Looking ahead

29 12 2019

Around ten years ago, I applied for a job. It was the ‘perfect’ part-time teaching post in a subject I loved at a secondary school with an outstanding reputation. As I prepared for the interview and sample lesson, I felt nervous anticipation as usual, but also a strong conviction that the job was already mine. I prepared a Year Nine lesson I had delivered dozens of times, tweaking it only slightly, knowing it would meet with approval and secure me the ‘perfect post.’ Of course, I failed to gain the job.

Never in my teaching career have I been so disappointed. I took the devastating news on my mobile in the field where I gone to check on the horses. The Deputy Head was apologetic as he delivered the blow; he knew how much I had wanted the job. I was clearly keen and capable, but in the end they had decided the other candidate was a ‘better fit.’

Not only did I want the job, I also needed the job, and time was not on my side. Crumpling at the thought of another round of preparation and rejection, I put my head in my hands and sobbed…and sobbed, and then just when I thought I couldn’t cry any more, I felt a presence. Drawn by my distress, Sheranni stood softly behind me and as I sobbed some more, he gently nuzzled the back of my neck. After another round of crying, I emerged from my storm of tears to see my horse looking at me with what seemed to be surprise. Teaching toughens you professionally and I was used to robust criticism and strict standards. Not getting a part-time post was nothing to cry about; his expression suggested that something else was going on under the surface.

In the days that followed as I reflected on the process, I realised I had projected so much onto this particular perfect combination of hours and distance, that I had failed to overlook the most important fact: I didn’t really want the job. Acknowledging my own contribution in my failure was still painful, but useful. It allowed me to examine why I had sabotaged my own efforts by not preparing properly and by not facing up to what I really needed to do.

A decade later, I’m still living with the consequences of that profound disappointment. The insights I gained that day in the field with Sheranni, started something: what I now see as a honest inventory of my career decisions and my dream of working with horses. In that watery moment of grief, the two came together and found me at my most undefended. Recognising that I needed to move in another direction, one where there was no map and no career guidance, I stopped looking for ‘perfect jobs’ and found I was offered two teaching posts that greatly facilitated my fledging career as a social entrepreneur. Along the way extraordinary connections were made – most importantly meeting Jo one New Year, and seeing with relief that she could ride a very sensitive Arabian – and other doors opened as people stepped forward with support that seemed miraculous at the time.

Looking back over the year, I see traces of that old disappointment glinting like shards of glass and still influencing my decisions: in not giving up on a grant application, which was turned down twice on a technicality; in working long hours knowing that I have never felt such profound job satisfaction; in knowing that whatever happens I’m surrounded by an incredible committed and talented team whom I love more each year; in knowing that every day I will face challenges that will strengthen me and, in spite of my fear and doubt, will show me the way forward to work with creativity and joy. I see how my disappointment seeded my purpose, and how I might so easily have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Still showing me the way: thanks to Jo for capturing this shared moment with Sheranni.

The gift of harmony

22 12 2019
Walking through the woods

Horses are drawn to harmony. Discord bothers them as I witnessed this week when the herd stopped what they were doing to focus on the sound of someone talking on their mobile phone as he walked down the lane next to their field. The tone of the phone conversation was impossible to ignore: a ferocious exchange consisting of four-letter expletives, fired one after the other. All four horses were on high alert.

Now I know that tempers can be short at this time of the year, and our horses are used to swearing; they live next door to farmers, whose choice of language can be colourful, but there was something about this incident that started me thinking about harmony. It seemed to me that the horses were alerted because something felt peculiar in that particularly charged conversation; it seemed to project even over a high hedge a certain force, and lack of balance that had an immediate ripple effect on five other beings, who became part of the exchange.

It was only when the man on the mobile had walked out of hearing range that the horses were able to resume eating their bale. For horses, returning to balance is an essential part of living in harmony, but it is not so instinctive for us humans, especially those with Christmas trains to catch or cars to park in crowded supermarket car-parks. Humans under pressure often resort to self-interested behaviour, and we justify it because we notice that everyone is really out for themselves, and we’d be a fool not to whip into the last space in the car park even though we’ve seen the person next to us has been waiting just that tiny bit longer. Small actions make up our daily lives, and it’s tempting to ignore what we would rather not acknowledge. Because we often gain from our blindness, it’s tempting to live life pretending we ‘didn’t see,’ or ‘didn’t notice,’ or ‘didn’t think.’

Horses are so interesting to observe because they have a talent for harmony. Mean looks, threats, and quarrels flare often, but are resolved in seconds, as each horse looks for a way to become settled and at ease. Expletives, grudges and long-running personal battles are unnecessary within a harmonious herd. Imagine if our lives were more like this?

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, a book of immense practical wisdom from which I have gleaned so much to inspire my teaching, believes it is possible for harmony to become our home base. This is not a utopian vision, even though it sounds like one.

