look what happened.

Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone while walking down the street, while drinking a cup of coffee, making a mental shopping list, and getting your keys ready to open your front door?
What about talking on the phone while looking at your email, admiring a new car in a tv commercial?
Wouldn’t want to miss anything!
How about when we’re talking to a good friend and furtively glance at our Blackberry? Media guru Renny Gleeson says that what we’re really saying is, “you are not as important as literally almost anything that could come to me through this device.”
Ram Dass said it well, forty years ago: Be Here Now.
But we all try and multitask to some degree. Well, most of us. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic:
“When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You should train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.”
I’m guessing Thay doesn’t have a Blackberry.
We often act as though multitasking is necessary, that to be successful in this frenetic world requires us to juggle hyperkinetically, never letting our attention rest on one thing for more than a fraction of a second. We’re given tips on how to do it better, and gadgets that make it easier. One of the biggest complaints people seem to have about the new iPad is its inability to multitask.

Driving, for sure, takes a lot of concentration. We all wish we could shout, “Get off the phone and drive!” now and again. In Hawaii, it’s illegal to use a cellphone in the driver’s seat. But the rest of the time, wouldn’t you think multitasking was OK?

Neuroscientist Gary Aston-Jones, Ph.D said in a recent CNN.com article, says there may be a cost associated with becoming an expert multitasker, saying it “may ‘lower the threshold of distractibility,’ possibly harming the ability to do tasks that require intense sustained focus, such as art, science, and writing.”

A new study suggests that people who often do multiple tasks in a variety of media — texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more — do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way.

Ashton-Jones has found that “heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy.” because they tend to retain distracting information in short-term memory. This impedes their ability to focus on the current job at hand, compared to those who don’t multitask. Apparently, short term memory has a greater function in tasks requiring sustained focus than just keeping al the facts in the mix.

You’re being flooded with too much information and you can’t selectively filter out quickly which is important and which is not important. It only takes a fraction of a second for you to take your eyes off the road and miss the guy making a right-hand turn into your lane.

Here’s what I think is the most interesting part of the article:

Aston-Jones says that it’s unclear if some people are drawn to multitasking because that’s the way their brain works, or if multitasking itself causes changes in the brain. And it’s not clear if the brain changes caused by switching attention from YouTube to Google to Twitter and then back to your iPhone — if that is what is occurring — are easily reversed.

And in fact, we’re not really multitasking anyway, says neuroscientist Earl Millier:

People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.

Humans simply don’t focus very well on more than one thing at a time. All you have to do is take a look at my knee if you want proof.

What humans can do, Millier said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with lightning speed. This is very different from the way the mind and perceptual system of horses work. As we switch from attentive task to task, we fool ourselves into thinking we are paying attention to everything around us at the same time. But it is really sequential. Horses, unlike humans, perceive the reality around them in a diffuse way, for which they are sometimes punished. I wrote about this in Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention? and then it was discussed with great alacrity at Glenshee Equestrian Center.

The problem with multitasking is so very simple. Changing our minds is not. If we choose too many objects to give our attention to, we cannot deepen our familiarity, our friendliness, with any of them. Our minds cannot immerse themselves in each object’s arena beyond superficiality. It’s like glancing instead of examining.

Here’s where mindfulness practice can come in handy. Rather than acting as mental dilettantes and leaping from one task to another, if we allow our minds to fully occupy one object at a time, we can assemble a coherent theme. There is great comfort in this, and for those who practice it, greater productivity, connection to their inner worlds as well as to those in the outside world.

Resting with open attention on any object (by object I mean thought, thing, process, etc.) activates the innate human intelligence that is bypassed in multitasking. Deeper comprehension and familiarity allow greater effectiveness and insight. I suspect I don’t have to tell you this after you have tried thirty times to jump the same combination successfully. If you tried it the first ten times while mentally complaining your grocery list and the next two times while predcting that your horse was going to veer to the left after the second jump, your failure was practically guaranteed. Once your focus was fully on the process, however, and you held in your mind the picture of success (much like the visualization process of sports psychology), banishing all ideas of what might go wrong, you did it! Success!

Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment. You may like to smile to it before you put it in your mouth. When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don’t put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Chögyam Trungpa way back in 1976, reminded me that I should not walk and think at the same time:

Meditation is working with our speed, our restlessness, our constant busyness. Meditation provides space or ground in which restlessness might function, might have room to be restless, might relax by being restless. If we do not interfere with restlessness, then restlessness becomes part of the space. We do not control or attack the desire to catch our next tail.

