How Cross Brain Connections Literally Saved My Life!
In this blog, I will discuss how a healthy brain develops and how trauma impacts this process by localizing neural connections in the lower regions of the brain, the part concerned with survival. I will share ways we can capitalize on the brain’s neuroplasticity and capacity to heal with strategies to increase cross brain connectivity, ending with an example of this from my own personal experience of being assaulted on two different occasions.
There is a great deal of discussion in Trauma-Informed Care about cross brain connections, neural pathways that connect throughout the different areas of the brain, leading to a greater capacity for self-regulation and smooth emotional state shifting in response to environmental cues. Brain development begins in utero, developing sequentially from the bottom to the top and from the inside out in response to sensory input. The first part of the brain to develop is the brainstem, which is responsible for regulating autonomic functions like heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature, sleep, and appetite. We generally do not have to think about these functions unless something goes wrong with them (during an asthma or heart attack, for example). The brainstem, which as its name suggests, is at the base of the brain, is responsible for basic survival and is where our fight, flight and freeze responses originate in response to a trauma trigger.
The next region of the brain to develop is the diencephalon, which regulates motor control. (When the freeze response is triggered by the brainstem it indicates that the diencephalon, as well as all of the regions of the brain above it, have essentially gone “offline”). Following that is the limbic system, which regulates our emotions and makes us capable of attachment and relational connection. The last part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which allows for abstract and concrete thought, impulse control, planning and other aspects of executive functioning. The neocortex may not be fully developed and functional until well into a person’s second decade of life.
Trauma can be defined as input that is arrhythmic and unpredictable. If a pregnancy is unwanted, or the mother is in a chaotic environment due to poverty and domestic violence, or she struggles with a mental disorder or uses drugs, for example, the fetus is exposed to a barrage of arrhythmic sensory input in the womb. The mother’s heart-rate may be irregular, the cadence of her voice may be harsh or distressed, and her body may be secreting stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that acid washes the womb for nine months. The part of the brain that receives the most sensory input will be the most well developed, as the neurons flock there in response to continuous activation. A baby experiencing intra-uterine trauma of any sort will be born prepared for survival, with most of his or her neurons clustered in the lower regions of the brain. A baby whose gestation was full of rhythmic, predictable sensory input from his mother’s well-regulated heartbeat, calm voice, and soothing chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, will be born with up to fifty percent of his neurons having migrated to the neocortex, ready for language and learning. Intra-uterine trauma primes the baby’s brain to form local connections in the lower regions of the brain in anticipation of being born into a chaotic, unpredictable environment. The foundation for future development is compromised, and any subsequent trauma layers on top of this shaky substrate to create a brain muscled up for survival and reactivity, with few cross brain connections allowing for a regulated, integrated response to environmental or relational stimuli.
Dr. Bruce Perry points out that trauma interferes with what he terms smooth “state shifting,” referring to the ability of the brain to communicate between all of its regions to come up with the best response to deal with the situation at hand. Healthy brain development allows a person to accurately interpret input and respond appropriately based on what is actually happening in the present. In the case of a car careening into your lane of traffic, the amygdala sounds the alarm in the limbic system, the diencephalon kicks in and prompts you to quickly maneuver out of the way, and the brainstem briefly shuts down unnecessary functions like digestion that would divert energy away from dealing with the crisis. The neocortex, which would unnecessarily delay the response time, essentially goes offline. Whether the car barreling towards you is a Mercedes or a Chevrolet is completely irrelevant to your survival. Determining the color, make or model of the vehicle occupies precious time and attention that keeps you in harm’s way longer than necessary and compromises your ability to keep yourself safe. When cross-brain connections are absent, and the different regions of the brain lack neural pathways to communicate efficiently, the array of responses a person has is limited. A traumatized individual might get stuck in his brainstem, lose access to his diencephalon, freeze, and be unable to turn the steering wheel, incurring a collision with the oncoming car.
