Tag Archives: Pema Chödron
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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Embracing Groundlessness

Embracing Groundlessness

In a recent email conversation with Lori Skoog and thinking of Gin at High Mountain Muse, and Tamara at The Barb Wire, I was reminded of the fundamental Buddhist concept of groundlessness.

We humans work hard to create an illusion of standing on solid ground, of seeking metaphorical earth under our feet, especially in times of crisis.

This propensity to create safety and continuity for ourselves has its roots in the neurological setup of our brains. It’s natural for people to try to create formal systems out of chaos. Even daily life, even at its most prosaic, prompts us to make sense of all the input, and to organize and categorize it in order to create a perceived sense of order. When life goes to DefCon 5 and we realize that we are out of control, this creativity kicks into high gear.

My own recent situation exemplifies this very human way of organizing experience. It was my decision to leave Virginia, the home that has brought me the most happiness in what has been, unarguably, a very rough and tumble life. At last, I’d found some peace. After almost seven years, I discovered that I’d found a little too much peace. There was no challenge for me in the life I’d created, other than meeting the constant needs of a hundred-year-old farm. Those burdens were simply not the ones I wanted, it turned out. Increasingly I sought mental and emotional challenges instead. I chose to leave. Conscious choice. I convinced myself that I had a solid ground under my feet in this decision. Just as people do when making decisions: they make little lists of pros and cons, discuss their decisions with their loved ones, let the question rest a while and then return to it. All in the name of making right what they want to do. This is a form of pushing away the illusion that there is order in the universe, that we can impose meaning on the chaos in our hearts. But there really is no such order. The fact remains that I did what I wanted, needed to do. And shortly thereafter, things went haywire. Wild Card!

Things happen. The world is a seemingly chaotic place. We can never predict. All the planning in the world can never indemnify us from the unsecured dog, the friend who turns on us, the reality of life with 1000+ pound equine partners.

But we can indemnify ourselves from harmful, negative reactions to these factors.

The first step is acknowledgement of the fact that there really is no ground under our feet. All our years of training, all the preparation, all the homework, don’t really add up to the concrete pedestal we hoped for. The products of this background work are still constructs of the human mind. We have to acknowledge this fact in order to move forward with the understanding that we are always flying by the seat of our pants. It’s true we have put in the requisite hours over fences or on the trail. But in the end, the preparation is just that. Preparation. When the time comes to use it, we are on our own.

Given the fact that we are in partnership with other living beings, like horses, who have minds of their own, it pays to remain aware that this wild card virtually guarantees surprises.

Pema Chödron writes a great deal about humans’ unwillingness to accept the fact that we stand on continually shifting ground, and the kind of tantrums we throw as we discover that there’s nothing we can do to solidify our base of support. My beloved books have not arrived from the mainland yet, or I’d have plenty of meaty quotes from this wise woman to bolster my point. If you’re so inclined, click on over to her site, and see what she has to say on the subject. She is far more eloquent than I in writing words that allow us to embrace this groundlessness.

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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: On Mistakes

MINDFUL MONDAY image courtesy growabrain@typepad.com

NB: This was set to publish itself yesterday. I must have made a mistake somewhere, because I discovered today that it did not. Timely mistake, timely subject.

Mistakes–we all make them. Things we wish we could undo. Regrets. Minor stuff: giving the wrong cue for a lead or accidentally digging in a spur. Yelling at our kids or spouse when speaking in a softer tone would do just as nicely. Major stuff: losing our temper and whacking a horse with nippers. Yanking hard on the lead when the horse fails to go where you want at the pace you want. Family transgressions we don’t even want to remember. Sometimes we overlook our mistakes, or believe we have been correct in our behavior. Sometimes we are wracked with guilt over them. The Dalai Lama himself has written about how as a young man he aimed his slingshot at a bird. Fortunately, he did not hit it, but he remembers the momentary impulse.

