Starting to stare more?

29 03 2020

Have you noticed that you are staring at people more often? On my outing to the supermarket yesterday, I sensed that social conventions on staring seemed suspended. Browsing the shelves at a distance, I saw people looking at me intently, and, of course, I was doing exactly the same. None of this staring seemed threatening, more of a relaxed: check this person out, focused looks replacing the usual, awkward British muttered ‘sorry,’ if I accidentally got too close. After a while, I found I began moving out of the way automatically and even anticipating when someone was about to appear in an aisle.

We know instinctively that staring at someone from behind can make them turn around and many of us have had the experience of thinking about someone only to have them text or call. African bush hunters are known to be able to communicate over vast distances, starting supper preparations back at the home fires, long before they appear with their haul of fresh meat. Could it be that in these socially estranged times, communicating from a distance is an ancient element of our human experience that is now usefully coming into play?

Being more in tune with their senses, animals make use of stares more frequently than we do. I’ll never forget the time Dragonfly stared at me as I left the yard, forgetting to let the ponies out of their stables. The intensity of his gaze stopped me in my tracks and gave me time to remember what I needed to do. If I spend too long on the laptop, Rosie will stare at me to let me know my time is up. No matter what time of day I arrive, the horses seem to know when I’m coming and will magically appear at the gate when I walk quietly down the track to their meadow. 

Deer and many other herd animals are extremely perceptive at reading intentions. In his illuminating book The Sense of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake shares examples from  hunters and wildlife photographers, who know to keep their eyes averted from the ones they intend to capture. One old and very stiff horse I knew gave his owner the run-around for years. It amused me to watch this horse change from sedentary old man to sprightly colt the minute he saw this person come to get him in. Apart from making his owner swear a lot, his other favourite game was to taunt Sheranni by dropping a single pony nut from his feed bowl into the deep groove in the grille separating his space and then step back and stare as the young horse tied his tongue in knots trying to reach it.

As a biologist, Sheldrake is interested in studying the idea of mind as an extension of the brain rather than being contained within it. His case studies exploring what he names ‘the seventh sense’ include a detailed study of a parrot who was recorded speaking 7,000 different sentences and who had an uncanny ability to know and name what his human was thinking and doing even when she was in another room. These studies make for fascinating reading, inspiring a broader view of animal nature and human nature.

“If the seventh sense is real, it points to a wider view of minds – a literally wider view in which minds stretch out into the world around bodies. And not just human bodies, but the bodies of non-human animals, too…our minds are extended into the world around us, linking us to everything we see.”

The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Rupert Sheldrake. (2003)

This intriguing idea of stretchy minds seems particularly relevant now as we prepare for weeks of living apart from most of the human race. It could be that our survival depends on realising that although we are physically separate we are linked in mind. That might sound scary to some, imagining the thought police hovering over your car as you idly consider making a non-essential journey. Reassuringly, Sheldrake reminds us that most seventh sense conversations are between people who are already close.

With many people now living with a cat or dog for company, conversations between humans and animals have never been more important. The daily dog walk is no longer routine, but a focal point of the day. I know that I’m anticipating my daily walks with an excitement that is eagerly shared. Animals must live with our moods, whether it’s joy, fear or sadness. They read our emotions with a sensitivity that can remind us to soften our sorely worried hearts. None of us know what will happen next in our human world, but knowing our animals are safely by our side is especially comforting at this time. 


Surprise! Captured during a group session last summer: the very moment I shared my feelings of appreciation for my horse, he arrived from the far end of the field as if I’d called him.

This extended pause

22 03 2020

The old safety net has gone and we are in free fall. When I forget my fear of heights (and remember to breathe…), the new view is exhilarating. Clean skies, clear beaches, quiet roads; the pulse of bird-song, wind-song, spring-song. The world is singing and I almost can’t bear it because it may not be long enough for us to hear it out and learn the lessons of this time.

