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Human Whispering: The Art of Shutting Up

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Beth Anstandig

I spend a lot of time with horses and dogs, and my family will insist I acknowledge here,  I’ve also become a crazy cat lady in the last couple years. I love this life with animals because they help me see myself as a human animal. And seeing myself as a human animal shifts how I take care of myself and how I show up in all of my relationships. Yup. We are mammals of the human variety. We don’t like to go there because we’ve been profoundly socialized out of our animal tendencies, some of which are probably best left behind. (Think toddler behavior here: throwing food, biting, and peeing on the floor.) It turns out we’ve also been flooded with stimulation to our nervous systems (over-population, urban life, electronic devices, television) which has resulted in a survival-based numbing of those animal sensitivities that long ago guided our daily lives. So I live with these lovely beasts and spend as much time as possible syncing up with them, my daily practice of tuning my natural leadership instrument. With practice, space, quiet, and the unintentional guiding from others in the animal kingdom, we can reclaim some of our precious instincts. Once uncovered and honed, our sharpened senses can truly come back to life and bring a richness and vitality into how we experience even the littlest things. The most of important of those is the art of human whispering.

Let’s unpack this a bit more. For the past several months, I’ve been getting to know a new member of my horse herd, a lovely mare named Riva who came to us via county animal control, a dog rescue, and then a friend who had her housed at her barn for a few weeks. She’s a bit of mystery and we sometime refer to her as “the street mare” because she was actually picked up as a stray, not a common occurrence for horses. So we don’t have the play-by-play narrative and we don’t have words to exchange our life stories. Instead, we have been walking through all kinds of experiences together and how she responds with her body tells a whole lot of her story.

When I first started leading her with a halter, I would pick up the lead rope with the gentlest touch and she would throw her head and shake it violently like her face was under attack. Aha! There’s part of her story. I don’t know what happened, what went right or wrong, but she showed me that she has a sensitivity. And I listened. So we had that conversation for about 4 weeks. Each time I led her and with each point of contact, she showed me who she was as an individual and her sensitivity to touch and to pressure. She told me, with her flapping head, that she wanted me to know this about her and she wanted me to take it seriously. So I did. I listened and I responded. I lightened my hand as much as I could, which told her, “I hear you. I see you.” It’s important to note here that Riva needed to tell that story about her face sensitivity every day for weeks. And she needed me to acknowledge that took her seriously. There was nothing more for me to do. But by seeing her and respecting her story, it allowed her to move through it. Eventually, she moved on. We moved on.

With each activity we did together, she would show me another layer of herself. She had stories to tell about brushing, saddling, bridling, riding, trotting, bathing, feeding. Pretty much any place where humans may have intersected with her world, her body, her being. By quietly waiting, paying attention, and listening, she has revealed some baggage. This girl has had a lot of stories to share! And the more willingness and patience I have shown her, the more connection, affection, and willingness to partner she has shown me. We have a thing going.

Recently, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the work of Parker Palmer and this passage of his writing has echoed in my mind and heart for weeks: If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding, but if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.

As I’ve been reflecting on those words, the experience with Riva has continued to come to mind. She wasn’t a wild animal when I met her; however, the essence of her or her soul, her perfect wildness, I believe, had been something she had learned to guard. You see, many people approach horse training from that old paradigm of “breaking” these animals, relating through intimidation, pain, and control. The relationships are based in fear, not in trusting partnership. For hundreds of years, humans have taken the horse’s very unique way of being in the world and doing relationship, the cultural rules of the herd that they know in their bone marrow, and have willfully tried to break it. The good news is that in the last 50-60 years, the tide changed in the horse world and a whole population of people started to see that the horse’s way had something to teach humans. Some people refer to it as horse whispering, which I find funny but it is actually pretty accurate. We have to be willing to shut our mouths, put aside our stubbornness, listen, and learn from them. We have to be willing to speak their language. I suppose it’s quiet like a whisper, but if you open your eyes, you can see they have so much to say!

Perhaps you’ve been trained in relationship the old cowboy way, broken, silenced, shamed, or your head and heart tied down into hopelessness. Or maybe you have people in your life who are trying to show you how they have been poorly treated by others, mishandled in relationship. Their spirits are shy or guarded.  Too often and with complete ignorance, we have plowed through each other’s sensitivities like heavy machinery. The sad thing is that those beautiful human instincts were just right, exquisitely designed, and that reckless way of relating really does “break” what was already “perfect” in us. We have been “breaking” each other. And we didn’t need to be breaking the horses but instead letting their way fix us.

The art of mindful relating, with horses or humans, involves some essential capacities to expand or skills to practice. You can become a human whisperer with a slight pivot, changing your approach to relating in some simple but profoundly effective ways:

1. Assume there is a story. Everyone has a story, good or bad. Be prepared to look for it so you can get to know what others have walked through and who they are.

2. Lighten your touch. Horses love the soft feel of our hands. It turns out people don’t like it if you knock down the door of their spirit and come crashing in. In this Age of Vulnerability, we really need to respect, honor, and learn how to soften and slow down our approach in relationship.

3. Keep a curious mindset. Listening carefully and observing goes a long way. But when we take personally what we see or take too much responsibility for other people’s stories, we can no longer see them accurately. It’s called projection and it’s a huge problem for humans. Allowing others to have a separate but relevant experience in the world without inserting ourselves is one of the kindest relational moves we can make.

4. Be patient. People may need to show you or tell you their story many times. Making meaning of our experiences is unique to our human mind and it’s how we process who we are. It’s how we learn and how we heal. Listening without judgment and without trying to fix allows others to feel seen without feeling broken.

5. Slow down and be quiet. It’s simply impossible to increase our awareness of ourselves or our relationships if we are too busy, allowing too much noise or stimulation into our lives, or moving too quickly. Horses are great role models for setting a wise pace. They graze for 20 hours per day. It’s a slow and steady and peaceful progression through the world. If you watched a movie of your life, you would want to cry at how fast your pace is. Most people are shocked when they are finally able to slow down. Our worlds are full of amazing moments all day long. And, when we change our pace, we’re able to experience those moments, have a deeper connection to ourselves, and we can be much more available to relate more intentionally with the world of living things around us.

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