“Imagine a world in which a critical mass of human brains – 100 million? a billion? More? – spend most if not all of each day in the responsive mode. Eventually there would come a tipping point, a qualitative alteration in the course of human history. People would still lock their doors at night, still reach for a profit, and still disagree and compete with one another. They would still need to be guided by values and virtues. But the ancient internal fires of fear, frustration and heartache would be banked low or extinguished for lack of fuel. Remember how you feel, yourself, when you are resting in a basic sense of peace, contentment and love. Remember what it’s like to be with others who are also rested in this state of being. Imagine what your family would be like, your workplace and your community, too.”

Imagine needing nothing except the gift of harmony. The horses show us the way.

Life on the edge

15 12 2019


Belinda at Beer 1

I have always been drawn to edgy places. Cliff tops, rocky promontories and river banks, inspire me and open my mind to new possibilities. My brother Stefan loved these places, too, and during his life found a form of freedom in living life on the edge. On a still, hot day this summer, we released his ashes from the cliff at Beer Head.

Ashes are not dignified; they fly wherever they want to fly, and on this hot August day, they did not fly across the sea as we had imagined. Each dipping fuelled the wind, which whipped the ashes into clouds that brought to mind tiny specks of birds amassing to migrate. Looking back over the photographs I took that day, etched into the sky was the smoky shape of my brother’s last flight.

That moment of release stayed with me for some time. Later after the ceremony, I went to see the horses and sat in the meadow for a long while, thinking of my brother and the conversations we had shared about death and dying. Stefan told me several times that he was not afraid of dying; in some ways he was almost looking forward to it, of finding out what lies at the ultimate edge. Before his final operation, one of more than thirty surgical procedures in his long struggle with Crohn’s disease, he joked in his usual edgy way that he might not come back this time. He survived the operation, but the strain of many infections and complications, including two serious episodes of sepsis weakened his heart and he finally lost his grip on life in July.

I reflected that day in the meadow that Life and Death are thoughts we can hold simultaneously. After releasing my brother to the cliff winds, I could climb to the top of another landscape and find there two horses who would purposefully come and stand on either side of me in silent support as I gathered myself for what would come next. I could feel the suffering of loss while felt I sustained.

Later in the year, I came across Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax and found a work that is such a gift of inspiration, I almost can’t believe it exists. The author, a social activist, medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, shares wisdom she has gained from working with people at the edge, including her many years running health clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas, time spent volunteering in a maximum-security prison and sitting at the bedsides of dying people.

“The education I have gained through these experiences – especially through my struggles and failures – has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties and ‘crises,’ might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive emergent and wise – as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”

I love this idea of living from the widest perspective possible. To live from this position takes courage and an edgy openness. My brother lived in pain for more than half his life and even though he would never have chosen to live with Crohn’s, the suffering he experienced sharpened his appreciation of life. When I look back over this year, it’s been a journey of intense loss and incredible gain and I know, thanks to my reading of Standing on the Edge, that I want to continue to investigate every bit of it.

Why am I living this way?

8 12 2019

horse eye

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

Sometimes when Jake comes to the farm he spends the first part of the session with his head under a blanket. His comments, delivered with precise comic timing, show us that he is participating. Often, there will come a point when Jake can’t resist joining in fully and he will lift the blanket, fix us with a piercing gaze, and share what is on his mind.

One time Jake wondered why his life had turned out that way it had. Genuinely perplexed, he asked why he had faced so much difficulty, pain and suffering when it wasn’t what he truly wanted.

It was a powerful moment when Jake, who has been institutionalised for most of his life, examined, possibly for the first time, the question that confronts most of us at some point in our lives: ‘why am I living this way?’

What promoted Jake’s existential question was a simple encounter with a Dartmoor pony named Rose. When Jake met Rose he saw himself from her perspective, and it shifted something in the way Jake saw himself. After the encounter he reflected:

‘When I went into the stable, I could see my face in her eyes…I looked at her big eyes and fell in love with her, I could have poured my heart out to her. My heart was with her. They’re beautiful, lovely creatures. I wondered how they feel inside, how they feel about people, so much unknown beauty.’

Jake’s experience was transcendental and put him in touch with something universal. For a brief moment, he forgot his suffering, his situation and his disappointment and he touched something deeper, something that felt like love. And the feeling of connection prompted him to wonder if his life could be different.

The question of why life is the way it is perplexes human beings so much because we have no choice but to ask the question from the point of view of the life we have. Blinkered as we all are by our circumstances, adopting a universal point of view does not come easily. Which is why when we have moments of profound insight, we see things as if we were a different person, a wiser, more elevated version of ourselves, perhaps the mature version we would like to be, but just can’t because we’re too caught up in being who we think we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be.

Every now and again, life takes us by surprise and reminds us of who we could be, and who we have perhaps always been, but have forgotten. This idea of waking up to who we are and remembering our true nature shines through Plato’s ideas and Buddhist teachings. These very ancient ideas have been examined through fresh eyes, and interesting connections have been made, and are still being made, for example in the growth of interest in mindfulness, in the fields of Western Psychology and Psychiatry.

