Monday, May 27, 2013

Mind Reading and Mindfulness

The TED Talk above is fascinating on so many levels.  But it is included here for two simple reasons:

1. It pinpoints for the psych geeks among us the RTPJ (Right Temporal-Parietal Junction) in the brain, which is charged with the job of thinking about other people's thoughts.  It's totally awesome to realize that we don't purposely devote our waking hours to wondering who's unfriended us on Facebook today, but instead are hardwired to do just that.

2.  It's very cool to watch the little kids change their judgments as they mature and to wonder how many of us have failed to develop entirely.  I have a list of names, but I'll just keep that to myself.

We humans spend a great deal of time assessing, analyzing, and trying to change other people's thought processes.  It's stock-in-trade for teachers and other leaders, of course, but we all do it no matter our station in life.  Because we are herd animals (yes, just like horses, only meaner), we like for our social circle to consist of people who think the way we do.  It's just easier that way.  No wondering who's likely to attack us in the night or talk smack about us around the cave.  No worrying that our food stash is being raided while we're away at a TED Talk.  We like to be secure in our sense of belonging, and that means making everyone as much the same as possible.

If the last Presidential election proved anything, it's that this is fruitless labor.

Where do mind-reading and mindfulness intersect?  They are two sides of the coin.  While we are firmly embroiled in our efforts to make everyone think the way we do (and therefore be as "right" as we are), we are anything but mindful.  Here's where I will try to change the way you think.

When I say to fellow horsemen that they need to approach their horses and their interactions with them in a mindful way, I note a distinct shift as far from mindfulness as it's possible to get instantaneously.  What I get is a rider who is completely distracted by her efforts to note in painful detail everything she and her mount are doing, thinking, feeling, and imagining.  Those brain cells are working so hard, the odor of frying grey matter is nearly overwhelming.  Yelling, "Stop thinking so hard!" results in stunned glances and sputtering...and that's just the horse.

Mindfulness is, in reality, an empty mind.  Not an empty brain, mind you (yes, that's a pun), but an empty, quiet "mind", that actively engaged piece of our being that no one quite understands but we all kind of "get" when someone tells us to clear our minds.  To paraphrase Deepak Chopra, we empower our brains when we turn off our minds.  It's only when we're not thinking about what we're doing and not even thinking about what we're thinking that we unencumber ourselves enough to allow us to sense with that niggling little something, the name of which cannot be fathomed, what is really going on.  That's when we read minds the best.

How do we begin to become mindful? Well, I can assure you that learning how to meditate while on horseback is not a good plan.  Turning off the conscious to access the subconscious needs to be practiced in advance, and self-hypnosis (otherwise known as meditation) is a fine place to start.  Next post I'll give specific instructions for a basic, beginner's approach to emptying the mind and filling the space left with incoming data that we mostly miss because of all the static we're experiencing.  For those who have already tried meditation, you can skip the next post and go to your Special Place before your next ride.  Quiet your mind so that your brain can function and the small places that feel without thinking can really touch what is so special about the connection between horse and human.

It's at that moment, when you are truly devoid of self-talk and efforts to assess and control that you can meet your horse on his turf.  When you do, you will feel a shock of recognition and wonder why it took you so long to get to that place.  You're gonna love it, I promise.  You will never think like a horse or be able to stream Fuzzbutt's consciousness, but you can attain a certain level of relationship to the space around you that is as close to being in your horse's head as you'd like without starting to flinch every time a squirrel rattles a leaf nearby.  That would be off-putting for your co-workers, so we'll just stick to almost and be happy.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Making brain waves with your horse

Thinking Horsemen, rejoice!  You are not imagining that your horse responds to your mood and your emotional levels.  His reaction is real, as is yours to him.  But why and how and who cares anyway?

In the continuing discussion of Brain v Mind, I am taking the theory one step further and positing that if my mind controls my brain, then odds are in favor of my horse's mind controlling his brain as well.  I'm not going to venture into the "what in hell, then, is going on in the cockatoo's mind that's causing his brain to signal that he needs to shriek like a banshee while I'm trying to type?".  I don't know the answer to that and possibly never will.  Horses are easier, so I'll pretend to be knowledgeable about their mind/brain dichotomy.

