Who Are You When You’re Not Doing?

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It’s a paradox that one of the greatest lessons the horses have taught me is the power of being still. I mean they are big animals, animals that can take flight and thunder the ground in the blink of an eye. Animals who graze and wander for all but the entire 24 hours in a day. Movement is their way of processing everything. And yet, they are also masters of stillness. 

For a long time I missed this. Before we moved to the farm, Echo was boarded at a facility with paddocks, riding rings, indoor arenas and lots and lots of other horses and visiting people. A busy place where everyone was eager to enjoy their 4 legged friends and learn the craft of riding.

So I did what I was taught to do, what everyone else was doing … I groomed, put on tack, cleaned tack, rode, took lessons, talked with other riders, and generally sought to make myself useful (as we expected all the horses to be).

It was a familial like community – we all knew each other in one deep but narrow slice. Sometimes, outside the barn, we wouldn’t even recognize each other out of our riding gear. I loved those people and the horses. 

Stillness never entered the equation. I mean, if you’re paying thousands of dollars a month to enjoy a sport, why would you show up and do nothing?

But this isn’t simply the mantra of the equestrian stables. It’s the mantra of our culture. Be productive, be busy, action, do, usefulness. And of course, none of these mantras are ‘bad’. Action and doing are important, just as movement and flight are important to horses. 

It’s the balance that seems off. And balance is something the horses are so skillful at. 

“What does stillness mean? It means destroy yourself. Because any form or shape is the cause for trouble. Give up the notion that 'I am so and so'. All that is required to realize the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that?” 
― 
Ramana Maharshi

When I was working on my FEEL (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning) certification, one of the first key practices we had to put time into was called Wu Wei – non doing, with horses. I remember the first time I went to spend an hour with Echo in her pasture just being with her. After about 3 minutes I was looking around for something to do – manure to pick up, water to clean and fill. Anything.

After about 10 minutes, I was literally feeling jittery inside. Like bugs were crawling up and down my nervous system.

For the first 10 hours or so, all I could do was show up and tolerate the internal bugs. If I wasn’t the person I knew myself to be at the barn, who was I?

Who was I?

It took time for the addiction to being someone in particular, being who and what I’d known myself to be, to let go. But eventually and oh so gradually it did.

Mostly.

Over the months that followed, and the hours of practice, my body learned to be still. Echo was like my ever present teacher, saying nothing, doing nothing. And in that stillness we formed a deeper connection, a kind of quiet joy emerged between us. My heart opened and relaxed. I began to sense and perceive more of the subtle flow and connection between us and of life around me .. the birds, the wind, the grass and the crickets. I rejoined the quiet dance that I had become oblivious too.

To this day, while I can easily fall back into busy and productive, my body has relearned still. When we remember still, we can return to it, just as the horses do time and again each day, with breath and ease and grace.

May you too find the stillness of your brave heart and return to its well of presence where everything and nothing abides.