Wild

Horses and Mindfulness

The horse without wings
grazes calmly in the meadow.
She has no need of eternity,
no need of bits or bridles.

What she knows beyond
the good sense of her hooves
no one can tell.

If we call her ship
if we call her nightmare,
if we call her history,
she will not care.

When she wants to
she moves, flicks
at flies with her tail,
curls back her lip
and shows her yellow teeth.

When she wants to
she stands
absolutely still.

(A Brief History of the Horse, Lorna Crozier)

 

Spending time around horses may have been my gateway into a fascination with presence and somatic/emotional awareness. It wasn’t intentional, and people who work with and study horses have no need to integrate any trendy mindfulness buzz words. But horses require us, more than humans, to be in the present moment in order to connect with them — just as they are.

Equine Experiential Learning facilitator Linda Kohanov explains how one of her horses seems to respond to people’s emotional processes: “Rasa wants people to feel their problems, [which allows them] to listen to the messages behind their feelings, and to stop thinking that their true feelings are the problem.”

Horses are very highly attuned to their nervous system responses, as well as the same system’s status in any nearby beings. Knowing if another animal is experiencing a stress response is key to a horse herd’s collective ability to read their environment. Like most animals, horse don’t separate out their memories, thoughts, and feelings into categories. At least, not in the way that we do. If something — a horse, mountain lion, or plastic bag — is perceived as a threat a horse, it seems that only experience engaging that item without a threatening outcome will cause them to adjust their response. Humans have all kinds of reasons for hiding “negative” emotions: embarrassment, social norms, professional requirements. This is all thanks to our prefrontal cortex — the CEO of our brain. It helps us create those complex rationalizations and reasons for why we should act the way we act.

Horses’ systems are a lot more centered on their very advanced and perceptive nervous system… their goals are all about herd syncronicity and being aware of the “feelings” (through stress responses) of themselves and others, in order to survive as a group. But here’s the catch: many of the complex reasons, explanations, and abstractions that we humans come up with are misaligned with the true sub-conscious perceptions of the world around us that brought us the feeling. In other words: something causes us stress and instead of accurately addressing the cause for what it is in the moment, we “ignore and store” that feeling somewhere in our body and later give it a reason that feels easier for us to process. Perhaps that looks like blaming someone else, or solving a small problem that we feel more in control of. Bringing stress from work (or school) and lashing out at the people we love instead of a superior is one common example of this. A classic experiment on the concept of “misattribution of arousal” (ie. “picking the ‘wrong’ story to explain why you feel the way you do”) explains this well.

With stress responses, that complex reasoning doesn’t actually help us much. If there’s a famine or a wild animal chasing you, focusing on something else doesn’t help much, and our nervous system knows that well. The only way out is through. We much offer our stressful emotions peace in order to experience them from a place of self-compassion. Then we may move through them.

Conveniently for our awareness, horses don’t care about our emotional reasoning. They care about the state of our nervous system, because paying attention to that is what keeps them alive. They don’t care if you’ve told yourself that doing a puzzle makes your stress feel better, they care that the stress is still experienced somewhere in your body, trying to protect you from something. When we “store and ignore” a feeling, our nervous system stays in a stressed state, even though it may be subtle. The state of our nervous system directly connects to our stress level: the thing we are, perhaps, best at brushing off and ignoring (stress? we’re ALWAYS stressed!). But if a nearby animal is stressed, a horse needs to know about so that they can pay attention to and defend themselves from whatever that stressor is. The “problem” that needs to be understood and addressed is what is causing that stress response, not the response itself. Horses respond with connection to people being authentic with those feelings, which enables us to move through them differently.

For these reasons, horses have a lot to teach us about mindful presence. They don’t care much if we think our stress is “good” or “bad,” they want us to be present with it so we can find out what it’s telling, and move through it! Horses can help us reveal our layers of awareness, listen to all our feelings, not just the ones we enjoy, and connect more deeply into what’s happening right… now.