The lucky thing is we have a choice with regard to the mistakes we make: looking back, whether it’s instantly afterward or after some time has elapsed, it’s how we view our mistakes that makes a difference. In our lives and in those of our horses. We can look back with regret and feel guilty and ashamed of what we have done or we can reconcile ourselves with the fact that what we know now helps us make a change for the better. The key to the latter is holding an inner softness, an acceptance of ourselves as fallible human beings. Looking gently and honestly at ourselves. As Pema Chödrön says, “The first step is to dive into the experience of feeling bad. Make friends with that feeling.” Tara Brach (author of Radical Acceptance) echoes this sentiment with this statement: “We cannot be accepting of our experience if our heart has hardened in fear and blame.”

The concept of motivation or intent is most relevant here. Mindful decisions, made with genuine intention to do the right thing rather than take the easy way out should not weigh on us, even if they turn out to feel wrong. A case in point: a friend had her horse euthanized for an episode of colic. A later necropsy revealed euthanasia to have been unnecessary. The colic could have reversed itself with treatment. Her guilt and remorse over this decision was huge. Yet, at the time, under the duress of saving her horse from agonizing pain, she made the best, most informed decision she could. In time, she was able to “make friends” with her mistake, to see that she made it in the best interest of her horse. To allow herself a softness and acceptance of grief over the decision, but to relinquish self-blame and guilt.

Things we do in the heat of the moment, however, without the proper knowledge, forethought or mindful care, are less easy to forgive ourselves for. When I first learned to ride and care for horses, I was taught cowboy horsemanship. I cringe at the terrible things I did to horses in the name of horsemanship. But I have learned to accept them as a part of my experience. I no longer feel guilty about them because I know that the horses hold me blameless and I now know better. Everything is impermanent: even our mistakes.

Animal experts, including Linda Tellington-Jones and Temple Grandin, assure us that animals live only in the present moment. Despite what Disney would have us believe, guilt and grudge-bearing are exclusively human traits. We anthropomorphize our animals when we feel guilt about our mistakes or believe that, for example, a horse is out to get us. Buddhist thought shores up this idea by saying that it is only those us us who have been blessed by a human birth are haunted by images and occurrences of the past, and who separate ourselves from intimate contact with now, this moment, by discursive thought and our judgment of it. Evidence suggests that animals do not.¹ Anthropomorphism is evidence of deep love for our animals. So are guilt and worry about them. But really, they harken back to our own ego, our desire to make our animals “just like us.”

In terms of making mistakes with our animals, feeling that they are “just like us” limits our ability to deal with them realistically, and to deal with our feelings about any errors we may have made. Holding on to our mistakes instead of finding that soft spot in ourselves, accepting that we are human and will err, allows us to move forward and make every moment new, as animals do. Fresh clarity and new opportunities for communication and bonding arise when we let go of our feelings that we have let our horses down. Or that someone in the past has abused out horse.

Right now, it’s just this horse, this person. Two open hearts. Nothing else is necessary.

¹ For those who tend to hold on to even their horses’ previous trauma, because it manifests itself in today’s behavior, experts remind us that it’s not the actual trauma or the memory of the trauma that the horse is holding on to. Any related behavior is a conditioned response to similar stimuli.

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Nothing to Do With Horses: Hard to Find–But Worth the Clicks

Excerpted from the teachings of my teacher, Pema Chödrön:

There is a practice that we can do all the time as we walk around in our life and that is to continue to open to the situation in which we find ourselves, as a practice, as a way of looking at the moment of life in which we find ourselves. Opening our mind, opening our heart to where we find ourselves.

One of the ways of working with this is to realize that we are always standing in the middle of a sacred circle. Whatever comes into the circle of our life, we train in welcoming it. Whatever we’re doing, we’re always in the center of a sacred circle. It is not restricted to formal meditation or when we’re in a good frame of mind. It is not something that is restricted to when we feel we have it all together or to when things are not falling apart.

For the rest of this teaching, go to Pema’s website and click on TEACHINGS in the left-hand menu. Choose, “Sacred Circle.” Note that the teaching is two pages long.

