When we sense God is with us, our relationship with God develops through the experience of ‘connection through attachment’, which is a perceived sense of nearness. At other times, perhaps times of great loss or suffering, we may sense God is nowhere to be found. A joyful sense of connection seems to dissolve into a deep well of emptiness with no consolation. We may then experience what 16th-century mystic, John of the Cross, described as the “dark night of the soul.” In actuality, just as winter makes way for spring, this period of perceived absence and isolation potentially gives birth to an even greater spiritual resilience – an abiding sense of connection that survives even our darkest nights. We are invited into a deeper and more mature intimacy with God through the experience of detachment.
Both science and religion point to the fundamental forces and patterns of the universe as being essentially intimate and relational. While the language and the narrative may differ, the theme is the same. We exist in an utterly relational universe. Creation is ongoing as a dance without end. We, ourselves, are created over and over again as our bodily cells grow, mature, and die off, but not before giving life to countless new cells with new variations made possible through the myriad relationships and interactions that occur within our physical bodies and between our bodies and our external environments. No doubt similar processes are at work in the realms less observable, such as in the inner workings of our minds and hearts. Acknowledging this, all major spiritual traditions teach paths of transformation. If our minds and hearts are patterned like everything else in the knowable universe, they are always in the process of changing and evolving. We seek spiritual paths and, increasingly, science-based paths, to take a more active role in our personal evolution involving the growth and transformation of our hearts and minds.
I have prioritized this interest in my life from a very young age. I have learned from different spiritual paths as well as from the science of depth psychology, and more recently, neuropsychology, to help me navigate the journey toward a more whole and healthy life, characterized by a more authentic and loving relationship with myself and with others.
When I encountered Natural Lifemanship several years ago, I immediately recognized the opportunity to practice in practical, embodied ways many of the same processes at work in my spiritual journey. I’ve often reflected on how the principle of pressure has worked in my life to help me to grow more connected with self, with others, and with God. I’ve noticed the ways I’ve experienced pressure, at first as a kind of gentle nudging in my heart toward some kind of change process not fully understood. On some level, I feel I am asked to trust and cooperate with a process, although I may have no idea where it is leading. At the early stages I can’t quite put words to what is being asked of me or know how to respond, but the sense of pressure persists, gently increasing until I can’t ignore it anymore. At this point I start actively seeking an answer, which is Natural Lifemanship’s definition of resistance – not an undesirable thing, rather a positive search for an answer in response to pressure. In fact, my life’s most important lessons and periods of growth came about through the process of acknowledging some internally felt pressure, struggling with it, and finally cooperating, allowing it to change me in ways I never could have foreseen and never would have experienced without my willingness to trust, listen and observe, and cooperate, often blindly, with what I sense is being asked of me.
Another way NL has given concrete language to a pattern I’ve experienced in my deeply personal relationship with God is through the notion that the relationship grows through both attachment and detachment. Attachment in our spiritual lives refers to those wonderful life episodes and experiences where we acutely sense the presence of God, or a higher power, or a deeply felt connection with something greater, in our lives. This is usually felt as a consoling, meaningful, hopeful, warm and embracing presence utterly nurturing and sustaining us. It gives us the sense that all is well and that we can endure whatever struggles we may be experiencing.
The writers of the Judeo-Christian bible and many other religious texts all describe this sort of relationship, where faith is built through such affirming experiences. The early stages of faith can be described as a connection being built through attachment, or what is felt as presence, or the responsiveness of the subject of faith. This is even spoken of in Buddhism, a spiritual path generally unconcerned with the question of an ontological God, but essentially concerned with one’s epistemological relationship with What Is, with reality. Reality is what it is but our lens or our way of seeing and perceiving reality may be clear or it may be clouded. In the case of Buddhism, the lens of perception is polished through practice, but human nature is such that humans won’t persist at practice without some sense of reward. So it is said even in some forms of Buddhism that faith grows at the early stages as the pattern of the universe, being inclined toward evolution, reinforces a sincere practitioner’s efforts in faith (causes) by producing tangible effects experienced as answers to prayers.