This is essentially what happened to me when I was assaulted in my early 20’s in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I was using a public restroom when a man who apparently had been hiding in the stall next to mine burst under the dividing wall and attacked me. I completely froze. I could not move, cry out, or think of how to defend myself. I never reported the assault or pursued any kind of help afterward. I simply left it buried in my brainstem and used my already active eating disorder and dissociative pathways to cope. When I unexpectedly became pregnant with my first child three years later, I realized my unhealthy patterns were going to affect my baby in damaging ways. Facing the huge responsibility of carrying and then caring for a child provided the incentive I needed to pursue healing in so many areas of my life. Although I worked hard on my recovery, my very stubborn pathways for dissociating from strong emotions and avoiding what I perceived to be the dangers of intimacy remained strong.
When I discovered Natural Lifemanship, I knew these principles of relational connection and partnership were the missing pieces to my healing puzzle. I was initially dismayed to find how much I struggled to experience connection in the round pen with the horses, but as I kept practicing asking for attachment and detachment, I found over time that I was starting to feel my emotions and body sensations more consistently and accurately, both with horses and with people. Through both ground (Relationship Logic) and mounted work (Rhythmic Riding), I strengthened the cross brain connections necessary to stay regulated and grounded without checking out in stressful situations. My sense of peace and confidence and ability to stay present and connected to myself continued to grow.
Last year all of this was put to the test when I was out running in my neighborhood early in the morning. I heard footsteps behind me on a narrow stretch of sidewalk bordered by tall hedges and a railing on either side and turned sideways, thinking another runner wanted to pass me. Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulders, muttered the word “sorry” and threw me to the ground. My brain immediately went into gear. Just the night before I had shared a public service announcement from the Austin Police Department with my running group concerning a sexual predator who had been assaulting female runners. I could literally see the list of suggestions in my mind and began sorting through them. “Make noise,” my brain said, and I started screaming as loud as I could. My assailant covered my mouth with his hand. “Fight back,” my brain commanded, and I shook one of my arms free and tried to push him off. As he tightened his grip, I remembered, “Strike where he is most vulnerable,” so I started reaching towards his groin area as best as I could. His eyes widened in surprise and he suddenly let go of me, slamming my head into the pavement. I don’t know how long I lost consciousness, but as I came to, I heard a voice shouting, “Get up! Get up! You have to get up NOW!” I realized the voice was my own; it was my brain, telling me I needed to mobilize in case he came back. I was able to get up and wobble up the hill until I met another runner who took me to her house and called 911.
I reported this assault. I went to the emergency room, made a statement to the police, and described the suspect to a forensic artist who captured his likeness quite accurately. I engaged in therapy, and spent hours in the round pen with horses, crying, connecting, and healing. I shared my experience with my running group and put together a tip sheet for runner safety, which I shared with other running groups in the area. I attended a self-defense class. Despite the temptation to revert to old patterns of dissociating from my fear and pain, I practiced feeling all the emotions in the aftermath of this trauma, letting myself weep when the detective called to say my suspect’s DNA was found on another victim. I gave myself permission to be scared, sad, and also proud. Proud that I had done the hard work to develop the cross brain connections that allowed me to fight back instead of freezing during my second assault. During my therapy for this attack, I was able to process my first one as well.
Cross brain connections are essential for flexible thinking and appropriate responses. Practicing mindfulness and grounding skills on a regular basis allows these neural pathways to develop and strengthen in a brain compromised by arrhythmic, unpredictable input. Research continues to highlight the neuroplasticity of the brain in response to rhythmic sensory input that allows it to heal and integrate following trauma. Expanding local connections into cross brain connections enhances our ability to experience emotional regulation so that we can build healthier, more satisfying relationships with ourselves and with others.
How does one build or repair cross brain connections?
