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Broadening the Concept of Mindfulness with the Four Channels of Natural Leadership Awareness

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Beth Anstandig

We’re used to thinking about mindfulness in terms of what’s going on in our thinking. But, the thing about awareness, which we can learn from being with animals, is that by tapping into our Natural Leadership Awareness, we can broaden the scope of mindfulness to include what’s happening within our bodies, spirits, and emotions. And that’s just the first channel of awareness — What is happening inside of me? 

The second channel is based in our empathy system — What is happening inside of you?  As social beings, intrinsically we are wired to connect with others. There’s a whole part of our awareness that is picking up all kinds of signals from those around us. We are always reading cues and sensing. This allows us to utilize each other for safety and to care for each other as a part of our social contract. 

Earlier I was outside with the horses and I noticed my border collie, Georgie, scurrying around. She was darting around the field, sniffing, poking, and then full speed arcs through the tall grass. I started to pick up on her energy. It was a bit infectious. I could feel my own energy rise. But I wanted to feel ease and relaxation. So I sat down and took some deep breaths. Within a minute, Georgie came over and settled down next to me. What happened describes the third awareness channel — What is happening between us? We were affecting each other and I decided to take the relational lead and suggest calmness. That signal reached her and we settled into the grass together. This is the “we” experience that is a central part of mammal life. Regardless of species, the interconnectedness runs strong and is even more powerful if we are intentional about using it. 

Next Feather, the wild mustang we adopted in November, came over to visit. She settled in behind me. Georgie and I were sitting together. Feather was standing over us. At first glance, we were not doing much interacting. But if you looked closely and considered what was happening, it was profound. We are choosing proximity. That doesn’t mean we were on top of each other. There is this lovely state of calmness that is available when you spend time with a horse herd and you can experience their radical commitment to stay close and to stay together.

Some people might observe and think there’s no connection and that we were all doing our own thing. But there was actually a lot of connection. When I sat down, Feather came over to say hello. She chose to graze right behind me. It was quite nice and I felt a deep warmth about that. I felt a lovely safety and happiness about it. We were simply enjoying the moment together and there was an allowance for everyone to have their own needs and to have their own space. We chose to be close enough that it felt like there was a ‘we’.

The fourth channel of awareness is What is happening around us? This is how we broaden our scope to consider our place in the world. We can look around us and see the larger context of the system in which we live. How is my environment affecting me, others, our group? Horses are great teachers of this awareness channel because their survival as prey animals depends upon a constant awareness of changes in the environment. Because humans are often stuck in the world of our thoughts, we have a blindspot about the whole system’s impact. As I sat with Georgie and Feather, the sun was beginning to set in the hills and the day was closing. I could feel that energetically. I noticed it affecting my energy level and mood. I felt it in the horses too. There was a shift in their reactivity as they began to move into a different kind of alertness that’s needed for prey animals at nighttime.

As I sat considering the big picture and all of the things affecting the group, another horse moved toward where I was sitting. It was Sally who will be expecting a foal in June. I thought about how her pregnancy has affected her role in the herd. I thought about how she’s been less available to lead and to play. She has stepped back and been in a more self protective mode. Sally’s pregnancy has affected everyone and has changed the culture of the herd. Moonshine, Sally’s colt, has turned to other herd members for more support. Those relationships have deepened. 

As human animals, we are so used to being stuck in our heads and our thoughts, stuck worrying about others and what others think, stuck micro-managing and caretaking, and stuck on our all goals, agendas and pressures that we miss all of these nuances. We miss the ability to have scope so we can make choices about how we enter situations, what kind of energy we want to bring and how we want to shape things. 

It’s okay to show up and desire for something to happen. But when we use the four channels of awareness, we’re able to be more nuanced about how we do it, putting relationship, ease and low stress front and center so that we’re not wasting energy. We’re not creating situations that destabilize ourselves or our groups, and we’re not causing so much stress or tension that we risk getting ourselves into unsafe situations.

The more we practice these channels of awareness, the better we get at them, the more efficient we become. We can drop into a quick check-in and have quite a bit of information to use. We can sense what’s happening within ourselves, within others, in our relationships, and in the larger context of our herds, our groups, our lives. With that, we can start to determine how we want to show up at any given moment. What do I need? What are my choices around my wants and needs? And, how can I enter a moment in a way that will keep a state of balance and ease rather than create chaos and confusion?

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