The watcher comes, knowing the small
knowledge of his life in his body
in this place in the world. He comes
to a place of rest where he cannot
mistake himself as larger than he is,
the place of the gray flycatcher,
the yellow butterfly, the green dragonfly,
the white violet, the columbine,
where he cannot mistake himself
as more graced or graceful than he is.
At the woods’ edge, the wild rose
is in bloom, beauty and consolation
always in excess of thought.
– Wendell Berry, from The Peace of Wild Things
Around the beginning of the year, the word ‘soft’ began feeling important. The feeling behind it for me was a wish for relaxing of held mental, emotional, and physical tension–a letting go and letting myself be where I am with things as they are. I wondered if it would be a new annual theme. Mary Oliver’s line “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” from her poem Wild Geese crossed my mind as often as the flocks of geese that crossed the sky over the barn last season.
I have been learning to fully trust that line from Oliver’s poem as a way to move through life. Lately, it’s become my litmus test. Does the whole of me love this opportunity? There’s a deep attunement to how my body responds, versus what my mind thinks I want or need. This year, I’ve been feeling good in work and health and horse realms, finding more moments of peaceful flow in it all. I am in a place where I had once been longing for, without much notice from anyone but me. In a quiet way, usually, when I’d be grooming a horse, I’d remind myself that my wellbeing is my contribution to life.
Wellbeing is the state of being comfortable, happy, healthy. My horses clearly know the world through the ‘soft animal of their body’ and they carry an innate wisdom on this way of being in the world because they are so grandly inhabiting their body all the time. Their survival depends on being alert to their environment. Yet, there’s an equanimity to their way of being.
Linda Kohanov notes in her book, Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation that “No matter what happens, horses exhibit exceptional emotional agility: they experience each moment openly and authentically, blazing through fear, power, pain, excitement, loss, playfulness, and unmitigated joy. And then they go back to grazing, spending a significant portion of each day milling languidly about in a state of deep peace that arises naturally when you’re not afraid of life.”
When we come to knowing the small knowledge of the life in our body, as Berry writes in the poem above, we arrive at our place in the world. It’s a quiet, hard-earned arrival. We have to fight through thickets of thought patterns and mires of fears and feelings to find this place. We have to listen closely to recognize our voice, to sift it out from the obligations and guilt that rush over our needs. Here, we can find ourselves being in the world in a new way, somehow clear and calm despite whatever is happening. A place of rest where we cannot mistake ourselves as more graced or graceful than we are.
Embodiment determines our possibilities. How we inhabit our body equates to how we inhabit our lives. We all have ways of dissociating or numbing ourselves. We hide behind masks and makeup and ambitions that aren’t in alignment of who we really are. And yet, Gretel Ehrlich writes in The Solace of Open Spaces, “everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.” How can we be who we are if we’re not at home in the meatsuit that connects us to the magic of being alive?
Full-bodied presence is something horses have in spades. This way of operating through life is the stuff of the oft-quoted ancient sages. With a thousand plus pounds of horse-ness that can feel a fly land on them, they can teach us a thing or two about being mindful (versus having a mind full of things like thoughts and other imaginative stories about ourselves and the world like we humans can do very well) and being fully present in our bodies. If you want a mainline to the fruits of meditation, hanging out in a herd of horses is a direct way to awakening your animal body.
As prey animals, the equine nervous system is hyper-specific, which means they have an acute sensitivity which can read what’s happening on the landscape in a half mile radius around them. Horses can also pick up on emotions and feeling states of herd members. When you are in their presence, as part of the herd, they can read you too. In that way, they can help us find congruence in ourselves with who we really are, how we are being, and how our wholeness serves the whole herd.
With horses, their nature invites us constantly to be what we are (as I’ve witnessed time and time again with clients as they find their place in the herd). The real beauty of this mode of coaching work is that there’s no thinking your way through a session. No over rationalization, rants, storymaking, or other forms of verbosity. In the wholeness of the herd, these things are mild liabilities. In this field, you must feel your way through. As a percipient perceptible being, your body becomes your guide, like the way the horses know and move through the world. In a sense, you find your horse body.