 

“Visiting Feelings” Art Project

visitingfeelings2

Visiting Feelings (by Lauren Rubenstein, JD, PsyD) is my favorite book for introducing children to the idea of being curious and accepting about feelings, rather than labeling them as “good” or “bad.” Emotional judgment leads to children being afraid of their feelings and trying to push them away, rather than learning how to connect to their experience deeply enough to share how they feel, as necessary, and ask for or find what they need.

“Treat your feelings like friends, talking to you!”

 

 

According to Dr. Rubenstein’s website, the book was inspired by a Rumi poem:

The Guest House  

This being human is a guest house.  
Every morning a new arrival.  

A joy, a depression, a meanness,  
some momentary awareness comes  
as an unexpected visitor.  

Welcome and entertain them all!  
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,  
who violently sweep your house  
empty of its furniture,  
still, treat each guest honorably.  
He may be clearing you out  
for some new delight.  

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.  
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.  

Be grateful for whatever comes.  
because each has been sent  
as a guide from beyond.  

house

 

This book delivers that metaphor in a way that is accessible for children: it imagines and illustrates feelings to be like guests to their home: sometimes they show up quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes they stomp in very loud, sometimes very quietly, sometimes they are big and heavy, sometimes they are little and light…

endvisitingfeelings

art by Shelly Hehenberger, illustrator of “Visiting Feelings”

In line with the principles of mindfulness, the book illustrates how all feelings are valid and have a reason they are there — something to teach or tell us that we need — and they all need love and acceptance. I also see this as the kid-version of Pema Chödrön’s “you are the sky… everything else is just the weather.” All of these ideas help us connect to that which is constant inside of us

This metaphor lends well to other extensions:

  • Identification of feeling outside of self: Our feelings don’t come to take over or change our house. Sadness doesn’t get to say “PAINT IT ALLLLLLLLL BLUE … and maybe the neighbors, too! BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I AM!!”. We’re still in charge of that, our house is still ours — the feeling has just come to tell us something.
  • Non-judgement and self-compassion: If a friend showed up at our door feeling sad or angry, would we just tell them to stop feeling that way? No, we would ask them what’s wrong and give them LOVE.

Recently, a mindfulness student and I wanted to make some art to represent her experience of the concepts in the book. Together we brainstormed ways that she could illustrate each feeling and have a house “visit” them.

First we illustrated a house, laminated it, and cut it out. Then we began making the artistic representation of each feeling, and put each in a sheet protector. She conceptualized all the illustrations and she chose the colors and images that surrounded each feeling (she had recently watched Inside-Out, so we started in on the 5 Core Feelings). I am so impressed with her work!

When we talk about that feeling visiting, we just slide the house right into that sheet protector. This can be a great opportunity to talk about how the house stays the same no matter what surrounds it: a calm, loving place.

disgusthouse

Then we made some “helpers” who could be invited to the house to help out certain feelings. These can be loving people, visualizations, or mindfulness practices.

sadhouse joyfulhouseangryhouse

(that helper with “anger” is Anger walking slowly in Steps and Stones: An Anh’s Anger Story, if you happen to know about Anger)

Lastly, we made “presents” for the feelings — love, listening, breathe, movement, and other ideas and qualities of presence that we might offer our friends who need help and support with their feelings (you can download a PDF of the “presents” template, to illustrate, here).

This project was not only a helpful tool to extend the book’s message and bring us deeper into discussion of her personal experience, it’s also a helpful tool in the long run to help prepare for different scenarios when these feelings come up.

Scary Things Hairy – A Poem About Stress… Mindfulness Edition!

The book Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, is an incredible resource for understanding and supporting trauma responses in children.

One of my favorite resources in this book is a collection of poems that help children understand their nervous system’s flight/fight/freeze responses through the likes of characters like Charlie Coyote, Rapid T. Rabbit, and Oscar Opossum. This is an important understanding for all children to have about their bodies, so that they can come to rightfully view big + strong emotions as their body’s attempt to keep them safe… and then to see that they have the power to choose how to respond to and have compassion for those feelings. 