I come back to it again and again, much as Bonnitta does when exploring the left, the right, in order to find the middle: “Oops, Thinking! Let go of that thought. Focus on now.”

As Buddhists say so often:

When walking, just walk.

When riding, just ride.

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Hope For Haiti Now

Hope For Haiti Now

Whenever disaster strikes, there is the rush to aid. Someone dies, and remaining loved ones are showered with attention from friends and family. An auto accident produces offers of assistance in the form of casseroles, rides to the doctor’s office, errands run. Natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti create a huge flurry of activity in the form on international aid and reconstruction.

Until, that is, people reach a kind of empathy overload. It’s a natural part of the human psychology to harden a little bit, to have their empathy less and less stimulated by the triggering event. This is the same mechanism that makes pornography so dangerous and even, some would say, our ability to turn away from cruel horsemanship practices like LDR and soring. In these cases, it’s obviously not empathy that gets overloaded, but the appetite for stimulus that gets satisfied in the same way. There is the mental need to move on to increasing foci.

I have experienced this phenomenon so many times I can’t count. I know it intimately. We as a family have had more than our share, more than the share of several families, of sudden disaster. Early on, there were a great outpouring of kindness and offers of assistance. In fact, I don’t know if I could have made it through my daughter’s first grade year without the assistance of the entire lower school of the Princeton Day School. But as the tragedies continued, I found folks to become more and more inured. Whether it was a case of “there before the grace of you go I,” or whether we as a family revealed to them the truth that you can’t really protect your child, I don’t know. All I do know is it became easier and easier for them to make an initial offer and then to turn away. To protect themselves.

This brings me (finally!) to the point of this post.

Elisha Goldstien, PhD iis offering downloads of his ebook, A Mindful Dialogue: A Path Toward Working With Stress, Pain and Difficult Emotions for $9.99, with 100% of the proceeds going to the organization Hope for Haiti Now, which donates to The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, Red Cross, UNICEF, United Nations World Food Programme, and Yele Haiti Foundation. Whether this will still mean hope for Haiti in ten years, time will tell, but even as you read this, empathetic minds are wandering, and pocketbooks are dwindling.

The reason I have chosen to donate through Elisha Goldstein is that learning mindful coping mechanisms can only increase and sustain my source of empathy for others (horses included). I develop myself as a being while coming to the aid of others.

Here’s a description of the ebook:

A Mindful Dialogue was written to be a companion through life when dealing with stress, pain and difficult emotions. Through 24 interviews with leaders in the field such as Jack Kornfield, Dan Siegel, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Jeff Brantley, Zindel Segal and Others and 23 short explorations of simple quotes from leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Rumi, Hafiz, Pema Chodron and others, you’ll uncover a mindful path toward working with the stress, pain and difficult emotions in daily life.

That’s quite a list of contributors. I’ll be please to throw my little hat in with their very big ones and add to the continuing aid for Haitians, who have so little right now.

May the quest for compassion by one individual inform the greater empathy of all.

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Mindful Mischief

Mindful Mischief

I am told I’ve always had a penchant for mischief. I know I have a streak that inspired me to at least think of fun things to do. I don’t always follow through.

I am strictly forbidden, for example, to undertake any “projects” with my brother-in-law, with whom I share this questionable characteristic. Eyes are rolled and cautions are issued whenever we even go out for coffee.

An example: My family used to love a Thai restaurant in our town. Great food. Great people. The typical terrible decor. We loved it. The bathroom was a different story. There was a disconnect between the bathroom and the rest of the restaurant. It was as if it had been transported in toto from a New York City bus station, Star Trek-style. Its uncharacteristic filth both puzzled and disturbed us.

My brother in law and I hatched a plan over appetizers.
We would excuse ourselves and run to the WalMart next door, and pick up necessary supplies. In ten minutes flat and in total stealth, we had scrubbed that bathroom spotless and decorated it with plastic flowers (clean!), a pretty mirror, anti-bacterial hand soap and a fresh roll of paper towels.
We didn’t say a word to anyone. And then we left!

My brother in law taught me that there is an antithesis to malicious mischief. Mindful Mischief.