Horses show us another way of knowing outside the realm of thinking. We remember ourselves: we discover capacities we didn’t realize we had to help us meet life in a new way. Our problems and possibilities look and feel different when we sense them from our “horse body.”
Sometimes I wonder if this equanimous presence is the quality sought after in our hero/ine’s journeys. Far from being a disembodied observer of life, we are who we are, without thinking getting in the way. It’s a presence that’s in tune with what breezes our skin and stirs within, and is connected to the larger web of life spontaneously happening in concert along with us.
So often we deny our inherent right to be here. We deny ourselves the right to take up space. Sometimes, due to trauma and other unfortunate situations, we forget we had these rights, or it wasn’t safe to be who we are. When you find your place in the herd, you feel your weight in space, beyond the physicality of your meatsuit. You feel a connection through the space between you and the rest of the world you are in relation to. Other less utilized sensibilities perk up from dormancy, as if your entire body can see, taste, listen. You sense the influence your presence has on the whole herd. How you are being matters.
As my beloved partner Khalid will often say: “The greatest gift you can give to anybody is your own wellbeing.” This in many ways the greatest gift you can offer up to the world, more so than any ambitious plans.
We are often split between wanting to do and be something in the world, to feel our importance in some way, or to just be who we are. As if being who we are belies importance. Perhaps we doubt that who we are is enough. Following our drives to be and do something great can lead us down roads that aren’t ours to follow, that aren’t congruent with our essence. Who we are is often quieter, subtle, and aches for less fanfare than the striving part of us that adheres to shoulds, should nots, and ambitions that anchor our importance. Being and moving through the world fueled by our deepest fears puts our body and soul in a quandary. Most often, we blow right past the wisdom of the body as a guide for moving through the world. What would it be to move through the world fueled by what we love?
The way of the horse is a potent model for this way of being in the world. A secure, well-adjusted horse senses what is happening and what wants to happen versus fixating on what should and shouldn’t happen. He will then decide if what is developing is in his best interest. He’ll either go with the flow or get out of the way.
In this podcast conversation with Khe Hy, he wonders: how do you optimize for life? A question that behests a need to have it all figured out. Yet, so little of life can be figured out. And so little of life needs to be figured out in order to actually live it. No preconceptions needed. This isn’t a dress rehearsal after all.
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued,” asserts Anne Lamott. “Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.”
Wendell Berry says it this way: “…the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
Arriving at the ground at our own feet may not be glamorous, but learning to be at home, in our place in space, is gloriously alivening. When we choose to inhabit our life this homecoming becomes inevitable. We stop mistaking ourselves for something we are not. We stop skittering across the surface of our lives.
When you find the soft animal of your body, you’re moving outside in the world in accordance with your insides and all of the knowing that lies within. John O’Donohue writes that when you do this,
“… you will begin to hear this gentle voice at the heart of your life. It is deeper and surer than all the other voices of disappointment, unease, self-criticism and bleakness. All holiness is about learning to hear the voice of your own soul. It is always there and the more deeply you learn to listen, the greater surprises and discoveries that will unfold. To enter into the gentleness of your own soul changes the tone and quality of your life. Your life is no longer consumed by hunger for the next event, experience or achievement. You learn to come down from the treadmill and walk on the earth. You gain a new respect for yourself and others and you learn to see how wonderfully precious this one life is. You begin to see through the enchanting veils of illusion that you had taken for reality. You no longer squander yourself on things and situations that deplete your essence. You know now that your true source is not outside you. Your soul is your true source and a new energy and passion awakens in you.”
As you awaken the larger sensory perception vessel that is your terrestrial meatsuit, you ask different questions from life and you know, deeply, that the only thing life is asking from you is to be who you are. How you are in the world changes. You’re not needing accolades, compliments, validation, or to be seen in a certain way. A whole lot of psychic energy is freed up in this newfound freedom. There’s a deep peace there. Echoed not only by the wild geese and a herd of horses, but your very soul.
Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. It’s imperative to being who you are.