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?

Looking on the right side

19 01 2020

A short while ago, when our old broom bent out of shape and lost its head, I went out and bought this one. I spent a long time choosing this particular broom; it needed to be robust, but not heavy; easy to handle, but not flimsy; smooth sliding, but not too slick. It needed traction, stiff bristles that did not shed on the first sweeping. It needed a wooden handle because the previous metal broom had snapped under pressure from a Tinker-sized hoof. It needed a little shed space all to itself.

As you can tell, I enjoyed shopping for this broom – I have spent less time choosing winter boots – and I’ve enjoyed using it daily since. Because it is so well designed for its daily job of sweeping rubber mats clear of fresh horse droppings, it is a pleasure to use. This morning, it became my teacher.

Inspired by a thought-provoking horsemanship clinic with Kate Sandel on Dartmoor, I decided to test my ability to sweep from the right. Now, I am left-handed and I find it difficult to use my right hand for much except using a knife – not a bread-knife, or a sharp knife; I switch to my left for anything resembling cutting. As I prepared for my new challenge, I remembered signing for a package this week on one of those box screens. I also recalled the postman had automatically positioned the box for a right-handed person. Even he laughed at my infantile scrawl as he walked off down the path.

You’ll notice I had spent a long time choosing my new broom and precisely zero time considering how I was going to use it. I applied the same principle of utility I used for most objects in my life: pick them up in a way that feels natural and easy and get the job done. Today I learned how difficult it was to work with my right hand because my mind was continually priming my left. It was almost comical; I would start sweeping to the right, but in no time, I’d end up back on the left. It took total concentration to sweep the mats using my unfamiliar side and by the time I finished I was tired.

I wondered about amputees having to learn how to walk again with alien artificial limbs and how the mind often holds onto parts of the body that no longer exist in reality by creating a phantom version that pulses with pain. I saw in my own lesson with the broom, the seed of something fundamental about the way my mind tries to support me by turning most of my daily tasks into a shortcut. My mind saves me from getting overly involved in tasks it can do automatically so that I can move onto more important tasks such as teaching or reading or spending time with people I love.

If I lost my left arm tomorrow, I would find it difficult to drive, to type, to wash up, to lead a horse, to clean my teeth, and I would have to use my right arm. With time and patience, I would probably master it. I would acquire a new perspective. Understanding that there are other ways to sweep a mat means recognising that my habitual way of doing things is simply one perspective on one experience. Operating through habit most of the day, I’m not particularly looking out for new perspectives. Like most people, I’m scanning the world for threats and opportunities and trying to get through my day with ease. Being left-handed can be frustrating when I’m tired and forget how to use light switches, pour from a saucepan, or try to open a box. Mostly, though, I don’t think about it.

In between chores, reading some essays in Zen Buddhism has given me a glimmer of a new perspective. Like really good philosophy, Zen makes me think hard about all the little things I do (and don’t do). Japanese Zen students call this acquiring of new knowledge: Satori, which is another name for Enlightenment.

“The essence of Zen Buddhism consists in acquiring a new viewpoint of looking at life and things generally. By this I mean that if we want to get into the innermost life of Zen, we must forgo all our ordinary habits of thinking which control our everyday life, we must try to see if there is any other way of judging things, or rather if our ordinary way is always sufficient to give us the ultimate satisfaction of our spiritual needs.”

Essays in Zen Buddhism. D.T. Suzuki (1949)

Developing a different point of view is one of the most difficult tasks I face daily, and like sweeping from my favoured side, I often take a shortcut to what feels easy and familiar. Every day, I rely on my knowledge and experience to solve problems and meet challenges. Sometimes, though, I come up against a question for which my professional knowledge and experience has no answer.

Zen Buddhism points to a new, fresher way of solving problems and meeting challenges – not by sitting cross-legged on a remote mountain or retreating to a cave – but by overthrowing the mountain of habit itself. Acquiring Satori, is in Suzuki’s description “the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through with in life. It is no easy task, it is a fiery baptism, and one has to go through the storm, the earthquake, the overthrowing of the mountains, and the breaking in pieces of the rocks.”

Wow…now I see why it is so much easier for me to sweep from the left.

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