Here I have adapted the first poem in the set to connect it back to mindfulness. This is a great tool for Grades 1 – 5.  

 

Scary Things Hairy
By Peter Levine and Maggie Kline (and added to by Kate)

Understanding Fight-Flight-Freeze Responses

 

A long time ago, before there were cars

Before we had TV… people watched stars.

 

We huddled together inside of a cave

It was cold, it was dark, and we had to be BRAVE.

 

We had to stay hidden, outside it was scary,

With saber toothed tigers and other thing hairy.

 

They tracked us down when out we’d go

‘Cause they could run fast, and we ran too slow.

Sometimes that hairy, giant-toothed bunch

Pounced down upon us and has us for lunch (ugh)!

 

We found fire and then we had heat

But still it was hard to get something to eat.

So we invented weapons and tools

Then we could start making some of the rules.

 

With weapons and tools we went out in the sun

We hunted and gathered and even had fun!

And when the saber-tooth tiger came near

We chased him away by throwing our spears.

 

Now it’s time for you to pretend

That you live in the wild with your family and friends!

Feel the strength in your legs and the spear in your hand

As you chase the saber-tooth over the land.

 

Can you feel it right now, that spear in your hand?

What’s it like when you throw it, where does it land?

Throw it right now with all that you’ve got.

Feel the power in your ARM; like a giant sling shot.

 

Feel the power in your LEGS; it grows as you run.

Your legs are strong and jumping is fun,

Do you get the feeling your legs are like springs

When you chase a tiger and other big things?

 

What does it feel like inside when you’re big and you’re strong?

When you can chase animals all day long?

It’s lots more fun than when they’re chasing you

Or maybe you think that might be fun too!

 

But now most of our worries aren’t about saber-tooth beasts

We’re stressed about homework, not becoming a feast.

 

So we thank our bodies for helping us hide, run, and fight,

And then take a deep breath and remember that we’re loved, safe, and alright.

 

When we breathe slowly to tell our brain there’s no hairy creature,

Our bodies discover they don’t need those protective features.

Then we can use our brilliant brains

To find a solution to the problem that came.

Nervous System Science and Mindful Awareness

Our brains and bodies are constantly taking in important information about our needs and surroundings through our five senses and felt experience.  

That information affects our entirely physiology — perhaps most notably through our nervous system. This is a system that we share with all animals. It allows beings of all species to respond to what is happening around them by processing what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell and then activating bodily functions based on that information.

The specific part of the nervous system that we are going to talk about here allows animals to both stay safe by reacting to danger and threats, and to take a break, rest, and regain energy and strength when the coast is clear.

Our nervous system has two main parts: the central nervous system (made up of our brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is made up of another two parts: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the one we look to most to help understand our experiences through mindfulness. The autonomic nervous system works, as the name implies, totally automatically. It requires no conscious work to function. However, its effects have a big impact on our conscious decision making. For this reason, improving our awareness of this automatic system can be very helpful. Though we can’t control its response within our physiology, we can control our choices. This is where mindfulness comes in.

This system has two main responses: through the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that takes care of us when we’re stressed or threatened — the fight/flight/freeze responses. When that system is activated, the body prioritizes survival responses above less “essential” functions. The parasympathetic nervous system is the one that calm us down, allows our bodies to relax, digest food, and do complex mental work — the rest/digest responses. 

Many of our emotional experiences connect to responses from these systems — whether we’re aware of them or not. Frustration, anger, sadness, and annoyance boil down to survival responses: we feeling something to be a threat to us: to our understanding, our safety, our community, our worldview, our self-control… the list goes on.

But, there is a disconnect here. The part of our brain that is in charge of regulating these threat-reaction fight/flight/freeze responses is very helpful for threats that are timeless and common to all beings — threats like avalanches, predators, and flash floods. These are threats with a clear start and finish: the problem is there, our response is triggered to help us survive it, and then the threat is gone. But most of our modern major stressors are somewhat more complex in nature: school and work stress, political atmosphere, family disagreements or conflict, finances, and oppressive social systems have a stronger hold on our stress responses than the ancient threats for which our brains were able to evolve. For this reason, the parasympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response doesn’t always help us to escape threats and stress as well as it once did.