What does this have to do with horses? Nothing. I don’t know if what I have in mind is one or the other. I do know that I want to arrange it. I will probably see the karmic results immediately (good or bad!). Last night I saw a news item on TV about Michael Vick’s possible return to professional football. Since I live in Virginia, we get this stuff all the time, and are kept apprised of developments in his case.

I had an inspiration. Rather than protest or boycott or say awful things that might poison the atmosphere, people can do one simple thing:


Go to his first professional game.
When Vick enters the stadium, all at once, everyone in the audience should throw a stuffed Pit Bull onto the field.
Say nothing.

We can make statements about our feelings without violence and hatred. Maybe even with a little bit of mischief.

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Thankful Thursday: My Teachers

Thankful Thursday: My Teachers

I read Akal Ranch‘s last Thankful Thursday post with great interest. Simrat’s Standing On the Shoulders of Giants, thanking all the trainers she has learned from.

At first I thought it was not the best idea to copy another blogger’s idea directly, but then I knew Simrat would not object to being my teacher. We should all thank our teachers, whether they taught us good things or bad.

There is a Buddhist principle which states the same thing. In the Mahayana Dharma, there is a simple saying, “Be grateful to everyone.” As Pema Chödron says in her book, Start Where You Are, being grateful to everyone “is a way of saying that we can learn from any situation, especially if we practice … with awareness.”

“Be grateful to everyone” means that all situations teach you, and often, it’s the tough ones that teach you best … You’re continually meeting your match. You’re always coming into a challenge, coming up against your edge.

As we all know, horses are excellent teachers. They don’t know. But they can show you “where you need to be more gentle, where you need ot be more clear, when you need to be more quiet, and when you need to speak.”

Same holds true for mentors, trainers, riding instructors. You can’t really trust anyone else’s interpretations of the truth because you yourself have the wisdom within. Some of us only learn this after looking back long and hard at our teachers, both equine and human.

My first trainer and my first horse were a particularly difficult combination, one which I’ve written about before, though not in detail. I feel guilt about the way I treated that horse under the guidance of that teacher, yet I probably shouldn’t. I have learned a lot from her. I learned what it takes to be a successful horseperson. I learned toughness and resolve. I learned that being intimidated by horses is not an option. I learned a great number of basic skills, and I learned patience, though of a different kind than I practice today. Each time I get in the saddle, I remember what she taught me, “You have to show the horse what you want“, and I learned how to be quiet. She taught me those things. Looking back, I also learned many things I do not want to be part of my horsemanship toolbox: traditional natural horsemanship skills that thinly veil dominance and force. It is now easy for me to find ways to avoid that and come to a greater understanding with horses. I don’t know, however, if I could reach this place with such great understanding if I hadn’t been to hers first. It all makes better sense now.

Katie Little introduced me to Sally Swift and Tellington TTouch.

My second trainer taught me a whole new seat. She took away my saddle for three months and I really learned to sit on a horse. She taught me to jump. Bareback. The thrill of learning something that previously struck terror into my heart gave me such a sense of accomplishment. She is a Parelli-trained teacher, and her easy approach to training horses was fascinating. I also learned from her how not to deal with people on a strictly human basis. I have often wondered what it is about horsepeople that make them so difficult in real life. I think it has to do with passion. If you have great passion and desire, you make mistakes in dealing with people if you are not mindful of possible outcomes. This in itself was a lesson worth remembering.

My third trainer taught me patience and stillness. She is a wizard in the strictest sense. Her blend of traditional English horsemanship and calm, still mindfulness allows her to achieve amazing results. I’ve seen her take a greenie out into the hunt field and show him a great day, have a nice time herself, and come home without a scratch. Not many people can do that. The most important thing I learned form her was quietness. I thought I had that nailed early on, but I was able to take it to a deeper level with her. Not only was it “shut up and sit there,” but it was, “have no specific agenda because you will be disappointed and force the horse.”

Vera taught me about loyalty.

Linda Tellington-Jones blew a hole in my perception of reality with horses. She dismantled all my understanding of horsemanship, and reassembled it from the ground up. Along with the reconstructed horsemanship, she presented a new way to look at interpersonal relationships. She provided me with a new beginning, and a new purpose in life. A change that I’d needed for many years. I’m still amazed at the events that have unfolded in the last two years. And how they have changed my life. Thank you, Linda.