A daily practice of mindfulness (meditation, yoga, or centering prayer, for example) has been shown to improve brain connection and functioning. Exposure to reparative or corrective relational experiences also contributes to building neural pathways from the lower to the upper regions of the brain. Trauma victims often repeat dysfunctional patterns in the relationship due to compromised neural connections in the brain, reinforcing their trauma pathways. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy involves partnering with a horse to provide opportunities for new pathways to form a healthy relationship is built between horse and human under the guidance of a therapist and equine specialist. Clients learn how to build and sustain healthier relationship patterns as their brains literally re-wire through the experiential component of the therapeutic work with the horses. Through a combination of ground and mounted work, a person can learn self-regulation skills, positive coping resources, and begin to heal from their trauma.
What are cross brain connections good for? At some point, they just might save your life.
For more information, check out the following website: www.naturallifemanship.com
*Dr. Daniel Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness is an excellent resource for developing such a practice, as is St. Michael’s Hospital Awareness Stabilization Training.
Typically, when we think of objectification we think of the overtly negative kind. Women’s bodies as objects for other’s consumption, children as extensions of ourselves, or the Earth as a disposable resource for our own benefit. Yet, a more subtle objectification is alive and well in human nature – that is, the deification of someone or something, the act of putting someone not below us, but above us and on a pedestal.
This can be seen clearly in the equine therapy world, where there seem to be two opposing camps at odds with each other. One believes horses are a useful tool for the healing and growth of humans – the other believes horses to be wise beyond measure, bordering on otherworldly, and having unknowable gifts to offer us.
The “horse as a tool” camp has a long history; throughout their generations, horses alongside human beings have been work animals. They carried warriors into battle, pulled farm equipment, were a mode of transportation, and then more recently, a source of recreation. None of these activities with horses lends itself well to seeing them as sentient beings. To care for them and think about them as we do a human would interfere with the work. And generally speaking, humans also have a long history of seeing animals as fundamentally different from us; they couldn’t possibly share in our experiences, feelings, and needs. Much of horse training reflects these beliefs – domination, power, and control continue to be the go-to for working with horses, no matter their job. For this camp, horses are considered less intelligent than humans, less capable of self-control/self-determination, and certainly in need of our leadership. In equine therapy specifically, this plays out as horses being a facilitator for therapy and not much more. They are an object for practicing leadership skills, setting boundaries, for guiding through obstacles; and when the horse listens and does what he is told, we humans feel strong and confident. Also in the “horse is a tool” camp, there is the horse that isn’t even a horse – he is a representation of my angry father, or my cold mother, or my demanding boss. He doesn’t necessarily have to do anything to make me feel that way, I just feel it because I needed to – and the horse was there to embody those feelings for me. It’s easier to project onto him than onto an inanimate object, like in the empty chair technique commonly used in office therapy – and easier to project onto him than a real person, because a person is inclined to express their own thoughts and feelings that don’t fit for our projection. The horse’s feedback then, his own experience and behaviors are not often taken into consideration – it would give him more dimension than would be helpful in the “horse as a tool” paradigm. He is something of a chess piece moved through a session in order to produce feelings or reactions in the human client. His presence is very useful, but he is not an individual and there is no dual-sided relationship there. The relationship is all on the human’s terms.
In more recent years, thanks to science and some evolution of thought, we are beginning to be reminded that humans are also animals, and perhaps not that different from those who surround us. More consideration for the welfare and internal lives of horses has arisen – a very good thing. However, it seems we are overcorrecting a bit, and now witnessing another camp forming. Or actually, simply growing in prominence – as this camp has been around as long as the first, really, but gaining traction in this new attempt at honoring the horse. This second camp sees horses not as tools or mere utilitarian devices, but as powerful spiritual guides, insightful creatures with gifts for healing. In this camp, horses are mystical, operating on another plane of existence, and here to give us messages that our limited human brains cannot detect for ourselves. They are, in a sense, deities walking among us. Some would say this is a beautiful correction to the idea of horses’ as lesser beings and tools for our use. But, to me, this is simply the other side of the same coin.