Mindfulness offers us a way to untangle all of this, and be present with ourselves in the present moment instead of letting our body’s responses run away with our emotions and behaviors.  Mindfulness doesn’t look to change the stressors themselves — it looks to offer us a lens of greater peace and acceptance through which to examine them.

When we see clearly from a place of calm, rather than through a stress response designed to help us run from flash floods and fight off hungry wild animals, we can take care of our experiences and feelings with love and compassion instead of judgement and avoidance. Then we are better equipped to both cope with and solve the challenges we face.

We do this by:

  1. noticing our stress (sympathetic nervous system) responses
  2. thanking those feelings for helping to protect us
  3. allowing them to settle before we make a decision or act on our feeling

The first step to this is knowing what a nervous system response feels and looks like. Discuss as a family how many of the feelings below you can remember feeling during a time you had a big emotion. Pick a few that you’re going to keep a watch for, and check out the link to download a PDF matching game to help your family remember these responses so they can look out for them! 

Remember, it’s not bad to have a sympathetic response — it’s our body trying to protect us. But it’s up to uto notice if that system is truly helping us, or if we need to calm down before we can make a choice that will solve the problem and make us and others feel good in the long term.

(P.S. Want to learn more about the Nervous System and other brain science as a family? Check out Neuroscience for Kids from Dr. Chudler at the University of Washington!)

A Quick Guide To the Autonomic Nervous System

Click here to download a sorting game!

Parasympathetic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System

Response Rest-and-Digest Fight-Flight-or-Freeze
Purpose Body can rest Body can defend itself from a perceived threat
Brain Prefrontal Cortex (thoughts) can help the Amygdala (emotions and fear) understand how to respond. Prefrontal Cortex (thoughts) is “put on hold,” so the Amygdala (emotions and fear) makes quick fear/safety-based decisions.
General Body Calm and Safe Tense and Afraid
Shuts Down Stops fear reactions, adrenaline production. Stops body functions that are not critical to survival.
Enables Empathy, decisions, sense of safety, human connections, body functions. Reflexes (like taking your hand out of hot water), running, fighting, and/or hiding.
Heart Heart rate slows Heart rate quickens
Lungs Breath deepens Breath quickens and shortens
Muscles Muscles relax Muscles contract, become tensed for movement
Pupils Pupils get small Pupils get big
Stomach Stomach digests food and poops easily Digestion and pooping is slowed
Urine Peeing is regular and easy Tummy is tense, less peeing

 

THE ROADS TO BEHAVIOR: FEELING, THOUGHT, AND EMOTION

Within the practice of mindfulness, we often talk about three categories of experiences to be mindful of: our feelings, our thoughts, and our emotions. These three work together to produce our actions and behaviors.

Slide1

There are a number of theories over the order and interaction between these factors, but for the purposes of mindfulness all that really matters is our awareness of each of them. First let’s set up some working understandings of each:

Feeling

Feeling is perhaps the category modern life separates us from most carelessly. When you ask someone how they feel, they’ll tell you about their thoughts and emotions. Important pieces, but not the entire story. Feeling, in this sense, relates directly to the felt bodily experience. You may have participated in a body scan meditation before. That’s feeling. We notice the lump in our throat, the moisture in our palms, the beating of our heart, the sun’s heat against our skin, the feeling of our feet in our shoes, the throbbing in the head, the lightness in our chest… these true and unquestionable sensations in the body.

 

Emotion

Frequently we jump right past feeling to emotion. We are angry or sad or glad, but we aren’t necessarily aware of what each piece of the bodily experience informing that conclusion is. In actuality, our heart is thumping and our faced is flushed. And then we label that experience “anger.” It may be the experience that realizing we are experiencing anger makes us MORE angry, or it may be that we can use our awareness to soften to the experience and tame the bodily sensation. But more on that later.

