How To Stop Our Horse-Powered Minds
Posted by Dr. Alda Ngo
What To Do How To Be In The New Year
The new year brings opportunity for beginning anew. It’s a returning, where ending meets beginning and we have a chance to take inventory on what has come to pass. We can examine what has worked and what has not worked. We can reflect on what we wish to thank and bid adieu to. We can recognize what seeds we wish to plant and grow in the coming year.
It’s a time for resolutions and setting intentions. In the past, I’ve made resolutions to read more, do more yoga, ride my bike to work, go to bed early, stop eating gluten, floss every day, and the list goes on… I have had some success, but I’ve also put a lot of pressure on myself with these long lists of expectations…
This year I am going to keep it more simple. The last thing I need is one more thing to do. So I am going to try to remember to be.
Where Are We Going Going Going in Such A Hurry?
It happens more often than I would like. When I find myself hurrying into a room and suddenly wondering, “Wait, why did I come in here?”
There is an ancient Eastern story about a person on a horse. The horse is galloping speedily and it appears that the person is on their way somewhere important. As they pass another person standing on the side of the road, this bystander asks, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” And the person on horseback replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
Mindfulness meditation teachers explain that this is like many of us. We are going, going, going, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop.
The horse is our habit energy, pulling us along and we are powerless. We keep going and running and struggling and it has become a habit.
Stop The Horse:
1. Stop to breathe
They don’t call it horsepower for nothing. The horse, our habit energy is strong. Its running is part of our primitive brain’s functioning and has been critical for survival as we have evolved. The threat of danger is different now though. It’s no longer a sabre-toothed tiger, but our day to day social and financial stressors.
Our breath is an anchor: an autonomic bodily function that is always happening, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are attentive to our breathing, our mind is reunited with our body. At the same time, we are also flexing our brain’s muscle for concentration and higher cognitive thinking. It’s the part of our brain that can take control of the reins, to calm and to stop the horse.
Imagine walking around with a dumbbell all day and flexing the bicep whenever remembering to do so. That bicep, over time would build, becoming strong and ready to support and stabilize us in the midst of any adverse event.
The pre-frontal cortex is the same. Breath awareness actually makes this part of the brain grow bigger, giving us the ability to maintain self-regulation and control in the face of strong habit energies and emotions. It allows us to tame the horse.
2. Stop to calm
Once we have practiced with stopping to breathe, we can practice with stopping to calm our body and our emotions. It is impossible to calm down without stopping first.
When our horse is spooked and caught in an emotional storm, it cannot see clearly and it can kick, trample, and hurt itself or those around it. Similarly, when we are having a strong emotion, we lack the clarity that we need to stop ourselves from making rash decisions or taking action that we later regret.
When our ability to stop and breathe is strong, we are able to stop and calm ourselves as we practice recognizing and accepting our strong emotions. It’s not about denying these difficult emotions, it’s about making space to calmly accept and be with what is coming up for us in the moment.
When we are calm enough, we are also able to look deeply into the roots of these difficult emotions and understand what has brought them about, rather than be carried away by them. More often than not, the strong feelings are a function of how we are perceiving things.
When we have the space to look deeply at all of the various causes and conditions leading to our difficult emotions, we are able to view the situation from more perspectives. This allows us to have the insight to know what we can do or stop doing in order to move through the difficult situation.
When we are able to stop and calm the horse, there is increased capacity to view the landscape to better lead and direct the horse.
3. Stop to rest
After calming ourselves and the horse, we must take rest. Calming allows us to rest, which is a precondition for healing. When animals are wounded, they find a place to lie down and rest, sometimes staying there for days.
When our minds or bodies are wounded, we tend to want to make the issue go away. Our habit energy is to resist uncomfortable situations.
We must practice to rest in order to allow our bodies and minds to be with and heal these wounds. Resting and healing is not something that we ‘do’. We tend to want to attain, so when we want to rest, we might go on vacation perhaps to the beach or to the mountains. But sometimes we return from holidays more tired!
Taking rest is to stop doing and to be. It shouldn’t be a struggle or an attainment, nor should it be tiring. Our bodies and minds have the innate capacity to heal themselves, so when we stop, calm and rest, we are making space for our bodies to take good care of our wounds.
4. Stop to internalize the positive
Our minds are made up of our experiences. The flow of our experience shapes our brain, our mind and who we are.
Unfortunately, our brains have a negative bias. The brain has evolved to preferentially scan for unpleasant threatening experiences, because it helps to protect and preserve us from danger.
What this means is that even if our positive experiences outnumber our negative ones, our negative memories pile up faster.
The remedy? Well it isn’t to suppress or even avoid negative experiences, but to pay extra attention to positive ones.
If we stop and take a moment to be really present with our pleasant experiences, they get integrated into our implicit memory and become a permanent part of who we are.
How To Cultivate The Positive
Don’t let the good stuff go unnoticed. Look for it – kindness, wonder, something beautiful or gratifying, a pleasant sensation, whatever it may be … open up to it and take it in.
I mean really take it in and savour the experience, focussing on your emotions and body sensations.
Dwell in the experience for at least 5-20 seconds. The longer it is held in your awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons will fire and wire together, creating a stronger memory.
Imagine the experience sinking deeply into your mind and body, like the warmth of the sun.
Stop, breathe, calm, rest and relax your body so that the experience can be absorbed and integrated in the form of emotions, sensations and thoughts.
Stop And Be And Take It In
I have enough things to do on my list already!
So basically, my New Year’s aspiration is to invite moments of remembering to Stop and Be.
An act of non-action.
They don’t have to be big moments. They can be small and simple everyday moments. A flutter in a breeze, the warmth and aroma of my tea, the sound of someone’s laughter…
Stopping to take a breath, to invite calm and rest and to internalize the nourishing stuff that is around and available to me in every moment.
To take in life’s beauty and wonder and to make room for it to grow in me.
What are some of life’s beautiful experiences that have touched you and that you have welcomed to become a part of yourself?
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