If a horse is a tool we use him for our benefit, and often miss the real flesh and blood animal standing in front of us. We see only our desires for him, our own goals, our own path. We control him to practice leadership or we project onto him to provide catharsis, and we worry very little about his own desires and needs. We don’t take in his presence, his behavior, as information on how we can change to be in better relationship with him, this specific horse. We miss that he is perhaps checked out, or stressed out, or confused and irritated – because we just want him to do what we ask, or represent someone he is not. But the flip side is not much better – here’s the thing, if a horse is a sort of a god – a creature capable of telepathy and mystical healing, he is STILL an object. In this camp, much value is placed on the act of just being with horses. It is often argued that simply sitting with them provides healing, growth, and insight. Now, as a horse lover myself I can honestly say there is something lovely about sitting with horses. There is a peacefulness there, and much like meditation, when I am still and peaceful I have clarity of mind. But to say the horse, while grazing and drinking water and pooping on the ground, is sending me messages from others on another plane of existence, is telepathic somehow, is to continue not seeing that horse, for who he is. He is still an object, a representation of my inner world. (Not to mention, feeling peaceful while sitting with horses may feel nice, but it is not therapy. We cannot ethically call this sort of work psychotherapy, we cannot bill insurance, and we certainly cannot be taken seriously by the psychotherapy and medical fields. Feeling peaceful momentarily or experiencing catharsis does not equal therapeutic growth. )
There is a fine line between being spiritual and twisting spirituality to suit ourselves. This treatment of horses crosses that line, frequently. I by no means intend to suggest that a spiritual connection with a horse isn’t possible – on the contrary, I firmly believe it is. But, I have seen time and time again this desire for a spiritual connection taken to an extreme that renders horses one-dimensional, and even more upsetting, continues the destructive paradigm of power and control – the exact paradigm this camp set out to destroy! When the horse is simply a conduit, a reflection of our inner world, or a creature on a pedestal, we still control him. We decide what he tells us and when, we decide what his behavior means to us. We go to him when we need something from him, and think little of how our interactions could be mutually beneficial from his perspective. What disturbs me about the blending of the spiritual with horses is I rarely hear of someone getting a negative message from their horse. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard people speak of communing with horses and receiving the message, “I don’t really want to be around you, will you go away?” – and yet, I see horses respond to people, through their behavior, with this exact message frequently. So what’s happening here? To me, it is the disconnect between reality and human projection. We want to control the information we receive. No one wants to hear that they are a mess and not fun to be around. But, spirituality, when it is done in the search for wholeness, has real darkness to it. There is brutal honesty, grief, and unpleasantness when we dig deep – as well as the good. If your spiritual connection with a horse is all telepathic sunshine and rainbows – it might be worth questioning. It’s scary to release control of both sides of the relationship, but it is also where the real, tangible healing happens – healing that can be carried forward into new relationships.
Horses are animals, mammals, similar to us in some ways and different in others. They have their own desires, their own needs, and their own priorities. We, over the centuries, have domesticated them and insisted they live alongside us. The least we could do is learn about their communication, their behavior and do our best to see each of them as an individual. Whether we see the horse as a tool or an otherworldly being – what ultimately suffers is the therapy, and the horse’s welfare. (Keep an eye out for blogs on those topics later).
Until proven otherwise, what we currently know is horses communicate through body language – the combinations of tension and relaxation, ear position, movement, and more. In a therapy session, when a horse leaves us to go drink water – is he telling us that our soul is thirsty and it’s time to take better care of ourselves, or is he rejecting our attempts at connection just like our mother…or is he simply an animal that needs to quench his own, literal, thirst? Which one is based in his reality, and which one is something we decided based on what we wanted to hear/feel/see in the moment? Not to mention, what does this do to the therapeutic growth of the client – to ignore a simple behavioral choice and pile countless meanings on it instead? To interpret behaviors as more than their face value? To expect telepathy? Have you ever experienced that real desire for your spouse to read your mind? To just know you wanted or needed something without having to ask…and for those of you who have been with a partner for a long time – how often does this telepathy occur? For my clients, this sort of thing is often what landed them in relational difficulties in the first place – mind-reading, meaning-laden interpretations of behavior, projection. These are road blocks to true connection – love based on reality, intimacy, authenticity. I, for one, do not want to recreate these unhealthy patterns in my therapy sessions, and therefore, cannot try to control the horse, dismiss the horse, or deify the horse.