There are multitude of nuanced labels that we use to label our emotional experience, and many are interrelated. How do we know helplessness from fear? Often it’s the third piece of the puzzle: our thoughts.

1465226_1070987446274912_9185881574690684002_n

 

Thoughts

Thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves about what we feel and about our emotional label. Our palms are sweaty, we experience anger, and we’ve notice that our child is painting on the walls. It may be the case that your physiological anger is due to that, and it may be the case that you are carrying some of the physiological experience from emotions lingering from your work day. Either way, the thought “NOT PAINT ON THE WALLS!!!” is likely to enter your equation then.

Humans like explanations. When we experience a sensation or attribute an emotional label to our experience, a thought meant to rationalize that experience is soon to follow. It may or may not be “correct.” In a classic experiment on this concept, scientifically called “misattribution of arousal” (aka, “picking the ‘wrong’ story to explain why you feel the way you do”) researchers had a woman survey two groups of men and then give them her phone number. One group of men had just crossed a shaky suspension bridge, while the other had crossed a safer, more stable bridge. The men who had just crossed the shaky bridge were more likely to call her, supporting the researchers’ idea that the men would attribute their experience of adrenaline and excitement, which was actually from the bridge, to the woman.

So perhaps your child isn’t coloring on the walls, but is pestering you about finding a particular toy. And perhaps your body is stressed from work, but in a mindless spiral you assume your child is causing you this stress and respond accordingly. In mindfulness we are less worried about correctness, and more worried about awareness and response over reaction.

 

These three factors mush together in one big pot of experience, typically. And we might be triggered at any point in that big pot to move to action/behavior. There are two types of behaviors, in this idea: a mindless reaction, and a mindful response. Typically, we have an experience and we react. Forever. It’s a constant cycle. Here’s one example of feelings, emotions, and thoughts connecting to each other and spiraling out of control, triggered by a challenging math problem. If this cycle were to continue, the child might go from the sensation of feeling restless and squished to an emotion of anger or helplessness.

Slide2

With mindfulness, of course, we aim to turn that reaction into a mindful response. To become aware of each point of influence (feelings, thoughts, emotions), accept them without judgement, and then use mindfulness tools to take back control on the cycle of experience. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions will arrive, but we have the ability to accept them without anxiety or needs to act on them and, by accepting them, be informed by them towards ways to respond most productive to getting our needs met. That is, after all, what all this stuff is going on FOR. Two ways this chart could look differently, by generating awareness early on and letting thoughts, feelings, and emotions inform mindful responses.

Slide2

Above, the child noticed herself telling herself she was worried and afraid. Noticing that feeling, she pauses and realizing she needs to ask for help. Asking for help, perhaps from parents at home or directly from her teacher, her thought pattern changes to reinforce the idea that there are people surrounding her and supporting her.

 

 

Slide2

In this chart, the child remembered about mindfulness in time to catch the tightness in his chest. He remembered his mindful breathing, which restored a sense of calm by kicking in his parasympathetic nervous system. Calming down restored his confidence in his ability to regulate his body, and reminded him that his experience of worry and fear was telling him he needed to reach out to the tools and support provided to him to solve the math problem.
You’ll notice that these charts do continue even after the mindful response. The response itself creates a new thought, feeling, or emotion. It always does. We cannot really turn experience off. We can increase awareness of its various food sources — through thought, feeling, and emotion — and make use awareness to make decisions that actually meet the needs our experience is revealing.

 

Let’s revisit that triangle at the top.

Slide1

Start at the middle. Think of a behavior in yourself or in your child that doesn’t serve a purpose or isn’t functional. What thought, feeling, or emotion leads to that behavior? Maybe it’s an emotion. What thought and feeling lead to that emotion? How far does the cycle go back? At what point could insert some awareness, pause, accept and validate your own experience, and make a different choice to better meet your needs?