Part One: Our Misunderstanding
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
‘There is a common misunderstanding’, writes Pema Chödrön as she succinctly summarises our human predicament in the first paragraph of Awakening Loving-Kindness, ‘among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable.’ ‘A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure everything turns out on our terms, to lead a more passionate, full and delightful life than that, we must realise that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is’(1).
What do you make of a statement like that? It’s understandable that we might draw a bit of a blank, feel a little confused and as a result push it away - ‘what does she know about my life anyway?’. It’s more comfortable than facing your confusion, right? But whichever way you look at it, there’s only one question you need to ask to know whether the above statement applies to you: am I human? Considering that, what could this teaching really mean for you? How does it translate into your life, right here, reading this? Do you want to lead a more passionate, full and delightful life?
All of us at our deepest level wish to feel the fullness of life experienced through relationship: to connect. There’s no getting away from it. If you’re not yet able to sense it intuitively, look to the research: we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Decades of neuroscientific research reveal the following: ‘Increasingly, evidence is pointing to the importance of social connections not only for our happiness and well-being, but for our survival as well. Through the studies reviewed here, we are beginning to appreciate that the need for social connection is so essential to survival, at least in mammalian species, that being disconnected from the social group is processed by the brain in a manner similar to physical pain. Just as physical pain has evolved to alert us that ‘something has gone wrong’ with our bodies, social pain is a similarly potent signal that alerts us when ‘something has gone wrong’ with our social connections to others, an equally important threat to the survival of our species’(2). You only have to watch the news this evening to witness the pain that social disconnection is inflicting. Not only on the body of humanity, but the body of Earth and all that call it home.
So how can we begin to tend to the pains of our social disconnection? It’s easy to feel helpless, numb even, when you look at the world news headlines, which just out of interest today are: - Trump to congresswomen of colour: Leave the US - UN calls for Libyan detention centres to be shut after over 50 people are killed (3) Just another news day, right? It can be hard to see what part you play in all this, never mind how you could help to bring peace to the chaos out there, should you choose to.
The plain and simple truth of it is this: we start with ourselves. I know it’s probably not what you want to hear. But what does that mean, starting with ourselves? Well, let’s investigate. We can only connect with others to the extent that we connect to ourselves. For example, how can you offer kindness to another in a difficult situation if you have not learned to do so with yourself? How can we heal our societal disconnection if we have not healed the disconnect within ourselves? We cannot.
So how do we learn to connect to ourselves? Well firstly you must decide you want to. You either look at your own life and say, something needs to change. Or you look out at the world, or some external situation in your life and say, something needs to change. With the latter, you must also understand that for something to change ‘out there’ the starting place is still ‘in here’, with yourself (sorry). Maybe you decide you don’t want to change, you’re fine with everything as it is, inside and out. That’s fine, just be aware that that’s the choice you are making. And that in every moment you are free to repeat that choice or make a different one. Now in becoming aware of that choice we have just started to practise the first stage of connecting to ourselves: Awareness.
Ah awareness, without awareness we cannot see the choices that we have. It’s funny isn’t it, we get so involved with our thoughts and emotions that we forget how it is we are able to experience each of them. What it is that the ‘thing’ is experienced against: ‘no-thing’. Awareness. A helpful illustration of this, used by Eckhart Tolle - author and teacher of The Power of Now (4), is to imagine a room. When you’re asked to describe what’s in the room you will most likely list the chair and the bed that you see. Nobody mentions the space in between the objects. But without that space you wouldn’t be able to experience the chair or the bed because there would be no-thing for it to be relative to. The same is true on the inside – what is it in you that experiences the emotion, the thought, the sensation? Your awareness (5). This awareness is the key to connecting to ourselves. Awareness exists in the present moment and that is where connection takes place.
So then, if awareness is the birthplace of connection, to learn to connect to ourselves we must practise awareness. And what is the practice of awareness? Meditation. ‘Oh no, not that again. I don’t want to sit down and do nothing’. This may sound a little confusing but bear with me. When you meditate you are not doing ‘nothing’ (despite it physically looking that way), you are learning to return to the part of yourself that is the ‘no-thing’. This is the part that witnesses the internal forms (emotions, thoughts and sensations), just like the space in a room is what allows us to witness the existence of the physical forms – the chair or the bed.
This is the very root of change because when practised it allows us to see all our choices (all the chairs in the room), observe why it is we keep making the same choice (continuing to pick the chair with a broken leg) and instead of finding ourselves confused and deflated at the end of the same old drama asking, ‘why me?’ (crumpled on the floor cursing the broken chair) we can see clearly what is happening. When you are not identified with the thought or the emotion as ‘who I am’, a space is created where clear seeing can enter.