The thing that makes me the saddest about these two camps, besides the possible damage done to clients and horses – is that both are missing out on the very real relationship that is possible. I can’t have a connected, nourishing, and challenging relationship with an object like I can with a sentient being. And in therapy, a lack of real relationship restricts significant opportunities for lasting healing. This is different from the cognitive shift that can happen when I see my mother in the horse’s behavior, or lead a horse through an obstacle course, or hear wisdom from within when I sit quietly watching horses graze. None of these activities require the horse to be a sentient being, a unique individual – this same work is being done with furniture in an office, or drawings, or solitary contemplation. And while, of course, these activities with horses can be beneficial, it is difficult for these benefits to last. For lasting change, our brains and bodies have to practice a new way of being – insight alone is not enough. Consider how many people you have met who know the right things to do, and simply can’t do them consistently (myself included!). The beauty of the horse as a sentient being, a partner in therapy, is that I can build a real two-sided relationship with him. I can try to engage, ask things of him, have him ask things of me; I can make mistakes and see the horse’s negative response, and then I can repair those mistakes and see the horse’s positive response. It’s harder, and it’s more vulnerable. There are moments when I will be greatly humbled, and moments when I don’t get what I want. But, it’s also real. With time, I can learn his preferences and he mine – and we can navigate the difficulties of boundary setting, intimacy, listening, and asking. I can learn, deep in my bones, how to be in a healthy partnership where we both heal, and then I can practice it each time we are together. And when I do that, I can go back to my human relationships with new ways of being, not just thoughts. My human relationships transform – and isn’t that the ultimate goal of therapy with horses? To heal not just in session, but out in the world too? But none of that is possible if this specific horse, with his specific temperament, isn’t truly seen for who he really is. Not for what he represents and not for what he can do for me.
Some folks may assume I mean that these two camps aren’t ever doing good work, or that there is malice in these approaches. Neither is fully true. Good work can be done, and it is human nature, not evil, to try to control others and our experience. My argument, though, is that there is a third way. A way in which horses are neither less than or better than, but animals just like us; full of foibles and bad habits and grace and healing – and in this third way are both the human and horse honored for their real, flesh and blood contribution. My argument is for letting go of controlling the other, so we can see what is really there, right in front of us.
You’ve all seen them; those kitschy t-shirts, hats, and signs that proclaim, “My horse is my therapist.” I openly admit, I’ve contemplated buying one of those before or making a sign of my own with this endearing saying for the barn or my home. I liked it. It hit home for me. I felt it concisely and cleverly conveyed the feeling of appreciation and gratitude I feel for what not only my horse has done for me, but for what hundreds of horses I’ve worked with have done for me and so many others. To be frank, I didn’t actually think about it too much. I felt something about it, my left brain filtered it into the “good” category and I moved on from there. I never bought a shirt or hat or made a sign, but it remained in that “good” category in my brain until recently.
I haven’t noticed the saying pop up anywhere in a long time, but just a few days ago, I heard someone say it in passing. I didn’t notice any kind of new thought or feeling about it as I heard it, but I noticed a sensation in my gut. Since I’ve been working diligently the last few months to become more connected and in tune with my body, I was immediately able to recognize that sensation as a warning signal. This particular signal usually means something feels unsafe, incongruent, or off in some way. I was busy with something else that needed my attention at that moment, so I simply took note of my body’s response and set it aside for later reflection.
What about that saying would cause a visceral response from me? Once I had a moment to reflect, it took probably .22 seconds for me to find the answer. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. See, when I open the door for the higher regions of my brain to listen to and connect with the signals coming in from the lower regions and my body, it literally takes my brain that long to process the information. Well, no one has scanned MY brain and measured it, but neuroscience says that’s about how long it takes in a human brain, so I think it’s a pretty fair estimate to say that’s how long it took mine to come up with the answer. And it’s a simple yet complex answer.
