There is a story I’d like to tell you about a man riding a horse. The man is clutching tightly to the reins of the horse as he thunders through a town in great haste. He seems to have somewhere very important to go. One of the townsfolk, startled by his urgency, yells to him, “Where are you going?” The man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
Each of us may well be riding our own horse, or maybe a whole team of horses! We are pulled forward by a sense of urgency, by our habit of rushing, and by our dreams of a better life or of being a better person.
Many of the horses that we are riding are ones that we have inherited – from our parents, and from society. In school and at work we are taught to push ourselves, that stress and misery now are worth it to get the good grades, to pass the exam, or to get a promotion. The story of success in life seems to have a direction, as long as we can just keep pushing ourselves that way. It’s stressful, but it feels familiar and we’re sure our life will be better once we get that house, that person, that job—won’t it?
All the while we haven’t quite got “there” yet, wherever there is. The horse is still thundering under our feet, carrying us toward our fantasy and away from the simple reality of this moment. Being on horseback can be quite exhilarating—the thrill of the chase, the prize just beyond your grasp. Sometimes it feels like you’re winning the race—what joy! And sometimes the race feels exhausting and you feel like you’re way, way behind where you ought to be.
The finish line—buying the house, getting married, getting yourself “together”—looms large in your imagination. How well are you doing? It seems like others might have reached the finish line already, and here you are lagging near the starting line. Maybe the horse is no good! Maybe I’m no good! But I’m sure once I get to the finish line, I’ll feel good…
Living life in the heat of the race is not always that much fun. We’re constantly checking how well we’re doing and our happiness depends on how we measure up. Are we ahead of the pack or behind it? We base our self-esteem on comparing ourselves to others or by how close we are to our goals. We feel the pressure to make it there—we’ve invested a lot, make a big bet on our horse to win, and we’re damn sure gonna make it over the line!
There is another way to live on horseback—life doesn’t have to be a race. We can mindfully touch into finding happiness right here, one of the Four Keys to the Heart taught on our Heart-Based Intensive. We begin to discover sources of happiness that don’t need us to stress, and strain, and rant, and pant! Even as the horse thunders beneath us, we can take a few moments just to feel our body and our breathing.
We can be aware of the trees that provide oxygen for us to breathe, and the miracle of the trillions of cells in our body—absorbing the oxygen, bringing us to life. We can see the sunshine streaming in through the window, and feel the gentle breeze on our skin. We can see the clouds drifting across the sky—shifting, changing, almost imperceptibly.
Perhaps we begin to notice that all this racing around has been very draining for our body and mind. Instead of reaching for the whip, we can give our backsides a break! We can take some time to notice the tiredness and all the thoughts that have been pushing us—“Not there yet! You’re losing the race! You’ll never get the carrot this way!” We can recognise these things with gentleness and with a wry smile. We know that we all as humans ride on horseback much of the time, caught up in the race—it’s OK, it’s not just us.
Turning away from the drama and unpredictability of the race, we come back to tenderly embrace our difficulty and weariness with kindness. We can whisper gently to ourselves and to the horse, “I am here for you now. I’m sorry that I’ve been lost in the race, but I am 100% here to listen to what you need.”
Our horse is looking much more mellow already, and we soften our tensed-up body into the saddle. What a relief! We touch a sense of wellbeing that doesn’t depend on how close to the finish line we are. Our horse begins to rest a little and nibble on some grass underfoot.
Embracing our difficulty like this with self-compassion is a true refuge, because we can enjoy and rest in it regardless of whether we are winning or losing the race. If we remember to come back to this attitude of self-compassion regularly and nurture it, it can provide us with a far more resilient and stable source of wellbeing than the highs, lows, trials, and tribulations of basing our happiness on our apparent “success” and “failure”.
We don’t have to feel bad about the race. We’re all born on horseback in some way. But hey, our backside definitely deserves a rest from the whip, and horsey is getting hungry for some sweet grass… Maybe there are pastures to be explored beyond the racetrack, if we slow down enough to notice them.
In the meantime, you can enjoy resting on the ground, side-by-side with dear horsey. As you tune into each other in this calmer space, you whisper to the horse, “So, umm… dear horsey, I don’t mean to be rude—but where exactly are we going?” If you speak and listen carefully enough, you might just begin to discover a more enjoyable way for both of you to travel together.