It is then that we must practise the second stage of connection: compassion. Without cultivating heart, when we become aware of what we’ve been unknowingly doing, it is painfully easy to fall victim to our own judgements and enter the wholly unproductive cycle of self-denigration (I do not recommend). It is essential that we cultivate heart to remind us of the fact that we have always been doing the best we could with the knowledge we had at the time. When we become aware of a better way, we must meet the pain of our misunderstanding with gentleness and forgiveness. In this way we allow awareness and compassion to work together to reconcile the misunderstanding within us. Clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes the clear seeing awareness and compassionate holding of our experience as the two wings of radical acceptance. She writes, ‘both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is. When we do this, something begins to happen- we feel freer, options open before us, we see with more clarity how we want to proceed’(6). Therein lies freedom. The freedom to make a different choice. The freedom to choose a different chair.
Strengthening our capacity for awareness and compassion can be easily translated to strengthening the capacity of our minds and hearts. This might be a little more relatable for those with logical scientific backgrounds.
In the past, scientists believed that once we reached adulthood the brain had a fixed number of cells that could not be replaced once they died (7). How depressing. But we now know that the adult brain is not only capable of growing new cells (neurogenesis) (8) but is highly ‘plastic’ and has the capacity to change its structure in response to training (9). The term for this is ‘neuroplasticity’ (7). You could visualise it as similar to the way a muscle changes shape in response to training at the gym. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks after all. If that dog is willing to learn of course. Studies also show that the ability to perform a certain skill is associated with increases in grey matter densities (or ‘cortical thickness’ - the part of our brains that contain the nerve cell bodies) in the regions of the brain associated with performing that skill (10). For example, those that learn a second language have a larger density of grey matter in the part of the brain involved in language (11). So, what effect does meditation have on our brains? Meditation increases grey matter thickness in the areas of the brain involved in regulating and monitoring attention (12). So, when we meditate, bringing our attention back to our awareness, you could say we are training the muscle of awareness. And as awareness is the first step to connection, we are indirectly training a muscle of connection - the other being the heart.
So, what about the heart? In modern society it tends to be viewed as just a muscle that pumps blood around the body. Well there’s a bit more to it than that. The HeartMath Institute (HMI) has carried out 28 years of scientific research into heart-brain interactions. They have found the heart to consist of an extensive neural network devised of the same cellular complexes found in the brain, enabling the heart to act independently from the ‘head’ brain to learn, remember, make decisions, feel and sense (13). The signals the heart sends to the brain can influence perception, emotional processing and higher cognitive functions (13). The intelligence of the heart is defined by the HMI as ‘the flow of intuitive awareness, understanding and inner guidance we experience when the mind and emotions are brought into coherent alignment with the heart’(13). Through practising compassion towards our own beings, we begin to awaken the intelligence of our hearts that can guide us to peace and embodied connection with our world.
The upshot: we all have the capacity to train the muscles of connection. If we want to.
So maybe you can begin to see the part we all have to play?
Beginning to wake up to this is a process. Perhaps you’ve already sensed it. Perhaps you’re still a little suspicious. But don’t take my word for it. Find the truth of it in your own experience. Maybe you feel apprehensive in starting a formal meditation practice, that’s ok. Just remember, awareness is an innate part of you, there’s nothing you need to ‘achieve’ and nowhere you need to get. Your awareness exists in the present moment, so all you are doing is redirecting your attention to the present moment, usually in the form of your breath. Moments of awareness can occur at any time; you don’t have to be sitting. Whenever you realise, ‘oh I was lost in thought there’ or ‘oh I was feeling angry then’, that is a moment of awareness. Whether you choose to practise awareness and compassion or not will always be your choice, but it’s helpful to remember that you always have this choice to deepen your connection to yourself, which is the route to deepening your connection to others.
However, when the baby is up crying for the eighth time in the night and you’ve got an important presentation in the morning , or the shop hasn’t got your favourite ice cream after a taxing day at work, or you’ve just found out your boyfriend’s cheated on you, it can seem incomprehensible that there could be any choice, other than ‘just trying to get comfortable’. But in moving away from the discomfort of the moment, projecting it onto the situation, we disconnect. ‘If only that baby would shut up, then I’d be happy’. ‘If only they had the cookie dough ice cream in, then everything would be ok’. ‘If only we could get back together, then my life would be complete’...
After the initial relief that the cessation of a crying baby, or the consumption of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s provides just watch.
How long is it until there’s a part of you searching for something else to make things a little easier? Maybe another tub of Ben and Jerry’s will fix it? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for a tub of B&J, but just like with everything, if it is being used as a way to avoid our present experience we are disconnecting from ourselves and adding to the larger scale disconnection out there. Although we are habituated to think ‘the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’, there is ‘a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ out there, waiting to be discovered.