The simple part- my horse is NOT my therapist. My therapist is my therapist. My horse is my horse. (Hmmm…I like that saying. Could this be the next NL t-shirt?) The complex part- I feel good when I am around my horse, which can actually be very therapeutic for me. But that doesn’t make it therapy. Seriously, have you ever been to therapy? I have and I can say when I get in the weeds and start doing the hard work on myself, it does NOT feel good. Let’s say it doesn’t always feel good when I’m working with my horse because I do have to work on myself in the process. It can still feel like therapy when I am with my horse, which can feel like my horse is conducting therapy on me. But she’s not. She’s just being a horse interacting with a human. Just like my dog is being a dog interacting with a human when we are together. Just like my dad is being a human interacting with his daughter, and my brother is being a nuisance..err.. I mean, human interacting with his sister, and the cashier at the grocery store is being a human interacting with a customer. And since I have come to learn to see horses as beings just as capable of making requests and choices for healthy relationship as humans, I just can’t tolerate that saying. It makes me sick to my stomach because for me it is the same as saying my dad is my therapist. Say it out loud and tell me that doesn’t make you cringe. And what about my brother is my therapist? Sound good to you? Now try this one- my cashier is my therapist. Ok, so that one makes me giggle a little, but only because it sounds so absurd!
Being steeped in horsemanship and traditional horse training methods, I understand how this saying came about as we humans have a long history of projecting onto and objectifying animals. I see how it could be argued that giving your horse therapeutic powers even though he never completed high school, is an enormous leap from how horses have been treated historically by humans. That’s probably why it got filtered into the “good” category in my brain years ago. But making your horse your therapist is still objectifying, it’s still projecting, it’s still using your horse. So, let’s take the next leap in our development as human beings and figure out how to interact with horses as what they actually are…horses. To learn more about how we do this at Natural Lifemanship, visit the Start Training link or view our online videos and content.
I read a study the other day that talked about the way the brain functions when our fundamental beliefs are challenged. Basically, it stated that the same regions of our brain fires when we are physically threatened. Those regions that fire on both occasions are the regions responsible for our survival. Although the author was studying the ramifications of political beliefs, I think this has some very important implications for many areas of our lives.
At our Natural Lifemanship trainings we operate out of the belief that a horse is capable of learning how to appropriately control himself or herself. This goes against a lot of peoples’ fundamental belief system, especially if they have extensive experience with horses. Many of the people that have attended our trainings have had to change that fundamental belief to use our model of therapy. It requires changing pathways in our brain and can be an excruciating process. I want to personally thank the people that have been vulnerable enough to struggle with that change. I am excited that 2018 brings us many more opportunities to help people make that shift. I know it will be life changing for the horses and clients we work with, as well as for ourselves.
Secure attachment to this moment is about finding safety, security, and perfect acceptance of what is, while still being free to miss what was, and long for what will be.
In 2017 I was given the opportunity to practice one of the more difficult principles we teach in Natural Lifemanship – Secure attachment is only found when we are able to feel an internal sense of connection during attachment with AND during detachment from important relationships. The possibility that we can experience a deep sense of connection to others when we are physically alone is, oftentimes, difficult in theory and in practice. I will share my personal story of growth, change, transformation, grief. . . and loss…extreme loss, and how our child helped me better understand that secure attachment extends beyond the relationship with self and others. We can also seek to find a secure attachment to this life and this moment, in general. We can be “securely attached” to a thing, an idea, a moment, a belief. . . Secure attachment extends to “what is”, and that requires the ability to be connected to not only what is right here with us, but also what is gone, or not even here yet.