We want the old noise back because we’re human and desire security, which for many of us (me included) means predictability. We keep calm, carry on, follow advice in the hope that one day things will get back to normal. In reality, the view from here is wide open. While those on the NHS frontline deal with the casualties, we wait in relative safety. There is nothing we can do except receive this extended pause.

If we will allow enough breathing space, we will see this pause as an opportunity to reset the imbalances in our ordinary routines, stretch into more open, less hurried, ways of being. We can learn from our animals who know nothing of daily news-feeds, panic-buying or social distancing.

We can find new encounters in the realm of the familiar. The scent and touch of horse is wondrously reassuring. I struggle to describe its peculiar intensity. Mushrooms on toast? Wood-smoked velvet? Fresh popcorn? There is equal delight at being welcomed into a herd that recognises you as a fellow feeling being, a sense of coming back to ground and returning home.

Naturally, our work will be changing to reflect the new times. Like many people who run small businesses, I’ve felt fragile as I think of the months ahead and what it means for our company and our community. But I’ve also felt a new shift in thinking around how we might do our best work in spite of the insecurity. In the brief space of a week, I’m sensing new possibilities, small green shoots, seedling ideas shyly appearing amid the creative challenges of keeping things going. In spite of everything, I’ve dared to feel hopeful.

I’ve also been inspired by poems and podcasts, by conversations with family, friends and colleagues, by simple acts of unselfish love. My reading this week has included The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, choosen because the sub-title leapt at me from my bookshelves: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

“At times almost all of us envy the animals. They suffer and die, but they do not seem to make a ‘problem’ of it. Their lives seem to have so few complications. They eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, and instinct rather than anxiety seems to govern their few preparations for the future. As far as we can judge, every animal is so busy with what he is doing at the moment that it never enters his head to ask whether life has a meaning or a future. For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate present – not in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.”

Alan Watts. The Wisdom of Insecurity. (First published 1951 Pantheon Books)

Being with the horses at the moment, it is tempting to envy their complete lack of awareness of the human crisis and feel even more isolated in fear, but I think the message I want to take from Alan Watts is the simple and timeless truth: pay attention to what is happening in the immediate present, and make that, fiercely and only that, my concern.

Women’s work

8 03 2020
Team spirit: Wendy, Jo, Belinda, Lindsey

For years, I worked in male-dominated professions where the atmosphere was often punishing. My Saturday nights were spent staring at a screen in an office with no windows. In between bursts of keyboard activity, I made trips to the nurse for paracetamol. One night she refused to give me my dose, saying I had taken enough. Snippily, I asked her how I was supposed to get through my shift. I had seven stories to write before the paper went to press. She sent me away without pills or pity.

I was in my element: a young journalist with a notebook filled with interviews, which I simply needed to work into acceptable news stories for a national newspaper. I worked hard, had little social life, but I was paid well and worked with incredibly committed and talented colleagues. Anxiety, stress-headaches and exhaustion were simply the price for working in a profession I knew was going to push me to the very limits of my capacity.

Two images from that intense time have stayed with me: the first is of a young man, one of the most talented of the team, counselling me on my anxiety by sharing that when he first started in this news-room, he regularly threw up before conferences. The second: another young man, lifting his head from his keyboard to share that he had been too exhausted to go home, and so had decided to sleep at his desk.

At the time I thought there had to be another way to get the best from people, but I was too junior to do anything about it. Nevertheless, those scenes burned into my mind when I began to think about creating a different kind of professional culture. What I longed for was a working environment where everyone had an opportunity to thrive; where work itself was the way to flourish. I carried this vision in my mind, and continued working at jobs where competitiveness, shaming and rigid thinking were the norm.

Today, my working life is enriched by colleagues, both men and women, but the core of our organisation just happens to be a group of wonderful women. Jo, Lindsey and Wendy are talented, wise and so wholly committed to making our social enterprise a success, it warms my heart. The energy from our connection with each other and with the horses is the solid fuel that fires us to keep working from the heart.

