In traditional descriptions, meditation is likened to training a horse. The sensations, impulses, and reactions in our bodies are like the untamed instincts of an animal, and when we take our seat in practice, we learn how to ride this energy with skill. As good equestrians know, the best way to ride a horse is not trying to control it with fear, force or frustration, but by confidently offering a partnership. We listen and respond to the horse’s needs for reassurance, guidance and gentleness, as well as recognizing its intuitive connection to the earth and environment. Based on what the horse tells us, we adjust our journey as needed, not losing sight of our intended destination. In this way, rider and horse can travel in harmony, each taking charge according to its strengths.
The analogy helps as we understand more about the workings of mind, brain, and body together. Much human stress comes from our clumsy handling of animal drives. Whereas a horse just acts in a horse-like way, following its instincts for better or worse, we are blessed (sometimes cursed) with the cognitive capacity to reflect on what’s going on. This brings great power, as we no longer have to follow every feeling within us, but also great suffering, because our deeply-rooted drives remain strong, not easily managed by the more recently evolved skill of self-mastery. When experience is painful, not only does our body produce urges to fight or flee, but our thinking mind joins in the act, with desperate attempts to get rid of the pain, usually with ineffectual problem-solving. Because thinking doesn’t trump feeling, we’re left in a stressful loop—the frantic ruminations of the mind can be felt by the body as something else to fear, creating more stress, pain, and rumination.
By noticing what’s going on in our bodies and minds, we step out of the loop of reactivity. Instead of being like a horseman or woman in a frenetic and futile battle with a frightened mount, we stop trying to grapple our way to steadiness.
This is where our horse-riding helps. As well as greater cognitive powers, humans also have access to awareness. By noticing what’s going on in our bodies and minds, we step out of the loop of reactivity. Instead of being like a horseman or woman in a frenetic and futile battle with a frightened mount, we stop trying to grapple our way to steadiness. Instead we relax and settle in our seat, bumpy though the ride may be. We might start talking to ourselves kindly and softly, like a horse whisperer, saying something like: “It’s OK. I know this is painful right now, and scary too. So let’s work together to move through this. I’ll hear and acknowledge your distress, recognizing that you’d like to get away from where we are, and you can trust that I’m steering well.” Responding to this calm confidence, rather than panic or anger, our bodies may begin to settle too.
As a species, we find ourselves in an “in-between place” (to borrow a phrase from Pema Chodron). Conscious enough to realize our suffering and maybe the patterns that lead to it, but not always aware and resilient enough to respond to that suffering wisely. Fortunately, just as our bodies can be strengthened with exercise, so we can train our minds. By learning how we add stress to our suffering, and training our minds to do things differently, we can start to step out of the struggle. Life becomes less like being bucked by a bronco, and a little more akin to Olympic showjumping. Plenty of hurdles, but a bit more poise.
Try working with this “Horse-Riding” practice, a few times a day, for a few minutes at a time (or longer if you like).
- Take your seat. Sit on a sturdy chair, if possible with your upper body upright (not stiffly so) and your feet in contact with the ground. Imagine yourself taking the dignified posture of a rider on a steed.
- Listen to the horse. Notice what’s happening in your body right now. As best you can. bring an attitude of kindly interest to your investigation. The intention is not to judge or change or what’s happening, but to hear what ‘your horse’ is saying, with attentive respect. Be aware of gut reactions, impulses, and emotions, which signal your intuitive, animal relationship with what’s going on. Listen to and acknowledge these powerful feelings, knowing that though they are powerful and offer important, intuitive information and motivation, However, also remember they aren’t in sole charge of the ride.
- Acknowledge the rider. Bring awareness to the cognitive mind, your thoughts. Let go, for now, of creating or following ideas—just observe, with a friendly curiosity: “What’s going on in my mind?” Notice any thoughts about how your “horse” is feeling or reacting, any tendency to want to reject, resist, or try to force the experience to be different from how it is.
- Notice the terrain. Open awareness to the environment around—notice what can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and any corresponding sensations in your body and thoughts in your mind. What’s it like to be horse-riding in this space, this terrain, here and now?
- Come back to center. Check your posture and state of mind—is your body still steadfastly in touch with the ground? Upright? Not tense? Is your mind present, awake, attentive? If needed, re-settle by connecting your attention to the breath in your belly for a time.
- Decide how to ride. Now, ask yourself: Based on what’s here, in this body, mind, and the world around me, what course would be helpful to take right now? In which direction, toward what or whom, shall the onward journey take? Listen to your gut, your heart, your head, and the feedback you receive from the environment and people around you. They can all be factored in to deciding your course, though they may all have different and sometimes apparently conflicting contributions to make. As best you can, let choices come from a place of awareness and response to the whole situation—your inner and outer world. Recognize that there may be no one right course to take, and you can re-navigate at any time, by checking in again with the rider and horse. Allow yourself to be still, and not to make a move, if this is what’s most needed for the moment.
I’ve written more about this horse-riding metaphor in a new book, Into The Heart of Mindfulness. For more on the mechanics of the mind and meditation, I’d also recommend James Kingsland’s new book, Siddhartha’s Brain: The Science of Enlightenment.