May you all find the joy that is “a product of realizing that we are always standing in the center of a sacred space, and that we do have the capacity to welcome. Actually there is no way to escape from it because even our closing down and not welcoming is welcomed.”

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Mindful Monday: Tonglen Explained–Working With Animals Is Working On Ourselves

Mindful Monday: Tonglen Explained–Working With Animals Is Working On Ourselves

MINDFUL MONDAY image courtesy growabrain@typepad.com

In Soap Making for Horses I wrote, I have only a hazy, and ill-defined idea of that shifting point in space where spirituality and horsemanship collide. If I can keep my eye on that bullseye, that’s what I want to write about. That eye has been a-wandering of late, and I”m going to bring it back to the bullseye on Mondays. With that in mind, I bring you Mindful Mondays.

Today’s subject is an article I read this morning.

Verena von Eichborn, P1, of Vernon B.C. wrote of using the Buddhist technique of sharing compassion called Tonglen with her fearful Dachshund in the July-September issue of TTEAM Connections. Understandably, von Eichborn’s exploration of Buddhist thought and the practice of Tonglen was limited and aimed narrowly toward the application of human/canine interaction.

Of her relationship with her fearful and depressed Dachshund, Disa, von Eichborn says,

I couldn’t disconnect the ‘unholy umbilical cord’ that connected the two of us, each reacting to the feelings of the other before we even showed them.

The unholy umbilical cord von Eichborn speaks of seemed to transmit more pain and suffering than joy. Von Eichborn reports that through an intuitive veterinarian, she learned that Disa was using the practice of Tonglen. I cannot dispute this statement; however, I must dispute the implication that Disa was suffering from a “blockage” of the negative energy she had absorbed from others. Unless somewhere Disa received improper instruction in the practice of Tonglen, or was failing to breathe out the peace and joy dogs seem universally to share, the so-called blockage must come from another source. My intuitive feeling is that Disa was mirroring von Eichborn’s own fear.

Von Eichborn says

…the major help for her was to be reminded of joy because we are so much stronger healers when we come from a place of joy.

She goes on to say that learning of Tonglen has made a tremendous difference in her life. I believe that if she had a clearer view of traditional Tonglen practice, von Eichborn might find it even more liberating. Using Tonglen, von Eichborn might learn to open her heart to everything Disa feels, to allow it to touch her heart, and yet not to be destroyed by it. One of the benefits of her brush with Tonglen practice was that Von Eichborn realized that her dog’s depression and fearfulness paralleled her own. It illuminated the way in which all beings are equal; all animal condition is the same.

Though all her emotional buttons were pressed in the period in which von Eichborn learned this practice, the thimbleful of courage it took to get started multiplied into a bucketful by the end of the process. Von Eichborn describes a transformation in her abilities to deal with humans and animals in bad situations. Fearlessness and open heartedness took the place of the umbilical cord. With qualified instruction in Tonglen techniques, Von Eichborn would be able to make changes in her life based on the realization that fear alone has prevented her from moving forward. I do not suggest that I am in any way qualified to teach anyone Tonglen. I can only relate to readers the way in which I was taught, and provide reference to reading materials and avenues of further learning.

Tonglen, as described by Pema Chödron in her book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness is the practice of sending and receiving compassion. According to Chödron, practicing Tonglen cultivates fearlessness and opens the heart more fully.

Learning to use Tonglen can develop beneficial Heart Coherence, because in a situation where there is potential emotional or physical pain, you begin to realize that fear for a beloved animal or person has something to do with wanting to protect your own heart. If you are afraid that harm will come to your heart, then your reluctance to open it and to use it fully in the service of healing another being will be impaired. This is harmful to both of you. For more information on Heart Coherence, visit http://www.cap-coherence.com/html/cardiac_or_heart_coherence.html.


When you do Tonglen, you invite pain in. That’s what opens your eyes…seeing pain, seeing pleasure, seeing everything with gentleness and accuracy, without judging it, without pushing it away, becoming more open to it…In Tonglen, not only are we willing to breathe in painful things, we are also willing to breathe out our feelings of well-being, pace and joy. We are willing to give these away, to share them with others.