"Can we discuss this?"

Last week I suggested that if you are riding in fear (or doing anything else with an overlay of mind issues), your mind--your "self"--is allowing unresolved problems to trigger responses in your brain that, in turn, trigger autonomic nervous system responses along the lines of massive dumpings of adrenaline into your blood stream, raising of blood pressure, dilating of pupils (making Fuzzbutt look far darker and more menacing than he actually is), humming of show tunes, and so on.  I suggested that the over- or inappropriate reactions could be quelled if you took a moment to recognize the voice of your mind and tell it kindly to step off while you realistically assess the situation.  Quiet the big voice of your mind so that the little one can be heard and felt by the brain.  I reference the intriguing book, Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.  There is a lot to be learned yet about how the mind makes snap decisions and what intuition really consists of, but for now the idea that our minds have a better sense of the world in quiet moments than in frantic ones seems workable.

So, back to the horse, it seems logical that if our minds talk sometimes overly loudly to our brains, thus causing out-of-proportion reactions in our bodies, the horse has a similar structure to his mental functioning.  That certainly explains why a squirrel close up isn't at all frightening in the pasture while one rustling a few leaves in a tree along the trail is horrifying and worthy of a massive, wild-eyed, sit 'n spin.  He is most likely already on edge as he's in an unfamiliar setting that sets his nerves jangling with possible threats and his is loud mind voice is screaming "Predator!" with such conviction that his quiet, sane mind can't be heard when it whispers, "It's a friggin' squirrel, you wing nut!"

When I was learning about horses back in the dark, pre-Internet ages, I was told repeatedly never to pat or fuss over a misbehaving horse because the attention would only cement the bad behavior.  That would lead to many trials of retraining and relearning new responses.  As time has passed, however, calmer voices have spoken and pointed out that it's imperative to know the reason for the reaction at hand, both in the horse and in ourselves.  I've seen the benefits of this shift for myself with my own horses.  The horse become sulky and sullen and wants to quit working every time you reach a particular point in your riding regimen.  Do you assume it's something he's doing just to spoil your day?  Do you call him lazy?  Do you beat him?  Force him?  Make him see your superior ability to analyze situations?

I would suggest that a better route would be to first determine what role you're playing in his reaction.  Is your loud mind screaming at your brain that there's something amiss?  Did you notice a subtle slowing of Fuzzbutt's reaction time as you made the third pass at the oxer?  Did your loud mind scream at your brain, Kick him before he stops!  Did you do that?  Did your muscles tighten and your heart rate increase?  Did he notice?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then perhaps you cued him to become balky.  Maybe he knows you're going to kick him right about where that dark spot in the ring footing is, and he's become reactive because he hates being kicked.  Maybe the first time he balked it was because he had an itch or was a little sore or just needed a breather.  Did that accidentally trigger a series of events that got out of control?

Did you check in with your horse?  Did you try quieting his screaming mind by changing up the routine, giving him a break, talking to him, petting him, or otherwise distracting him from whatever is bothering him?  If you did, did you take the time to notice whether he quieted and calmed and changed his intentions?  If not, why not?  Do you care?

Thinking Horsemen of the World, the challenge is afoot!  Find a way to put your quiet mind and his into harmony.  It can't hurt, and it might be a step toward enlightened riding.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Where your mind takes you

This week's required reading is Super Brain by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi.  I'll wait while you order a copy.....

Zip and Cliff will read to you while you wait for your copy to arrive.

Unlocking the secret of mind-over-matter has been a quest that has engaged humans for the entirety of our existence on this planet, no matter how long you believe that to be.  We are desperate to figure out what makes us tick, mostly, I suspect, so that we can prove that each of us ticks better than someone standing on the other side of the room.  That's how we humans roll.

