Part Six: The Balance of Being and Doing - including implications for the veterinary profession
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Welcome to week six. We’ve had a pretty full on five weeks working hard to cover the groundwork necessary to understand the power of ‘equine facilitated practice’, so let’s take a moment to pause and catch our breath.
The content we’ve explored has been wide-ranging. Don’t worry if there are parts you’ve found heavy or hard to follow. What we’re investigating speaks to a visceral knowing that doesn’t require you to be able to mentally recount content - although revisiting areas that resonate with you can be helpful in assimilating concepts with your own experience.
This week we’re going to be exploring the balance of being and doing. It’s a common misunderstanding that taking the time to ‘be’ equates to becoming inactive and something of a doormat to all that arises in life. But nothing could be further from the truth. By cultivating the ability to be with and witness our present experience, the action that we do take in the world becomes more effective and aligned with our intentions. Rather than our actions and behaviours arising from the sea of unconscious habits and beliefs we have been exploring, they arise from awareness.
So, let’s take a look at some examples of how the lost art of being impacts our doing. Firstly, through looking at the impact on an individual level before going on to explore the impact in larger organisational settings.
The balance of being and doing – when doing comes from awareness vs. unconsciousness
If you’re saying we need to get good at being, does that mean that doing is bad?
There is nothing inherently ‘bad’ about doing. The idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are something of an obsession to us. The only use I find for them is when they’re used relative to what you’re trying to achieve. And even then, I prefer the terms ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’. For example, if you had the intention to save one hundred pounds this week but then saw a dress you wanted to buy, would it be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ idea to buy the dress? Well, if you still wanted to save one hundred pounds this week and buying the dress would prevent you from doing so, then buying the dress wouldn’t be very ‘productive’ in serving your intention. However, if you saw it, remembered your intention to save, but decided you would rather have something new to wear for a friend’s party tomorrow then the act of buying the dress would be ‘productive’ as the goal has now changed from saving one hundred pounds to finding a new dress for a party.
In the same way, if you decided that a current aspect of your life was not working for you and you wanted to change it somehow, but you weren’t sure how, it would be unproductive to just keep doing because this would prevent you from gaining the awareness, that comes from being, required to see your situation clearly, assess the options you have and make a different choice that is more in line with where you want your life to go.
The question we must first ask ourselves is this: what is my deepest intention?
Placing our attention on this intention, whilst cultivating awareness and compassion for what arises, creates a space in which our present situation becomes workable. From there we have the capacity to tend to the blocks that prevent us from taking ‘productive’ action in the direction of our intention. But it is much easier said than done. If it were easy, we’d all be leading this ‘much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ (1) that nourishes the connection we’re neurobiologically wired for.
In a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, insanity is defined as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ But we all do it. Why?
Truly stopping will most likely require us to challenge the idea we have of ourselves (the ego) and feel and process something painful (the pain-body) before we are able to move in a more productive direction that is aligned with our intention. As we have seen, the ego finds the unfixated reality of the present moment extremely uncomfortable and will cling dearly to its idea of self rather than risk letting go into the uncertainty of not knowing who “I” really is. The place we must return to if we are to 'disentangle our sense of “I”, of Beingness, from all it has become mixed up with' (2).
This is often the time we falter in our intention and revert to the comfort of our old habitual patterns, despite the fact they’re unproductive and even destructive, thus fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity.
The vulnerability that comes with truly feeling our present experience is a scary place for us. We are not well versed in residing there. It’s helpful to remember that our ‘insane’ predicament is nothing more than an innocent misunderstanding. We are not inherently ‘bad’. Shaming and judging ourselves does nothing to facilitate change. They simply don’t work. Have you noticed?
Compassion, on the other hand, allows us to respond to our suffering in a way that frees us up, making our predicament workable. It is from there that new possibilities arise and change is possible.
‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change’ (3)
The toll of unexamined beliefs
We’re now going to explore the balance of being and doing with regards to the impact unexamined beliefs have on our actions and how, through being, we can bring them into awareness, process what keeps their momentum going and consequently free ourselves to act in a more productive manner.