A visitor remarked not long ago that he was impressed at the professionalism of our team. On that day, we just happened to have had a morning melt-down, a late finish and an early arrival, but we worked around it. His observation made me appreciate how everyone on the team responds so intuitively when events don’t go to plan. We are nimble when we need to rebalance. We don’t have heavy meetings. We drink a lot of tea, check in when we need to and focus on doing our best possible work.

From our light-touch approach something wonderful has emerged. On days when we fully and wholeheartedly show up without worrying about the car that won’t start, the torrential rain, the last-minute change in participants, the work flows and seems to find its own level without us having to push ourselves to exhaustion.

On International Women’s Day, I want to wholeheartedly and proudly thank Jo, Lindsey, Wendy and all our wonderful women colleagues and partners in the NHS and other organisations (you know who you are!) for working in a way that honours the human spirit. Heart-felt actions are not always appreciated, and many women long to do more work that inspires them rather than enslaves their souls. We undoubtedly face more challenges ahead, but we know how we want to face them. We know that when women look out for each other we are all stronger for it.

How not to make things happen

1 03 2020

It always fascinates me when people first arrive at the farm. They way they get out of the vehicle reveals a lot about their state of mind. These young people had travelled with their teachers from a Community College in Cornwall. They were curious, shy and a little anxious as they clung to the sides of the minibus, changing from clean trainers into boots and outdoor shoes. On hearing the rule for working safely with horses was to watch their feet, they all glanced down. When invited to move more slowly than they were used to, and to be quiet around the horses, they instantly dropped their natural temptation to banter, and spent the entire two-hour session in near silence.

Now anyone who has worked in a school knows that the classroom is a vacuum of noise. We just don’t expect young people to be quiet. As I led our new visitors to meet the horses I was surprised at their immaculate behaviour, following every instruction like model students. Glancing at each other, their eyes were alive with intrigue as we walked across the paddock and stood watching the horses. As we entered and began working, it was almost as if these young people were ambassadors for consideration, courtesy and composure. Particularly interesting was that this group had been referred because some were at risk of exclusion for challenging behaviour.

It could have been the effect of taking them out of school and bringing them to the farm; it could have been the effect of removing them from an audience of peers; it could have been that they were learning in a very small, select group, or many other contributing factors but I watched something emerge that had little to do with the environment and everything to do with the way these young people were showing up in that moment. Without even trying, they were giving each task their total concentration and effort. In opening up to try something they had never experienced before, they forgot who they were supposed to ‘be.’ Instead, they allowed themselves to connect and learn how to influence a horse with the most subtle of signals. It was a joy to witness.

Their comments after the session were reflective, insightful and inspired. One boy said: ‘When I calm down, things can actually happen. I don’t have to make it happen, it can happen all by itself.’

When coached on leaving some slack in the rope to get a better feel between him and the horse, another boy commented: ‘It’s like that with people, if you give them a bit of slack.’

On the surface, it looked like nothing much was happening. We were showing these students how to handle and lead a horse and get a nice, flowing feel between them. We had created a container for their curiosity to emerge. We didn’t have to try very hard at all to ‘make’ these students see the links between how they were being with the horse and how they were behaving at school or with other people. With honesty, courage and commitment, they filled in that gap by themselves.

Since that session, I’ve thought about how often, especially in my early days as a teacher, I dreaded certain classes. Not even whole classes, usually individuals who pushed my buttons. I let them because I didn’t know any better. I thought I had to ‘make’ my young pupils behave and if they didn’t, I was a failure as a teacher. Now I would love to have that time again and be able to see my ‘misbehaving’ pupils understand how acting with composure, consideration and courtesy is their natural state, and the other ‘behavioural stuff,’ is just noise blocking out the quietness all young people secretly seek. Knowing I didn’t have to make them do anything, knowing that I could just allow them to be who are they are, would truly melt my heart.

Evie and Rose are pretty laid-back teachers while Jeff is the master of ‘less is more,’

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