There comes a time, however, when faith is tested. There are periods of our lives for many of us in which we feel disconnected from the faith that has sustained us. We experience no sensation whatsoever of the presence of God. Our vivid, Technicolor faith lives seem to have become monochrome and dull. To the extent that we have felt a deep connection before, we may feel utterly abandoned. We may cry, as many of the psalmists and even as Jesus did, “my God, why have you left me?” John of the Cross poetically described this dimension of our spiritual lives as “the dark night of the soul.” As a spiritual director, he did not wish the dark night on anyone but listened for it in those he counseled. Not everyone will experience a dark night, for there are those who may never cease to find consolation when they seek it in their daily lives and normal activities of faith. John maintained that one shouldn’t give up these routines or activities so long as they are producing satisfying results. This is a blessing in and of itself.
Some, though, are invited into a deeper intimacy with God through a fundamental testing of our faith. John of the Cross describes it this way (paraphrased): Our hearts were made for intimacy with the One who created us, and nothing less than a connection directly with our Source will satisfy us at the deepest level of our soul. And yet in our lives, we easily become attached to the more surface consolations available to us and we may rest our identity in something less than our truest selves – which is our true nature as children of God. God, therefore, weans us off of our reliance on consolations – or felt presence – by seeming to withdraw from us. The dark night can, therefore, be understood in NL terms as God, or our relationship with the Divine (however we know the Divine), practicing connection with detachment with us.
The goal is that we begin to cultivate a secure attachment, or enduring sense of connection – one we readily turn to regardless of whether we perceive God as being with us, or not. In Christian theology, God enacted the same pattern by being with humanity (through Jesus’ human presence) to withdrawing from humanity (Jesus’ death) to presence again (appearances after the resurrection) to withdrawal (Pentecost) but at the same time gracing humanity with the presence of the Holy Spirit, also known as “the comforter” or consoler. This pattern of attachment and detachment to build secure attachment (connection) in relationship is written into the gospel, itself.
My hope for all who read this is that in those moments of despair or loneliness and isolation, you find peace knowing that your Source of comfort and of life itself may not always seem near but it is always within. Know that perhaps you are being invited to discover and to rediscover an even more enduring sense of connection in the depths of your lives, one that doesn’t rely on any evidence of response (such as answered prayers) or a felt sense of presence. May we all develop a deep connection with self and the indwelling Spirit that is attuned to the still small voice within. The reward of such a sense of connection is the relationship itself – a “secure attachment” both earned and given by grace.
Oliver was sitting in a stall with Banjo, holding a saddle close to his chest, slumped over in defeat. It was yet another session that he tried to ride Banjo and failed. The Equine Professional and I stayed connected with Oliver, guiding him through self-regulation exercises and resisting the urge to rescue him or provide detailed instructions. Oliver wanted us to provide direction and he became frustrated at times when we encouraged him to find his own path to connecting with Banjo. Banjo stood beside him, patiently waiting and breathing slowly. Oliver continued to hug the saddle and his eyes seemed to glaze over at times like he was a thousand miles away. Banjo stomped one hoof, then another. Oliver blinked a few times and looked at him. Oliver started to check out again, but not for long. Banjo continued to make the request for him to stay present, using body movement and breath to get Oliver’s attention. Banjo was consistent and they continued this back and forth interaction until Oliver became calm and fully present. Oliver tilted his head and stared at Banjo with a gleam in his eye, a slow smile appeared on his face. It was in that moment, while sitting in the corner of the stall, that hot summer day, that something shifted in Oliver. He dropped the saddle, took a big belly breath and realized that this relationship was going to be different…it had to be different.