In Natural Lifemanship (NL) the way we conceptualize secure attachment, connection, attachment, and detachment are important. Specific language and concepts help people effectively transfer learning organically and seamlessly between species and space. This language also provides the space for abstract human concepts to become more concrete and physical, oftentimes making them easier to internalize. Many times in NL physical concepts have an emotional counterpart and vice versa. Attachment can be equated to the sharing of physical space. Detachment can be thought of as exploring physical distance. Both attachment and detachment can exist when there is a concrete felt a sense of connection, as well as an internal sense of connection. Alternatively, a sense of aloneness can prevail regardless of proximity. Children and adults with a secure attachment pattern are able to feel connected and secure in their intimate relationships, while still allowing themselves and their partner to move freely (detachment). It is this kind of relationship that we help people find with a horse – this is part of the reparative experience for our clients. . . and, I would say, for many of us as well.
More about attachment and detachment in therapy sessions can be found in this blog by Kate Naylor. More about how spiritual intimacy grows through connection with detachment can be found in this blog by Laura McFarland. When you sign up for Basic Membership you gain access to more than 5 hours of video demonstrating how attachment, detachment, and connection play out in a relationship that is built between horse and human + more online learning and many other benefits. View all of our membership content here.
But I Miss The Caterpillar…
A year ago, I was reading our two-year-old (almost three-year-old) a book called “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” On the last page when the caterpillar turns into a beautiful butterfly, our child said, “But where is the caterpillar?” I reviewed the process the caterpillar had gone through in this sweet little book we’d read many times, and he said, “But I miss the caterpillar.” We had a wonderful conversation about change and transformation. . . and loss. You see, this conversation happened about two weeks after our nanny, Carolyn – “Kiki” to Cooper – died a sudden, tragic, unexpected, and untimely death. Carolyn had been our full-time nanny, traveling with us as Natural Lifemanship was growing, since Cooper was 3 months old. She was a member of our family, and like a second mother to me in every way. She drove me crazy and I loved her dearly. She made it possible for us to work in a field about which Tim and I are deeply passionate, while still spending as much time as possible with Cooper. . . something about which we’re even more passionate. She helped us raise our child. I think I’ll just repeat that again for emphasis. She helped us raise our child. She helped me, in very practical ways, navigate this whole working mom thing. She loved Cooper and he loved his Kiki. This was a major loss for our family – couched between and among more loss. In the latter part of 2016 and throughout 2017 our family tragically, suddenly, and unexpectedly lost three more significant relationships. We lost two more the “normal” way – it was expected and it was time, and still painful. After my son and I talked about how change and transformation are often accompanied by grief and loss – in two-year-old language, of course – my little boy said, “I miss Kiki too. AND I don’t wike (like) butterflies.” At that moment, stories of Kiki walking the streets of gold, pain-free, with her mother and with her Jesus, did very little to offer me comfort. . . I must admit I agreed with my little philosopher. I do believe death is the ultimate transformation, and I wasn’t particularly fond of butterflies at that moment either!
Death is also the ultimate detachment from the ones we love, and can result in disconnection. . . or not. It takes many of us years to learn how to deeply connect with those we can see, hear, feel, and touch (attachment). It is often much harder to find that connection when we are physically separated (detachment). Connection with distance takes practice and intentionality and a willingness to sit in the pain of disconnection, for moments, instead of avoiding it. It is a secure attachment that helps us navigate detachment and loss. Typically death is much more painful when it results in disconnection. I say typically because I do realize that sometimes death and disconnection are needed for healing and closure to occur. Sometimes death makes it better. There were moments this last year that I felt this disconnection. . . those are the moments when people describe agony worse than losing a limb. . . slowly. . . without any form of anesthesia. I felt that kind of pain over the last year, many times. I felt it in the moments that I could no longer remember someone’s hands. . . or hear their voice. . . or recall their smell. Our child felt it the night he told me, “I don’t remember Kiki” and wept in my arms. At the core of much developmental and attachment trauma, is an inability to find an internal sense of connection to others when together. . . through shared space and experience, eye contact, touch. . . this transfers to an inability to feel an internal sense of connection when there is distance. Of course. I continue to muddle through the agonizing moments of detachment and disconnection. The freedom to “miss the caterpillar” guides me back to an internal sense of connection with relationships that meant so much to me, and mean so much to me. . . still. Feeling “allowed” to miss what is gone helps us stay connected, even when detached. Our freedom to grieve what once was and what will not be in the future opens us up to a connection in detachment.