And now to the horses: Thank you!!!




Marksman Millie and Julia G. Scheibel

Brego, for demonstrating how dominance doesn’t work with fearful horses.
Millie, for being the best babysitter on the planet. Also for being true to your breed, a full-blooded Percheron, who really doesn’t like to move out in the ring. You taught me how to ask correctly.
Buster, for showing me what a (Parelli concept) Right Brain Extrovert is really like. And that you were too much for me at that stage of my learning. I wish you a happy life. I adore you.
Holly, for revealing true equine maternal dedication and elegance.
Mystic, for grace, and for showing me the value of eternal vigilance.
Storm, for being who you are. A stallion of uncommon beauty, inside and out.
My babies, Madison and James, for allowing me to shepherd you through the first year of your lives. Nothing can match that experience.
Maira, for being peaceful, beautiful, and accepting of all my flaws. May you show the same kindness to your new “husband.”

Living in the horse world, for however short a time has made me who I am. It is a singular influence on the way I see the immediate world, aside from Buddhism. I might never have gotten to this point, where my life is about to enter a new and exciting phase, without all my teachers.

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Mindful Monday: Opportunities for Everyday Awakening

Mindful Monday: Opportunities for Everyday Awakening

MINDFUL MONDAY image courtesy growabrain@typepad.com

Our animals hand us the winning ticket dozens of times a day.
But you have to be present to win.


Are you present? There are moments, days, weeks even, when I’m not.

Are you mindful enough to notice when you are working and your dog slides his sleek head under your hand or your cat brushes softly against your leg?
Do you take notice when you get to the barn and your horse is standing at the gate in greeting? Or are you, like so many people, wrapped up in thoughts of what you have to do, how behind schedule you might be, etc.?

Part of my everyday life is trying to remember to take advantage of those ever-present winning tickets. By winning, I mean taking advantage of the chance to truly share in a relationship, to be present in the moment it offers you, no matter how briefly. As long as I give the entirety of my attention to it, my animals and I both win.

When I’m sitting at the computer (I do a lot of this these days), engrossed in work, it’s easy not to notice the soft brush of Ruby’s snout on my leg. It’s even easier to get annoyed with my cat for “typing.” When I went to the barn every day, I didn’t even notice that I ignored the many faces turned my way over the fence. I looked for my own horse and thought of my own plans only.

How many opportunities for true and fulfilling mindful tenderness we all miss because we are too busy. But we are not really too busy. It doesn’t take long. A minute, maybe even less.

Here’s what I try to do:

When Ruby or Wibble approach me while I’m working, I stop what I’m doing and acknowledge their presence. I also acknowledge, in my heart, their existence, and their love, their place in my heart and how much love they give to me, unbidden. I adore them in return. All this can happen with a single loving touch while looking into their eyes. A good belly rub or back scratch and mutual recognition of our roles in each others’ lives, and back to work I go. Back to their lives go the dogs and cats, satisfied that they have made contact. I feel good. We all win.

Same story at the barn. If a horse is giving you his attention, it’s a reward for both to return it. A moment to rub a velvety nose or neck. To pull a burr from a forelock and murmur a kind word. This really doesn’t take much time. And it certainly doesn’t take time away from your intended activity. It’s the gift of a momentary awakening to the present.


In a similar manner, I’ve tried to incorporate mindfulness into work even when my animals don’t come along to remind me of my connection to the greater consciousness. I downloaded a little widget that rings like a meditation gong. The sound is very pleasing and peaceful. It rings on the hour like a grandfather clock. For each hour of my life that has passed without a pause for mindfulness, this little gong reminds me to stop. Pause and clear my mind and just BE. Maintain, even for a few minutes the essence of being. Just being. I try to make my mind like a clear blue sky. Thoughts are like clouds that pass through on a breeze. I don’t allow them to hang around and cloud up my beautiful sky. Move on! I’m gazing at BEING here!


Just a few moments, nothing more. These breaks for gongs and animal love actually increase my productivity and decrease the tiredness I can get from working at a desk all day. I feel a greater connection to life. It’s a proven fact that animals reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the human body. Once again, science goes along to prove what animal people have known all along: animals make you happy. So why not take advantage of every opportunity to share your life with them?

Try it, and you’ll see. You have to be present to win.

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