Oliver’s chronic anxiety led to an environment where his family managed almost every aspect of his life. He had little independence. At 12 years old, he was sleeping in his parent’s bed with the overhead light left on. Oliver was afraid of the dark, among other things. With peers, he tended to be controlling and confrontational; he struggled with reciprocity in play. During our intake session, Oliver hid behind his mother, continuously rolling his eyes, speaking in a goofy voice, and laughing nervously after everything he said. He avoided eye contact and deflected direct interaction. His parents answered questions for him. When we redirected our attention to Oliver, he appeared startled and confused, like he had just woken up.
After picking Banjo that first day, Oliver walked, almost stomped, directly to the barn. We had to jog a bit just to keep up with him. He told us he wanted to ride Banjo and looked at us expectantly. The Equine Professional and I paused and looked at each other to check in, communicating non-verbally that we were on the same page. We knew that if we intervened and said “no”, we would be setting the tone for the therapeutic relationship going forward, one of power and control. Instead, we trusted the process, we trusted ourselves, and we relied on Natural Lifemanship Principles. We communicated to Oliver that only he could decide what was best for his relationship with Banjo. Over the next several sessions, Oliver and Banjo danced. Oliver moved forward with the saddle and Banjo moved away. At times Oliver was able to self-regulate, opening himself up for connection. In these moments, Banjo moved closer to him. Oliver got excited, quickly grabbed the saddle and marched over to meet Banjo. Banjo immediately backed away. Eventually, Oliver realized that his agenda to ride was taking him further away from what he desired most, connection.
Oliver then chose to move from the barn to the round pen to work on his connection with Banjo. He often began sessions by pacing around the perimeter of the round pen, pulling weeds and throwing them out of the round pen like a baseball. At first, this startled Banjo, but Banjo continued to be patient and cautious. Picking and throwing weeds was a regulating activity for Oliver that allowed him to connect with himself. His connection with-in opened the door for connection with Banjo…Banjo began to follow Oliver, stopping when he stopped to pick up another weed and launch it outside the round pen. Oliver would then continue to walk and Banjo would follow. At times, Oliver would run around the round pen and request Banjo to follow him. Banjo is an older horse and preferred to walk. Oliver was able to stay connected and realize that Banjo had some requests of his own. Their connection grew stronger. At times, Oliver’s mind would wander while he walked, Banjo would gently nudge him in the shoulder to help him stay present. Oliver found his own way to regulate and connect, by pulling and throwing weeds. This was more powerful than anything we could have suggested because it came from within. It was a reminder to keep the process client-led and provide a space for our clients to experiment and explore.
One day, Oliver came to session after a particularly hard day at school. He was having trouble regulating himself and asked for our help as he sat in the middle of the round pen. I asked Oliver to lie down on the ground and close his eyes while the Equine Professional put Banjo on a lead rope. Oliver became attuned to his breath and the ground beneath him, engaging the lower regions of his brain. We then asked him to bring his awareness to Banjo, bringing his limbic system online. The Equine Professional walked with Banjo around the pen while Oliver kept his eyes closed and tapped into his other senses to locate Banjo. Oliver was engaging in bottom-up regulation. He then used his neocortex to problem solve where Banjo was in the round pen while continuing to regulate the lower regions of his brain by rhythmically rocking back and forth. While his eyes were still closed, Oliver made a request for connection. He wanted Banjo to stop eating grass and to come to greet him in the center of the pen. The Equine Professional dropped the lead rope. We asked Oliver to imagine what it would look and feel like for Banjo to approach him while keeping his eyes closed. “Well, he would take one step forward….then he would eat a little more grass…then take another step forward…then another step” Oliver replied.
Banjo began to slowly approach Oliver, one step at a time while continuing to enjoy the delicious grass beneath him. Oliver became a little impatient. He took a big belly breath and said, “I wish he would just hurry up”. Banjo immediately pulled his head up from grazing and quickly walked over to Oliver, nuzzling his hair when he reached him. Oliver opened his eyes and laughed in pure joy.
Oliver was building pathways in his brain for a new way of interacting with others and began to employ a whole-brain understanding that true connection comes from within.
