On laughter

23 02 2020

As many people who have visited us know, we love to laugh in our work. It’s not something, we consciously plan for. The way we are with our horses gives them the freedom to make choices, which often results in hilarity. If you think that a very intelligent horse is going to take you seriously just because you have two legs instead of four, you will be surprised and outwitted, over and over again.

There are many different ways to understand animals, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being with horses is their incredible curiosity about the human species. I often think that if you looked like a unicorn with sculpted features, elegant limbs, dreamy eyes and flowing mane and tail, why would you bother with slow-moving, boggle-eyed, clobber-clothed people? What could they possibly offer you except regular fodder?

It remains remarkable to me that in spite of our human tendency to lumber about like the apes we are, we can offer a horse a meaningful connection. When we extend an invitation to the horse to join us in something that truly matters to us, they will choose to join in. For example, a group of guests seated in quiet meditation often proves irresistible to our horses and ponies. Even though they are free to eat grass and wander, invariably they will come and be with us, selecting to stand and quietly breathe with someone they have never met before. Why they should choose to do this remains an exquisite mystery to me, but when I witness it, I am always moved to tears.

It is not simply the quiet life they seek. Our horses are also moved by laughter. Often, if Jo and I are laughing uproariously about something, one of the horses will come over to investigate. It amuses me to think that maybe the horses really do share our signature sense of humour, as extended family members who have grown up in a particular shared culture, which includes regularly laughing together.

Laughter is perhaps more important than we think. Psychology Professor and author Dacher Keltner makes an intriguing case for laughter as vital for social harmony in his book Born to be Good. I know I always feel lifted after a bucket of tea in the shed with my fiercely, funny friends who laugh long, hard and true. Sharing my sorrows and disappointments inevitably means laughing at my own tendency to get caught up in my woes. Sometimes the worst, most awful things that have happened to me have generated the biggest laughs months or years later. Keltner’s deeply fascinating enquiry about the impact of laughter, based on longitudinal studies of bereaved participants, elevates it even further.

“A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition.”

Born to be Good. The Science of a Meanginful Life. Dacher Keltner (2009)

I love this idea of laughter as piercing wisdom, as another form of knowing. And I also love the intense creative energy that is generated when a group of people work with humour and goodwill on something new and untested. Instead of striving to pin down new ideas on charts, notes and sheets, allowing time for the freefall and counter-play of light-hearted ideas is the way to make magic happen. It’s certainly a lot more fun. We often say that our best business ideas pop into our minds when we’re grooming or taking the horses out for a walk.

The liberating effect of laughter cannot be underestimated. I don’t think Keltner is being provocative when he says ‘laughter may just be the first step to nirvana.’ The original meaning of the word nirvana means ‘to blow out,’ which makes Keltner wonder whether the term means not only blowing out the flames of self-interest, but also having a good exhale, blow-out, belly-laugh.

“When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state, incapable of flight or fight. People see their lives from a different point of view, with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds, through the firing of networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play.”

This makes me see why our laughter feels so good to our horses, who are naturally drawn to living peacefully. When they’re relaxed, they frequently enjoy a good blow-out, too, and are often quite playful afterwards. Laughter, I’ve learned, is older than speech and is part of a repertoire of emotions forming a universal social language. Chimps laugh, rats squeak with joy when their tummies are tickled, and horses just wait for humans to get serious.

And begin

16 02 2020

Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us what is important. Getting through any storm takes immense energy, whether it is a storm of wind and wild rain or a mind storm of disappointment and depression. Storms stop us in our tracks and make us notice our every move. Coming back from the yard along lanes running with deep red pools, I noticed my instinct to flinch as I drove under a low hanging branch.

Our horses understand how to weather storms by conserving energy. When the wind whips across the fields, they find a hedge and hunker down, heads low, hooves cocked, ready to sit it out for as long as it takes. Arabians are known for their flighty spirit. Poetically described as Drinkers of the Wind, a strong breeze often intoxicates them, inspiring balletic displays. But they behave differently in serious storms. They know when to play and when to keep their heads down.

Witnessing them in this place of quiet, I often wonder what happens to their minds. Normally sharp and intelligent, where do they go? Is there some place of deep mental tranquillity the horses enter when the storm is raging at full intensity?

My reading this week includes a series of beautiful essays based on informal talks on Zen meditation and practice by Shunryu Suzuki. Aptly, the book begins with some thoughts on the beginner’s mind and recognizes how difficult it is for us to retain a beginner’s mind when we have reached a certain level of mastery in any discipline.

I know in my own teaching, there is at times this lazy tendency to assume the role of the expert so that I can give my students what I think they need to learn. When I remember that I am a beginner, too, that this lesson I’m about to teach is as new and fresh for me as it is for my students, my teaching miraculously improves.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centred thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki (2011)

This little gem of a book contains immense ideas, such as the idea of ‘original mind,’ the mind we share with all living beings. This vast mind is rich and sufficient within itself. It requires no input from us. Nothing at all. Not a single thought, not a single idea, not a single reason. This powerful idea is so forceful it truly stops me in my tracks when I’m busy thinking, thinking, thinking about the next thing.

Could it be that the deep, quiet mind I see the horses rest within is beginner’s mind? Could it be that their absence of self is why we are so drawn to them as sources of wisdom? Could it be that their effortless ability to know what is required without over-thinking is why it feels so good to be in their presence?

When I reflect on what horses have to offer us humans, a recent encounter comes to mind. The first is a feeling of pain in my right shoulder, a burning pain I have every winter probably from pushing wheelbarrows through soft, heavy clay. The second is a feeling of warmth and deep breath on this shoulder, just at the most sore place. Evie is resting her nose near my arm and the feeling of trust and relaxation is making me pay attention to her breath. I join my breath with hers. In that moment, the pain lifts.

The storms have cleared, the pain of illness has melted into wellness again. The fields will dry eventually. The soft mud will harden. The horses will lie down to sleep in the sun. Everything new is beginning.

Sheranni finishes his day at work, still fresh and ready for the next moment. There’s nothing much on his mind. He needs nothing, not even a halter. Why carry anything, when you have a willing human to do that for you?

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