The book is subtitled:

Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being

Who wouldn't want to unleash something explosive in his or her mind?  And if the explosion brought with it any one of the above-named improvements, what a bonus that would be!  This book may not have all the answers, but it certainly holds sufficient wisdom and research-based context to keep anyone busy analyzing the details of an otherwise unexamined brain.

The biggest takeaway for me turned out to be a line I heard repeated the same night in a movie trailer:  "Fear is a choice.  Danger is real."  Whoa!  

So basically, it seems that we, as I used to teach my students (teachers don't learn as easily as students, obviously), make decisions every second of every minute of every day of our lives.  We decide to eat, drink, walk, sleep, frown, smile, hate, love, and on...and on....  Everything we do beyond the unfettered functioning of the autonomic nervous system (heart beating, lungs taking in air, liver functioning, etc) is a conscious or semi-conscious decision on our part.  Our brain and our mind are not one and the same. 

Who knew?

I'm not going to try to rehash the brilliance of these two authors in my feeble way.  I am, however, going to put on the table the idea that the brain functions as a minion to the mind.  The mind (call it whatever you want including the "self") is the controller, the joystick as it were, that gives legs to the actions of the brain.  The brain recognizes things we see, processes our senses, gives us the ability to walk upright, and keeps the machine operating.  The mind picks the trendy shoes we walk in and makes value judgments about the DQ whose pampered equine is gathering steam in the stall next to Fuzzbutt's.

The mind decides to be afraid.  Do the math, carry the one, and it's apparent that the mind can also decide not to be afraid.  It can decide to be sad, or it can decide not to be sad.  It can decide to put aside all the overlaying crapola we've absorbed and cling to and just be aware of reality.  What a concept!

I know I've felt this split on those days when, after a long layoff, I've pondered just how hairy Zip's emotional trigger might be and whether or not there's danger lurking in those rolling eyes.  Most times, I've actually, consciously made the decision to not be afraid.  Looked at objectively, it's generally possible for any scenario to be taken down to its most real level and assessed accordingly, and horses are certainly real. When we stop laying our own emotional stuff on their behaviors and we recognize that horses don't misbehave, they only behave, we have a clue.  And if we also recognize that horses, like very young humans, are very primary-process ("I", "me", "mine", "give it to me!", "cookie?") and far more transparent than we are, we can more aptly judge the reality of the danger vs fear dichotomy we're experiencing in the moment.  

Give yourself credit (a little, at least) for knowing your own horse.  You know what it means when he gives you that look.  You know instinctively what the ears, eyes, nostrils, tail, and breathing pattern of your equine buddy mean.  But many of us will overlook our own intuitive understanding and apply decades of our own silliness before adding that big dose of fear to the equation.  

What if you didn't?  What if next time you just take what Fuzzbutt is telling you at face value?  What if you leave him alone when he's actually signalling danger, and what if you set aside your mind-made fear and just hop aboard if he's not?  What if?

This came up when I discussed (that's how I think of my diatribes, despite there being no one talking back to me) Michael Johnson's Healing Shine.  His big  Ah-HA!  moment arrived at the behest of a Native American mentor who pointed out very nicely that Michael was Shine's biggest problem.  I'm thinking that maybe our minds are our biggest problem, and we have a bad habit of spreading that around.  

Think on, Fearless Reader!  And peel off the layers between your brain and reality.  It might be a whole new world you're looking at.

Monday, May 06, 2013

What Hormesis Means to Me

Back in the Day (that would be the day before we discovered the Intertubes and immersed ourselves in strange bits of misinformation), there existed upon the land the interesting practice of exposing people to low doses of radiation and/or poison in order to make them immune to damage from higher doses.  This "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" approach to life went out of fashion when doctors set up web sites warning against all sorts of exposure to the natural world (and the unnatural, of course, as well).  In the end, we have very little hormesis left and a whole lot of fragility.  Allergies of all sorts are a plague upon us, and so is the severe damage that comes from not having much experience with, say, gravity prior to jumping off the garage roof.