Although I had been informed ahead of time that the white Egyptian Arabian mare we were working with for our Natural Lifemanship Intensive Training had some facial deformities and neurological issues, I was surprised by the strength of my visceral response when I actually saw her in person for the first time. She snorted through one working nostril perched on a jaw that veered off to the left, leaving her tongue dangling with seemingly no place to rest. Her face just looked so . . .wrong. I felt a variety of emotions: pity, sadness, alarm, revulsion and a desire to turn away, layered with shame and self-condemnation for my instinct to do so. I was both amused and repelled by her name: Dollface. It seemed to draw attention to her deformity without dignifying it anyway. The training participants gave a collective gasp as they approached her pen, and began murmuring among themselves. I knew working with Dollface would challenge all of us in interesting ways. I was curious how her physical appearance would influence how both the horses and humans involved in the training responded to her. Over the course of the training I observed the following:
Over-compensation for a perceived disability
Many people were afraid to approach Dollface or make relational requests. They felt pity for her and didn’t want to make her uncomfortable or challenge her. “Her life is already hard enough,” was a prevailing sentiment. Giving Dollface a pass on taking responsibility for herself had led to a series of behaviors that were damaging her relationships. She was pushy, demanding, and reactive when approached or touched. She clearly wanted to engage but did not know how to do so in an appropriate manner. This left her without the friendships she desired, both from horses and humans. People with disabilities or special needs often report that others make false assumptions about their intelligence or capacity to interact “normally” and treat them like children, speaking slowly and carefully, avoiding eye contact, and acting in a generally uncomfortable manner.
Lack of acknowledgment
In an effort to not treat Dollface differently, some people went to the other extreme of acting as though she was the same as the rest of the horses, hiding or denying any internal discomfort or uncertainty about how to approach her. This set up an emotional incongruence that felt unsafe and confusing for Dollface. She was different. Her appearance did take getting used to. Horses are prey animals, and experience an incongruence between our inner emotional state and our exterior presentation as dangerous and possibly predatory. Acknowledging the reality of the situation and any discomfort we might have about it is an important first step to proceeding in a way that is healthy for the relationship. We first have to become aware of and accept our own prejudices and preconceived notions before we can work on changing them.
Dollface had experienced some early trauma besides being born with a facial deformity. She was removed from her home after a murder-suicide by a rescue organization that cared well for her physical needs but expected little from her in terms of appropriate behavior due to her history and disability. Because little was expected, little was required, resulting in what you would expect from a spoiled child: selfish behavior. Although this might look like kindness on the surface, horses and humans who are entitled and selfish do not have mutually satisfying relationships. They are tolerated rather than enjoyed. At first I heard a lot of reasons why Dollface shouldn’t be asked to do much relational work in the round pen due to being tired, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable. When people stopped making excuses for Dollface and began asking her in a predictable, consistent, patient manner to stop squealing, biting and being aggressive, she became more regulated and able to connect relationally in delightful ways.
Differences in acceptance between horses and humans
Initially, I wondered how the horses might react to having Dollface in their midst. Only one of them had been with Dollface prior to the training. For the rest of them, she was a newcomer, so I was curious if they might perceive her birth defect as a threat to the safety of the herd. Horses depend on every member of their herd to be appropriately in control of themselves and aware of potential predators and other threats so that collectively they can maintain safety. None of the horses seemed to notice that Dollface was a bit different from them. Other than a bit of interest from one of the geldings when he discovered Dollface was in heat, they treated her exactly as they did each other. They expected her to behave like an appropriate herd member, and let her know when she did not.
Differences in self-acceptance
Apparently, no one ever told Dollface she was different. She saw herself as a completely normal and functional horse. She did not hide herself from either the people or other horses at the training. In fact, her behaviors involved attention seeking; she was not shy about demanding that we spend time with her. She had learned to eat, drink water, breathe and move with her twisted jaw and now that she was learning some relationship skills was also learning to make friends and have mutually satisfying connections.