What exactly is this Tonglen Practice, anyway? Put simply, it is breathing.

According to Chödron, the essence of the practice is that on your in-breath, you become willing to accept the pain and suffering of the creature you are working with: for example, your horse is injured and anxious; your dog is ill; your child is upset. You become willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world with the suffering of the individual. Your own bravery and willingness to feel that part of being alive cultivates heart coherence and compassion. You become less afraid of damaging your own heart while bearing witness to the pain of others.

No running away.

You breathe it in, feeling it completely. It’s the opposite of avoidance: being completely willing to acknowledge pain (yours, that of a stranger, your animal, your child). That’s the in-breath. You don’t get completely trapped in that because the out-breath is coming! This is a great reminder of the way life is: breathe in, breathe out. No dwelling on pain. No need to prefer the pleasure to the pain or vice versa because each has its place.

The essence of the out-breath mirrors the flip side of the condition of living creatures. With every out-breath, your heart opens more, connecting with your own joy in living, well being, and tenderheartedness. Your own experience of pleasure and pain become a means for connecting with all sentient beings. The out-breath is about all the good stuff of life. What we would want life to be if the suffering did not get in the way. You breathe it out so that it spreads and can be experienced by the other. This is not merely esoteric. It’s useful and practical, for you and your subject. Try it and see.

All you need in order to do Tonglen is to have experienced suffering and to have experienced happiness.

In other words, if you are an ordinary human being, you can use your breath to share pain and happiness with another being. Breathing in, breathing out is a technique for being completely awake to the needs of others and of showing compassion: “I will accept and witness your suffering, and share with you my joy.” It is important that the in-breath not be used to assume the suffering of a subject. You are offering your open heart and awareness. That is everything, and that is enough.

Tonglen is not merely a practical tool for dealing with immediate circumstances of the suffering of horses and companion animals. It has far-reaching implications in life. Buddhists who do Tonglen practice expand its focus to include all sentient beings. It cultivates a fearless heart that does not turn away from any circumstance. It is always wide open so we can be touched by anything.

At the same time, it draws boundaries that prevent too much emotional harm from the pain of others. For those with few boundaries, those who suffer from an excess of empathy, and who feel the pain of others too sharply without being able to breathe out the joy of existence, learning to locate and share that freedom and joy shows them a way to experience it more fully without being waylaid by the pain. That’s what we all seek: the enjoyment and mutual sharing of spirit with our loved ones without becoming overwhelmed by the everyday sorrow that is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering. It is how we respond to it in our hearts that makes a difference in how we live.

In my practice as an equine massage therapist, Tonglen is integral. Each time I lay my hands on a horse, I take a metaphorical and literal in-breath. I accept the physical pain, confusion, and stress into my hands and body. I bear witness to it. It cannot hurt me, because I know that the out-breath is coming. With my hands and breath, I will ease that pain, confusion, and stress, and remind the horse of the joy of living. In this way, my work with horses keeps me inspired to live in constant contact with these beings and the whole of the animal kingdom. One of the things that differentiate the effective bodyworker from the purely mechanical body worker is the concept of Heart Coherence. Without it, you’re just moving the muscles around. Same goes for training and groundwork. If you’re not willing to see into the heart of the animal, to share intimately the experience, then you’re moving four feet and imposing your will on another, and that’s all.

I was delighted to read of von Eichborn’s discovery of the concept of Tonglen practice. I really hope she and others who read her article and mine will be moved to learn more about it and to give it a try.

According to Pema Chödron,

This practice will introduce to you the whole idea that you can feel both suffering and joy—that both are part of being human. If people are willing even for one second a day to make an aspiration to use their own pain and pleasure to help others, they are actually able to do it that much more.

☛Just a few more days to enter the guest blog sweepstakes to win an autographed copy of Linda Tellington-Jones’ Ultimate Horse Training book!☚

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