Recently I found myself with a backlog of unread magazines, and I spent an afternoon skimming articles so that I could get rid of the teetering stack on Recycling Day.  By the end of the day, I'd been taught that pretty much everything I knew was wrong (one of my favorite Firesign Theater albums, by the way), and that I've spent my life endangering myself and my child and everyone else over whom I've held any sway in any way.  

Dillon discovering horse snot...and not an antiseptic wipe to be seen

For instance, when my poor child was a-growing, there were no restrictions on feeding nuts, shellfish, dairy products, Elmer's Glue, or what-have-you to small fry.  Keeping them from eating paint was certainly recommended, but beyond that it was pretty much a "whatever they're willing to eat" kind of situation.  Ditto exposure to potential allergens in their surroundings.  I have a great shot of my newborn baby girl suckling at the collie's nose.  She was handling worms on her fish hook (presumably licking her hands clean afterward) by the time she was five, and had been coated in toxic substances at the horse barns where we boarded by the time she was ten.  Her only allergic reaction was to my special recipe for liver and onions, and that's assuming that shoving the plate across the table constitutes an allergic reaction.

More recently, my horses have been Hormese'd (yeah, I made that word up) to a fine turn.  There are many research articles suggesting that I should probably be pilloried for not putting fly sheets or little yellow repellent tags on my horses during the summer and for allowing them to eat pasture grass without having a specialist come to assess the weeds that grow there.  I split the difference with feed-through bug repellents that prevent larval development, even though in doing so I may well be setting the ecology of my little ecosphere back a thousand years. And I keep an eye out for colic and other negative reactions to whatever they've found to eat.  So far (knock wood or something) I've not had a major problem in 16 years.  Sure, Pokey had "pasture heaves", allergic to 22 plants in her environment.  But she was alone in her misery.  And the plants included such goodies as cottonwood trees, of which we have none so she certainly didn't sensitize herself by gnoshing the leaves or bark thereof.  

At Dakota's request, I don't do this anymore.

Perhaps the best signal that we are about to return to extolling the virtues of hormesis instead of fragilizing ourselves and our animals is the penchant for "barefoot" trimming for as many horses as can tolerate it.  I'm not a bandwagon type, and I have had two horses that had to be shod 12 months of the year due to structural defects that rendered their feet overly sensitive to the abuse of stuff like walking around.  But where possible, I've left the others to their own devices, and they've adjusted perfectly.  I hedge by using boots if we're headed out into the woods over rocks and roots.  That's on the days I remember to put their boots on, of course.  Sometimes I don't remember to put my own boots on, so it's certainly not a guarantee.  

Harking back to my last few posts, regular readers (who I love) can probably guess that this is still about the whole randomness fascination I've been flagellating of late.  It's about not being able to really know that what we're doing to/for ourselves, our loved ones, and our animals is helping more than it's hurting.  If I dress Dakota up for a summer's day as if I expect an invasion of aliens and expect to use him as a scarealien in the pasture, who's to say that the welts on his butt are from the fly sheet rubbing the hair the wrong way or from biting insects that got under the sheet?  They could be a reaction to something he ate.  Too many variables.  When I hung fly catcher bags on fence posts all around the farm and found them filled with carcasses (that's 22,000 per bag) weekly, I thought, "Wow!  We really have a fly problem, and it's a good thing I invested in these nasty, smelly solutions!"  Then one day someone said something that made me take pause and think, "Wow!  I've been drawing flies from farms all over the neighborhood!  I wonder what would happen if I stopped doing that."  Yeah.  Almost no flies.  Iatrogenics at work:  the cure made an almost non-existent problem sooooo much worse.  

Hormesis is only a theory, and I'm pretty sure that pumping Zip, my curious problem child who is always most likely to eat a can of creosote or chew up something that is clearly labeled not for consumption, full of his toxin du jour will not make him immune as much as it might kill him or destroy some of his basic operating system (OSZip.01).  But I do believe that sticking to the natural path, letting horses and humans encounter natural stressors, survive them (hopefully) intact, and move forward stronger physically and mentally is a better approach than attempting to foresee every random possibility and engage in frantic preemptive measures whose outcomes can't be predicted with any certainty.  

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it until I hear a better one.