So, firstly what is an unexamined belief?
A thought we cannot see because we are identified with it – i.e. an egoic part of ourselves. Eckhart Tolle explains to us in A New Earth, Create a Better Life that ‘the ego is not only the unobserved mind, the voice in the head that pretends to be you, but also the unobserved emotions that are the body’s reaction to what the voice in the head is saying’ (2). It might be more accurate to say that an unexamined belief is a combination of a thought and the emotional reaction to that thought that takes place outside of our awareness.
When we practise awareness it can be the emotion we feel and become aware of first, prior to the thought arising. If at this stage, we play out the human habit to move away from an uncomfortable feeling we miss the chance to hear the thought (the unexamined belief) that the emotion is linked to. If, however, we learn to be patient and gently stay with our emotions, regarding them as sources of information, rather than something to run from, they can deliver to us the unexamined belief that they are reacting to (4). This belief may have been taken on long before your conscious mind can remember. Perhaps now we can begin to understand what neuroscientist Dr Candace Pert meant when she said ‘your body is your subconscious mind’ (5).
Becoming ‘agile’ at this process takes much practise. It is developed gradually by returning to the present moment and learning to accept what arises by cultivating the 'wings of awareness and compassion' (6), as we have discussed. It is the ongoing process of really getting to know yourself that develops the inner trust needed to be able to decipher the messages encoded in emotion without the interference of ego.
The phrase ‘a watched pot never boils’ comes to mind here. Sitting down and trying to force ourselves to find an unexamined belief is a form of subtle aggression against our own being – it comes from the unexamined premise that ‘I need to fix myself’, as if you are fundamentally defective in some way. But that’s not what this work is about.
Pema Chödrön writes:
‘The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we already are. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest’ (7).
Do you see how sitting with the intent to change who we are is rooted in a resistance against our own being? And how sitting with the intent to offer some kindness to whatever arises creates the space of acceptance we need to just be?
The reason I bring this up is to highlight the subtleties with which our belief ‘that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ can enter our lives. Whilst we will be exploring unexamined beliefs here to demonstrate their impact in our lives, it is important to remember that in working with ourselves we always start here, in this moment. Just as we are. Otherwise the pot will never boil.
The example I am going to use to explore the balance of doing, being and the toll of unexamined beliefs is the veterinary profession. Whilst this is a topic particularly close to my heart, the principles are equally applicable to any organisation of people.
With a rate of suicide nearly four times that of the general population and twice that of other healthcare professions the veterinary profession is currently suffering from a well-being crisis (8)(9). Whilst this is a huge and multifaceted issue, I strongly believe that the unexamined beliefs surrounding an individual’s worth in a professional role are a critical component contributing to the issue. The following example is designed to shine a light on how these unexamined beliefs, when left in the dark, contribute to the crisis we’re seeing in well-being, recruitment and retention.
Here’s our scenario: Say you’re a vet and you’re operating on a dog. You have carefully clamped and ligated (tied off) an artery as part of the procedure and as you cut the artery you notice the ligature (the piece of string like material used to tie off vessels) loosening. Before you can do anything about it the pedicle (arterial stump) pings back into the depths of the abdomen. The dog starts bleeding out. There’s no doubt, it’s time to act. So, you do everything you can within reason to remedy the situation. You did the best you could with what you had available to you at the time.
As we’ve said, training in being doesn’t mean that we become inactive. It doesn’t mean we take a ten-minute break to meditate as the dog continues to bleed. Instead, it gives us the tools to respond more effectively. By practising ‘being’, we can bring the parts of ourselves that hold us back into consciousness to improve the effectiveness of our ‘doing’. For example, if you held an unexamined belief that ‘asking for help means I’m incompetent’, then the way you chose to act in the above situation might have been to avoid calling for help, when in fact asking for help was the most effective action to take for your own and your patient’s sake.