By the end of the training, we had overcome our reservations about working with Dollface. Our prejudices and fears had been challenged by her self-confidence and insistence that we treat her like a normal horse. One of the participant’s re-named her Hope. That seemed much more fitting for this spunky, endearing, feisty survivor.
An Experience of Connection Over Prejudice Video
Sign up for our Relationship Logic Immersion training at Horse Sense of the Carolinas September 7th-9th, to get an opportunity to work with an untrained horse like Luna (her new name!). The horses at this training are rescue horses that have a story and a past – we hope to positively contribute to their successful placement in a “Forever Home” by helping them develop needed emotional and relational skills. Through this process, participants can deeply internalize NL principles of connection and learn how these transfer to human relationships, including the therapeutic relationship and process. There is a possibility that Luna, will be participating in the training.
As I entered the 2017 Natural Lifemanship Conference I felt very small, and insignificant compared to others there. I felt the need to make myself humble, kind and help out to be seen by others. This was the agenda of my 4yo little girl self that insisted that she must sacrifice her own needs, thoughts and ideas and voice to meet these things in others in order to get attention. She believed the only way to get attention and love is by catering to others and sacrificing yourself.
During the conference, I was fighting to be true and authentic and not fall into this agenda to get attention through submission. As I did so, the tension in my shoulders increased throughout the day. A self-regulation exercise at the conference revealed the tension in my shoulders was connected to the 4-year old self. She was pressing hard onto the upper portion of my right shoulder to cause me to submit, cower down and be passive to others at the conference and I was trying to resist her insistence. She wanted me to accept her way to protect me from getting hurt and trying to connect in the only way she knows how through submission. At that moment, I just assured her that I love her, I see her. I explained inwardly it’s safe to explore a new way, but the sharp pain of pressure in my shoulder remained.
Later that evening after the day was done I found a quiet spot to put on my bilateral nature sounds and focus in on my little girl and that pressure in my shoulder. Quietly and with love I entered into how scared and terrified she was. How she was trying to protect me and help me get attention in the only way she knew how and I was resisting her. I just sat in the rocking chair and loved her, held her, rocked her in that terrified-place she was living. I explained to her this new community of connection the NL community offered is pure and allows her
to be completely herself and that she doesn’t need her old ways of cowering. At this exchange, a deep rumbling of weeping arose within my chest. It rose and fell like waves rising and crashing at a deep place within my core. At the same moment, a great sense of gratitude fell over me. I was grateful with all my being to be now offered the love I always deeply desired.
Though my heart desperately had looked for love all these years, I came to rest on the truth that what I was truly seeking was true, pure, connection that sought good for both in the relationship.
That night at the NL conference demonstration, Tim showed with the horse, Jack, how he gently invited the horse to a pure, true connection that offered good for both in the relationship. It was clear from watching how safe and secure that invitation was. I realized that was what Tim offered me that day in February 2017 at the NL Fundamentals Training during the Rhythmic Riding demonstration. Tim offered me a true, pure connection that didn’t take from me, nor demand any part of me that met his needs. He offered me a
connection that had my back, that held me as the horse did and if I couldn’t connect with the horse, it was ok, he would connect and hold the horse. I only had to connect to me and my deep grief. The grief of having no support for so long and the deep desire to be seen and connected. It was there in that moment with a gentle hand on my leg his touch said, “I see you, I’ve got you, it’s ok, just let go and be held.” When I connected to myself and what I was feeling, it was then that the horse met me there with connection and held me from
beneath. I was not alone. I was held by this beautiful horse that carried me on his back and a man that didn’t take from me but offered to be my strength and stability while I fell apart.
That experience was so terrifying, but so deeply satisfying at the same time. I wanted to run from the eyes and attention of everyone that was holding me at that moment. I was so fearful it would turn against me, but it DID NOT, the care and connection were true and secure. That secure holding experience just made me cry deeper in grief of not having it for so long. Now at 40 years of age, I was being offered it freely by a tender, strong and loving cowboy, a beautiful horse, and a crowd of strangers that desired the same kind of connection.