However, 2017 definitely hasn’t been all about, what most would deem. . . loss. It has been an amazing year for Natural Lifemanship. We have grown, we have changed, and, I would argue, that we are in the midst of a massive transformation. I’m experiencing how these concepts of attachment can be practiced in not only relationships, but also with ideas, businesses, and moments of our lives. I have always loved butterflies. However, butterflies are sort of the end product, and they don’t really live all that long. A close friend of mine recently pointed out that butterflies get all the credit, but that the caterpillar does all the work. For Pete’s sake, The Very Hungry Caterpillar worked his little tail off to grow, and then he had to sit in a dark cocoon for two stinkin’ weeks! Time in the cacoon isn’t just a long nap, by the way. He worked hard! The butterfly’s journey is really that of the caterpillar. The growing pains of this year are no joke! Sometimes I miss the simplicity of 8 years ago when it all began. I miss the caterpillar, but I still long for the butterfly. Transformation is always predicated on the death of something. . .which means that detachment is a vital part of life and growth. If we want to be securely attached – to a person, an idea, or a moment in time – we must have an internal sense of connection when we are attached and when we are detached.
To be securely attached to the present and the future we have to maintain a healthy connection to the present, and future, AND to the past – connection to what is and what was and what could be. They all matter – that which I am attached to today and that which I have detached from – I need to be connected to both. Secure attachment to this moment is about finding safety, security, and perfect acceptance of what is, while still being free to miss what was, and long for what will be (detachment). This is at the crux of what we teach in NL. We learn to find this through the relationship with our equine partner and then transfer this way of being in the world to every part of our lives.
Our business has changed. Absolutely. We have grown up, matured, and deepened. Transformation, indeed. When Tim and I started this business almost eight years ago, we only dreamed about where we are today, but I still miss the caterpillar. Doesn’t mean that I don’t fully love and accept where we are now. Doesn’t mean I don’t long for the butterfly, but the caterpillar did a lot of work. (And still is!)
October 2017, in the midst of all this loss, Tim and I found out that we are going to have another baby! It really is a miracle of grand proportions, a welcomed gift, and. . . a surprise. We also found out just two days before our first ever conference, and before the busiest fall training schedule, we’ve ever had. Can good news come at a bad time? Well? It did for me! I am well aware of the transformative process every part of me is undergoing and will be undergoing as a result of this new life inside of me. I am also very aware of the loss. I kinda miss the naïve bliss of my first pregnancy. I long for the butterfly. I grieve the loss of the caterpillar, and I strive, each and every day to deeply revel in this beautiful moment.
This year has been all about transformation. Our three year old has recently decided that butterflies are okay. In fact, a few weeks ago he pointed to the body of a butterfly in our living room and said, “The caterpillar is still there. It’s just different.” After a long pause and a deep breath, he said, “But I still miss the caterpillar.” This past year I thought we would have to teach Cooper about grief and loss – hopefully, we did guide him through this process a bit – but he taught me about transformation and true connection. What a gift it has been to grieve with my child. Secure attachment is about looking forward and looking back while maintaining a felt sense of connection now – Just like a child builds a secure attachment through this dance of looking forward and looking back, moving toward and moving away, all while feeling the satisfaction of safety and connection to self and others. . . at this moment. I long for the butterfly and this lifelong transformative process, but I miss the caterpillar. Secure attachment in our relationships can’t exist if we feel chronic disconnection when there is distance. Likewise, a secure attachment to what is and to our future only exists when we find a healthy connection with the past. I so look forward to 2018 – the growth, the change, the transformation . . . and the inevitable loss. . . and the beautiful connection that comes in the midst of it all. I miss the caterpillar, and that is okay, because, really. . . I should. Plus, our three-year-old says it’s okay!