Either way, whatever you did, you did the best you could with what you had available at that moment in time – the level of skill you had, the level of experience you had, the time you had, the equipment you had and the set of beliefs you had.
So, what happens next?
Outcome 1: the dog lives.
Phew. Thank goodness for that. A hairy story for the pub later. You reflect on the situation, resolving to take some time to practise ligature tying and perhaps ask a senior to oversee your next surgery, thus learning and moving on from the scenario.
Outcome 2: the dog dies.
That fact that you did your best with what you had available to you at the time doesn’t change. Let’s explore the potential scenarios that stem from here:
Outcome 2, Scenario 1: If you do not have your sense of worth hitched to the outcome of your best efforts then the death of a patient in your care will not detract from who you are and your worth as an individual. Of course, it is a painful experience and it’s important of acknowledge and honour that by:
a) feeling and honouring your own sadness that comes from the passing of a patient’s life.
b) expressing empathy for the owners who have lost a loved one.
c) assessing the scenario, in a clear non- judgemental manner, to identify any personal mistakes that can be learned from and shape a new action plan for future scenarios.
When you are able to acknowledge the above, free from identification with the idea of yourself as ‘only worthy when I succeed in saving a patient’s life’, then you will not carry the outcome as a personal burden. Consequently, you can meet the situation with a sense of equanimity and respond more effectively in the future. (NB. Equanimity is not to be confused with indifference – see below).
I see this as the core of resilience: knowing that you did your best with what you had available to you at the time (including your level of experience, skill and knowledge) and that this is enough, regardless of the outcome.
The HeartMath Institute define resilience as ‘the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, adversity, trauma or challenge’ (10). I would say knowing we are enough, regardless of the outcome, allows us to engage the emotional and mental flexibility needed to meet suffering with compassion and strengthen our capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, adversity, trauma and challenge.
Now let’s look at Outcome 2, Scenario 2: The sadness of a life lost is still there but there’s another more pressing element. Knowing that you did the best you could with what you had available to you at the time is not enough. Your sense of worth is attached to the outcome. There is an unexamined belief at play here.
The same could actually be applied to outcome 1 where the dog lives. I have kept them separate for ease of writing, but if you were identified with the idea that ‘I am only worthy when I do things ‘right’’, having a surgery go badly (despite the patient living) would challenge your sense of worth also.
The unexamined belief may be felt as a vice like grip in the stomach, a shallowness of breath and difficulty focusing – i.e. anxiety. Or if you’ve learnt to shut down your feelings altogether, you might just feel numb or appear indifferent – ‘have you no heart?’ someone might ask. Yes, but sadly we’re often conditioned not to feel it. If you’re more in touch with your feelings and manage to stay long enough to investigate (which might be a process of weeks rather than moments), you may hear a belief along the lines of ‘to be enough, I must achieve’.
Sadly, this is a belief instilled in many young academically capable children. The flip-side being that those whose talents lie in areas valued ‘lesser’ by today's education system run the risk of taking on the belief that ‘I’m not academic, so I’m not enough’. Nobody wins.
When a person with this belief system decides to become a vet (or any role that involves responsibility, particularly for life/death situations), that belief system, that for many was instilled at school or home (or both) when growing up, is extrapolated to work, becoming ‘to be enough, I must achieve at my job’. When this belief joins with the common misunderstanding that ‘to be a good vet is to prevent your patients from suffering/dying’ a fertile ground is created for vets to take on inevitable patient suffering as their own personal burden, resulting in ‘compassion fatigue’ and contributing to the stress, depression and burn out which we see ravaging the profession today.
The precise unexamined belief and way is it expressed will vary between individuals depending on the beliefs they have taken on growing up and the coping mechanisms they have developed to deal with them. Either way, dealing with the root frees us from identification with the beliefs that hold us back and rather than spend our lives coping, we are able to expand and a sense of well-being returns to our life.