We cannot do this work alone. The courage it takes to face what arises in your experience and not turn away is nothing short of heroic. It is no wonder that the term ‘Bodhisattva’ – meaning an individual seeking to wake up- is often extended to ‘Bodhisattva Warrior’. For the sheer strength of mind (awareness) and heart (compassion) it takes to channel the determination to choose courage over comfort and face the present moment fully is the very essence of bravery.
Luckily for us, certain humans throughout history have dedicated their lives to studying the human condition through experience to deeply understand what being human is all about. What contributes to inner peace and what does not. Today we are even more fortunate in that their teachings are available globally to anyone with access to purchasing books, audio books, free podcasts and more*. The science of today is only just catching up with the truths these masters have been distilling into teachings for thousands of years. The choice is now ours, with the teachings available, what are we going to do? Just like it would make sense to trust the experience of a consultant orthopaedic surgeon to heal a broken leg, can we find the courage to trust the experts of the human experience to help us take responsibility and play our part in bringing peace to ourselves, our societies and our world?
In the pages that follow I will be taking an in-depth exploration into what has been introduced here. Why is it so hard to meet the present moment? What is the result of disconnecting from the present moment? What does it really take to choose courage? What would that look like in my life? Is there any research to support this? How on earth do horses come into it!? I invite you to join me, just as you are, however you’re feeling, whatever doubts you may have. Join me as I try my best to begin demystifying our misunderstandings, illuminate our choices and ultimately share what I understand, so far, regarding the potential of the horse-human bond to deliver us back to ourselves, each other and our world.
If you don’t fancy it right now, that’s ok. The door is always open.
I will round this section up, in the same way that it began, with the words of one such wise teacher: Pema Chödrön.
‘We can help this troubled world. We all have the inborn wisdom to create a wholesome, uplifted existence for ourselves and others. We can think beyond our own little cocoon and try to help this troubled world. Not only will our friends and family benefit, but even our “enemies” will reap the blessings of peace. If these teachings make sense to us, can we commit to them? In these times, do we really have a choice? Do we have the option of living in unconscious self-absorption? When the stakes are so high, do we have the luxury of dragging our feet?’(14).
1. Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
2. Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD. Why It Hurts to Be Left Out. The Neurocognitive Overlap Between Physical and Social Pain. In: Williams KD, Forgas JP, Won Hippel W, eds. The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying. (Sydney symposium of social psychology). New York: Psychology Press; 2005:109-127.
3. British Broadcasting Company. World News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world. Accessed July 14, 2019.
4. Tolle E. The Power of Now. London: Hodder and Stoughton; 2001.
5. YouTubeGB. Talks at Google. Eckhart Tolle in conversation with Bradley Horowitz: Living with Meaning, Purpose and Wisdom in the Digital Age. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qE1dWwoJPU0. Accessed September 20, 2019. [Example found at 46 min 22 sec].
6. Brach T. Radical Acceptance. New York: Random House US; 2004. Cited by: Brach T. Unfolding the Wings of Acceptance. tarabrach.com. https://www.tarabrach.com/unfolding-the-wings-of-acceptance-2/. Accessed September 20, 2019.
7. Fuchs E, Flügge G. Adult neuroplasticity: more than 40 years of research. Neural Plasticity. 2014;2014:541870. doi:10.1155/2014/541870.
8. Eriksson PS, Perfilieva E, Björk-Eriksson T, Alborn AM, Nordborg C, Peterson DA, Gage FH. Neurogenesis in the adult human hippocampus. Nature Medicine. 1998;4(11):1313–1317. doi:10.1038/3305.
9. Driemeyer J, Boyke J, Gaser C, Changes in gray matter induced by learning--revisited. PLoS One. 2008;3(7):e2669. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002669.
10. Ilg R, Wohlschläger AM, Gaser C, Büchel C, May A. Gray matter increase induced by practice correlates with task-specific activation: a combined functional and morphometric magnetic resonance imaging study. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2008;28(16):4210–4215. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5722-07.2008.
11. Mechelli A, Crinion JT, Noppeney U, O’Doherty J, Ashburner J, Frackowiak RS, Price CJ. Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature. 2004;431(7010):757. doi: 10.1038/431757a.
12. Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893–1897. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
13. McCraty R. Science of the Heart Volume 2: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance. An Overview of Research Conducted by the HeartMath Institute. CA: HeartMath Institute; 2015. pp. 5, 51.
14. Chödrön P. The Pocket Pema Chödrön. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc; poc edition; 2008. p. 180.
*A list of useful resources will be made available at the end of this blog series.