Louise Thayer takes a ride and takes her power back.
Life throws some pretty good punches our way. I’d like to think that most of the time I duck and dodge and keep on going, but the truth is that after a while, we get tired of what can feel like a beating from the universe. How do we respond? By shutting down and locking up. Erecting walls and barriers. Keeping our guard up. We make our personal defenses just as castles evolve. We carefully construct new fortifications around old scarred brickwork, we fill another moat just a little further out than the first. Then we retreat to the keep and set watch for more emotional woundings. We go away. Away from family and friends, even from new people who appeal to us.
Most of us, at least by the time we hit our thirties, have been bruised and more than a little mangled. We’ve had injuries and illnesses. We’ve feared for our lives and we’ve been around when those we love have died. We’ve faced the sometimes equally heartbreaking death of the dreams we thought that we needed to survive. So little by little we take those pains and bury them inside—men especially—but women, too. How we deal with this buried pain is, I believe, a defining factor—if not the defining factor—in our lives.
A few years ago, I was at a horsemanship class in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The first morning’s classroom session was underway and we had been split into pairs.
“Just keep at least one body part moving at all times.” That was the instruction my partner (playing the role of “the horse”) had been given. We were all comparatively new to one another. Some of us had been involved in an Aikido for Horsemen class for the three days prior to this riding clinic, but none of us knew what we’d be doing next.
This particular exercise (where one of us played “the rider” and the other “the horse”) felt like a follow-on to the mind blowing experience that was my last three days of discovery. We had all spent a good part of our time on the concept of using internal energy to move people, without meaning them any harm (even if they intended harm to us).
It differed vastly from anything I had ever thought about, let alone experienced, before. We worked on shifting our thinking from believing that we “knew” the world around us to accepting that we knew relatively little, even about ourselves and especially about our connection with our bodies, our feel, our timing.
It was complete immersion, working to the best of our abilities on releasing ourselves from the constructs of mind and false belief about what our bodies were limited by. It was using the impulse of thought and subsequent flow of energy to create momentum, rather than employing any force whatsoever.
So I was now supposed to guide my “horse” partner through a series of tasks known only to me. I couldn’t touch her or say anything but the words “yes” or “no.” She had to keep one body part moving. We were attempting to establish where breakdown of communication occurs most often when we are guiding our horses.
We navigated pretty easily through the glass paneled door, and she moved confidently over to touch the appropriate stool at the bar, but that’s when my communication fell foul of my uncertainty. My “yes-es” gained tremulous question marks at the end of them and my pauses grew longer. I couldn’t figure out how she should be helped to turn the stool around. She touched the stool, she thought about sitting in the stool or picking the rope up off the back of the stool but our three minutes lapsed with us just standing there, humorously looking at each other. Out of ideas. Out of movement. And a lot still to learn.
I study with this particular teacher, Mark Rashid, as often as time and location allow. Mark guides his horsemanship students with deference to his martial arts training, and the two worlds mesh seamlessly since the concept of blending energy to create the picture of the thing you want applies equally in both scenarios. His kindness towards his students and his respect for their process is one of many reasons why we all feel dramatically different following three days of “simply” riding.
Moving on from horsemanship clinics to study the modified version of Aikido that Mark was teaching felt like a terrifying leap out of every one of my comfort zones, and so I jumped before I gave myself the chance to reconsider.
With no horses to think of, the class immediately became an eye-opening introduction to uncharted internal human territory, to the concept of true power coming from within but arising through our connection with everything around us. This felt like missing-link primordial fire for the whole of life.
It was the first time I think I had ever become aware that I was responsible for creating my own sense of safety and internal wellbeing. During one exercise on blending energy with an opponent, I had a full on panic attack with no advance notice.
We had been practicing wrist holds on one another and for this one particular exercise I chose to partner up with the only man taking the class, a lovely guy Mark had just finished demo-ing the move on. I thought it would be beneficial if one of us knew what we were supposed to be feeling and doing, but when he took a really good hold on my wrists (as he was meant to!) I completely froze. The freeze was followed by the cold gush of sweat, racing of pulse and compulsive desire to flee that only happens at times when we feel in imminent danger. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to shout at myself to “be normal” but I couldn’t get there from where I went.
I remember both my partner and Mark standing there watching me, aware that something had changed, waiting for me to make the next move. I couldn’t so much as think what words were, let alone explain what was going on, but they saw and felt that it was something massive and trauma-based and they held space for me to figure it out. As much as I just wanted to disappear in a running sprint from the hall, I first managed to squeak at my partner that it wasn’t because of anything he did.
I still had to leave, the flight urge was so strong and familiar that I felt I had no other choice. I sunk into my heels outside the room and cried, though for what I wasn’t sure. Certainly I had been triggered to remember less than optimal events from my past, but that response of completely locking up my whole mind and body felt suddenly foolish and overly dramatic. I carried on being upset and began the familiar ritual of mentally beating myself up for at least a few more minutes. I remember helplessly wishing for someone to come and see what pain I was in and to somehow rescue me, until with perfect stillness, the world returned to a new kind of clarity and I told myself, “you need to get up and walk back into the dojo.”
I knew with absolute certainty that the class was a watershed experience, that it was the best thing I had chosen to do for myself thus far in my life and so I made the choice to stand up and to walk back into the hall, not a victim but a willing participant in a pivotal educational experience, it felt good. It felt like a culmination of taking ownership of the power I had heard our teacher reference but had not truly understood before that moment.
Much later on I heard from Mark that when I had left the room, the clinic host had wanted to come and see if I was ok but that he had told her to leave me, knowing that I would work it out myself. True teachers allow you to ask questions of yourself and to come up with your own answers unprovoked. The answers are more meaningful when we come up with them alone and in our own time. I felt supported and trusted in that environment, even as I struggled, and I think that if we’re honest, that’s all we need of our various mentors through life.
Back to our pairs assignment and all of us had managed to accomplish some of the tasks but none of us seamlessly managed them all. I became Mark’s demo “horse” after we had all talked about the exercise a while and I managed to complete a complex stream of tasks without any concern as he guided with “yes-es” and “no-es” that were even and steady and unselfconsciously applied.
You have to keep moving one body part. Through pain, through grief and addictions, false-self adoration, through all of that which you know to not be true, just keep one body part moving and allow yourself to be directed.
Invisible forces can heal invisible wounds that otherwise grow gnarlier every day, but you have to stay in the places where healing can be felt, you have to feel it through to completion.
People can help you if you know you want to be helped, but if you stop moving, metaphorically or physically, then you are no longer a part of the quiet ebb and flow of life, then you are simply being dragged by a riptide and you forget that you can swim parallel to the shore.
The old standby of “keep putting one foot in front of the other” is no good when you are fighting against the inexorable course of the tide, but if, just for now, all you can do is keep one body part moving, then do that. See what happens next.
Photo by Catherine Latham