Some are visibly stressed when an unexamined belief is at play, and this situation is easier to start addressing because the person is willing to acknowledge and express how they’re feeling (even if it’s only because they’re failing to hide it any longer). Before we end, there is another, almost invisible, type of coping mechanism I would like us to explore…
Funnily enough this coping mechanism is actually a survival mechanism best known to our animal friends. I’m going to term it the 'sheep approach to coping’. Here’s why. Like many animals, sheep tend not to display their symptoms of dis-ease until they absolutely must - an adaptation to prevent their predators from identifying them as weak and a potential next meal. Because of this they are often already well into an illness before overt symptoms develop, sometimes appearing to drop dead of no apparent cause to the untrained eye.
Here is where we meet the coping mechanism of indifference. Indifference comes from an unwillingness to feel; it’s closing down and shutting out to avoid feeling pain. By referring back to part three we get an idea of where the habit to avoid emotional pain came from, but also see the toll that it is taking on our bodies and ultimately how rather than aiding survival, it is now a threat to survival.
Every time someone uses the old phrase ‘keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it’ we reinforce the habit of moving away from uncomfortable emotions and keep the unexamined beliefs firmly out of sight, ironically where they can do the most damage. Those who invoke this phrase when they sense emotional pain arising in another do so because if someone were to go there it would mean going there themselves and that part of them has yet to find the courage to do so.
So instead the veneer of emotional stoicism is favoured, and you end up believing you should adopt it too. If asked, post scenario 2 (the dog dying), how it was feeling, indifference may sound a little like this “I’m fine. Just another day at the office”. This protective veneer (often coupled with a callous sense of humour), whilst understandably used frequently when trying to grapple with the emotional interface of life and death, carries with it a hidden toll - a cocktail of misunderstandings about who we are as human beings that, if left unexamined, slowly poisons our lives until we’re backed into a corner buying into the belief that there’s only one way out.
The show does not have to go on. If we want to save ourselves, our colleagues, friends and the profession itself, we must decide to turn and acknowledge the unexamined beliefs running riot in our profession’s unconscious. Through integrating training in awareness and emotional intelligence with practical, grounded and relatable teachings on self- compassion, courage and resilience that are applicable, personal and accessible to each individual in, and training to be in, the profession, we can start to change veterinary medicine’s story line from one described as leaving a trail of tragedy in its wake (11), to one that is capable of supporting all its members in learning how to thrive and access their fullest potential. It may even change the way we view and care for our patients.
This is a huge topic and the above example gives a snapshot into just one component of a multifaceted subject. Much excellent work has and is being done to bring this crisis into awareness in order to address it. I’m interested in how the work we are exploring in this eight-week series can interweave with existing methods to offer students and professionals the means with which to develop skills in awareness and emotional intelligence through experiential learning, that in turn will support the process of each individual and the collective profession in shifting from a state of surviving to one of thriving. It’s a big ask requiring excellent collaboration in the direction of a unified goal and a large helping of cathedral thinking. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I believe, through cultivating awareness and compassion in our own lives, we are capable of creating real change. And as always, it starts here.
1. Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
2. Tolle E. A New Earth, Create a Better Life. 2nd edition. UK: Penguin Books; 2016. pp. 26, 134.
3. Rogers CR. On Becoming a Person. 2nd edition. NY: Mariner books; 1995.
4. Kohanov L. Guiding Principle 1. Use Emotions as Information. In: The Power of the Herd Kohanov L. ed. California: New World Library; 2015. pp. 232-274.
5. Pert CB. Your Body is Your Subconscious Mind. [Audiobook]. USA: Sounds True; 2004.
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. Chödrön P. The Pocket Pema Chödrön. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc; poc edition; 2008. p. 15.
8. Why are vets at high risk of suicide? Veterinary Record. 2009:164;575.
9. Hamilton N. Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian. Sydney: Australian Academic Press; 2019. p. 3.
10. 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. p. 8.
11. BEVA Blog. Sturgeon B. Suicide. 2017. https://www.beva.org.uk/News-Views/Blog Accessed: October 24, 2019.