After the NL demonstration at the Natural Lifemanship conference that night, I rocked that scared 4yo inside of my heart. I cried and cried with the grief of so much time gone by without a secure connection and yet I was overflowing with gratitude my body felt it could not contain. With bilateral nature sounds in my ears, chest heaving, tears falling and body rocking, Texas raindrops began to fall on me. I felt as if a deep cleansing and filling was happening as I received the pure connection this community offered and all of me moaned and cried with gratitude. I sat in that place for a long time. Suddenly out of nowhere, I felt a pop in my shoulder and the pressure that 4yo girl held on me was released. With clothes damp and rain diminishing the thunderous shaking within me softened and became like a soothing lullaby. My eyes closed and a soft sadness fell from that little girl inside. She realized her attempt to protect me had hurt me and kept me from connecting truly with others. With soft whispers and loving kindness, forgiveness and grace was exchanged. Peace within us was found and connection deepened to a quiet place.
As I looked out into the darkness of that cool Texas night I felt a nearby presence that approached more as I moved through this inner exchange. In this quiet place, I realized it was the paint horse I met in the pasture the day before. He was the lowest in the herd and approached them with a fearful submissive stance. I noticed his position then and my 4yo little girl could relate with his position and loved him for it.
That night as inner peace was found, this paint horse stood nearby in the pasture, almost there to acknowledge and honor the little girl he met the day before. I was drawn to get up and go near the fence and show my gratitude for his appearing. As I walked in the darkness in his direction I could feel my attention on him made him uneasy. In honor of his concern, I turned my body parallel to him and looked away, yet stayed connected to him in my heart. I knelt toward the grass to make myself even less threatening and listened as He grazed even closer to me. My little girl self so wanted to have a physical contact with him, but inwardly extended honor and gratitude for him seeing her and honoring her at her most vulnerable.
In desperate waiting for more closeness, out of the darkness the black lead mare ran between us and moved the paint horse far away from me. At that moment, my little girl fell away and my adult self stood up and appeared along the fence. I was shocked and saddened, but also realizing that black lead mare just gave me a precious gift. She reminded me I am no longer a scared submissive little girl, I am a confident and beautiful woman that doesn’t need sympathy but encouragement to move forward, walk boldly and be me. As I made my way to the bunkhouse and prepared for bed that night, I heard a whinny out in the pasture. I felt called to meet it. When I arrived at the fence the black lead horse stood close to the fence and grazed while I stood beside her. Her presence assured me, all was ok and I did not need reassurance from anyone that my experience and my healing release needed validation. All was good in the pasture and she was calling me to graze on and just confidently be me.
I woke up this morning and wondered what it would look like if our political parties used the principles of Natural Lifemanship to interact with each other and to do business. Think about it.
What if each party attempted to meet both their own needs and the needs of the other party?
What if each party cared about and worked for compromise and equality in their partnership?
What if each party truly understood that if it is not good for both parties, it ultimately is not good for either party? What if they responded appropriately when the other party “moved their feet”?
What if each party created space for the other party to make choices that are best for both parties? That neither party took away the choices of the other party and neither tried to control the other?
What if both were careful with their verbal and nonverbal communications with the other?
What if it were safe to make mistakes, disagree, and openly and honestly communicate ideas, needs, and beliefs?
What if each party appropriately controlled itself, and made choices using their whole brains?
What if each party respected the other party and was able to set and accept limits?
What if each party was assertive in their communication and actions and not passive or aggressive?
What if both parties were able to use the principles of pressure appropriately? That is, each party increased the pressure when the other party was ignoring. Each party maintained the pressure when the other party was resisting, and each party released the pressure when the other party was cooperating?
What would it be like?
What might we accomplish?
Rebecca J. Hubbard writes stories for children and is a master’s level licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas specializing in equine-assisted psychotherapy. More information can be found at www.rebeccahubbardlmft.com