More than twenty years ago a young American psychiatrist Howard C Cutler spent weeks shadowing the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour of Arizona and made frequent visits to the exiled Tibetan leader’s home in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Their intense and spirited conversations resulted in a book: The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living. Two decades on, the book remains illuminating because it is essentially a conversation between ancient ideas and contemporary Western science. Understandably, there are moments of incomprehension and incredulity on both sides, for example when Cutler discovers that there is no word for ‘guilt’ in Tibetan, and when the Dalai Lama has to patiently explain to the psychiatrist that sometimes there is no obvious reason why people act the way they do.

Reading the book again this week, I’m struck by the psychiatrist’s willingness to expose his own arrogance and shame and rationalist-driven agenda. I’m also struck by the clarity of the Dalai Lama’s thinking on deep philosophical questions, such as the true purpose of life, and his ideas on happiness which mirrors the thinking of Aristotle.

‘Now we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness and compassion bring happiness. I believe that every one of us has the basis to be happy, to access the warm and compassionate states of mind that bring happiness. In fact, it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying or human beings is gentleness.’

During another session with the horses, when Jake was playfully invited to choose an animal he related to, he chose to our amusement a crocodile. Like the blanket he chooses to sometimes hide under, he wore his crocodile skin for a while, but we were not convinced. We had seen that Jake’s true nature was much more gentle. Rose had simply reminded him of what he already knew.

Note: Names have been changed.

Animals for life

1 12 2019

Paddy was the first horse I cared for and rode entirely on my own. He belonged to a local doctor, who didn’t have time to exercise him regularly due to his commitments as a GP. I’d already learned to ride, taught by a friend who became a professional equestrian, but mostly by galloping up and down green lanes on eager ponies, with the occasional outing to a cross country trial or show. Riding Paddy couldn’t have been more different.

For a start, there was his size. As a 13-year-old, I was just over 5ft, and Paddy was a dinosaur at around 17hh. Most of our time together involved me looking for gates or walls high enough to climb onto his back. Once onboard, though, I loved the feeling of protection he gave me. He lifted his huge feet carefully and glided along as if he were wading through deep water. His rolling rhythm was deeply reassuring and even though I probably would have preferred a perky pony of my own, I came to love Paddy deeply.

Paddy was the first horse I truly considered a friend. I felt Paddy was deeply lonely and that our time together somehow made his life seem a little brighter; I know he certainly brought warmth and reassurance to my own period of teenage anxiety and isolation. When I was with Paddy, I somehow felt less afraid, less churned up inside, and able to relax and enjoy each moment without worry. When I was stressed about something at school, I would think about Paddy’s huge presence and feel calmer.

This week I was privileged to attend a conference organised by the Blue Cross in London, during which the animal welfare charity launched a report on the links between tackling mental health, poverty and loneliness through animal companionship.

The report highlighted the ways that cats, dogs, horses and other animals could improve well-being through providing love and company, motivation and purpose, a sense of trust, distraction from symptoms, increased social interaction, exercise and humour. The report showed how pets bring meaning to lives and help people to maintain a positive view of the self, the world and their future.

During the day, there were many moving stories and films from people who had become homeless or had been in mental health crisis who shared that their pet was their only source of love and support. A poignant 56% of people said they considered their pet their best friend. For some people surveyed, without the need to live for their animals, they might have considered suicide. Animals are literally a lifeline for many. The report also pointed out that ‘shockingly people with severe and prolonged mental illness are on average at risk of dying  15 to 20 years earlier than people without such an illness.’

The Blue Cross supports pet owners in times of need, and their work is inspiring because they understand that looking after the welfare needs of animals means understanding the welfare needs of the people who care for these animals. The Blue Cross report makes many sound recommendations, including investing in more mental health training for their own staff and that NHS mental health trusts commission evaluations on animal assisted therapies, but the one that strikes me most is the recommendation that the mental health service user’s relationship with their pets should be included in any psychological and psychiatric assessments and included in any care or crisis plan by Community Mental Health Teams.

After the conference, I passed many people who will spend their winter on the streets of London with a devoted dog by their side. I remembered the story of Wully. After his girlfriend died and the council refused to pass on the tenancy of the flat they shared, Wully started living on the streets of London with his two dogs, drinking up to four bottles of strong cider a day. He was seen by the staff at Mayhew who persuaded him to put his dogs into their Pet Refuge Programme so that Wully could go into rehab. It took him two tries, but Wully ended up clean and now works as a healthcare advocate for the homeless.

Zoe Edwards, Head of Animal Welfare at Mayhew, said: ‘I remember going to see him a couple of years after, as he was one of my ongoing welfare cases, and he gave me £100 that he had raised for Mayhew, which was so good of him. I am extremely proud of Wully, he is a lovely kind man and it was a privilege to help him and his two lovely Staffies.’

This story inspires me because it shows society operating at its best. When a person has lost their relationship, their home and their livelihood, losing their dog or their cat, is utterly devastating and compounds their sense of loss and loneliness. A truly compassionate society must find ways to sustain the animal friendships that for many isolated and vulnerable people are a vital link to life.

Belinda with Paddy

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