During my morning computer time, I am super good at finding multiple and varied (would it be bragging to say creative?) ways of distracting myself from what I came to do. I check email and Facebook. I straighten my desk. I get a drink of water, stare out my window, worry and write something on my to-do list. I bold and italicize my titles, check the clock and stare out my window again. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something here, but you get the idea.
Truth be told, I’m a distraction-creating machine in so many areas.
As many of you know, I am an amateur horseback rider. Amateur being the operative word here, I am way beyond indebted to the instruction I’ve received from talented riders and trainers over the years.
Nina, one of my early trainers, has collected a quiver of wise riding adages over her years of teaching others to do what she could do in her sleep, and has a knack for bringing out the perfect arrow of wisdom at the perfect time. “Steering is a full-time job.” “The answer to everything is more leg.” “Quit trying so hard to relax.” These were the familiar refrains of my many lessons with Nina.
But the Ninaism I probably heard most often was her exhortation to ride every stride.
To ride every stride is to stay present to each separate moment in the saddle, being fully aware of each trot or canter motion of your horse, the way she moves and breathes, and the way in which your own body communicates with this glorious, powerful animal. Riding every stride is, essentially, about mindfulness.
Whether you are an Olympic level eventer, an amateur dressage enthusiast, or a weekend trail rider, mindfulness is what allows you to communicate wordlessly with your horse. And this silent partnering makes it possible for horse and rider to glide over a 4ft rail in perfect harmony, dance to music in a dressage freestyle routine, or instantly calm each other when a snake slithers across the trail.
The moment you lose your mindfulness and become distracted by the view outside the ring, what to have for dinner that night, or whether your breeches make your butt look big (all of which happens to me with alarming frequency), you lose your connection with your horse and are no longer in a conversation. You are just riding on, not riding with. Your horse knows the difference, and the communication, the partnering, is lost.
In addition to being a writer and a horseback rider, I am also an avid runner. (Okay, I just noticed all of my activities begin with the “R” sound. I should look into a gig on Sesame Street. Or maybe check out rug hooking.)
Warwick, NY, where we lived before our move to Omaha last year, is a quaint village in the Hudson Valley. Its charming streets are bordered by trees, slate sidewalks and renovated Victorian buildings.
Toward the end of one of my afternoon runs there, on one of the aforementioned slate sidewalks, I heard a nearby car honk. Thinking it was a friend, or perhaps an admirer (I did like the way I looked in my new running shorts), I turned my head toward the car. Exactly one second after I realized I was smiling and waving at a total stranger, I noticed that I was lying face down on the sidewalk, feet arced over my head, with my forehead smashed HARD to the ground.
Turns out that while my eyes and mind were otherwise engaged, I had tripped on an uneven seam between the slate sidewalk panels. Sporting an emerging bump over my right eye (that would later develop into a massive shiner), I half-walked, half-wove home, resolving to keep my attention on my feet from there on out.
We miss a lot when we aren’t mindful.
I have been in a relationship with my husband for almost thirty years. Sometimes, I’ll admit, when he is telling a story about his day, my mind wanders away from the moment and I let the latest worry, media sound bite or random thought distract me.
It goes something like this:
- My husband begins, “So, I held my first staff retreat today and . . .”
- I, in an attentive posture, think, “Staff retreat, huh? . . glad I don’t have to manage staff . . music staff . . wish I could take voice lessons again . . who was that one voice teacher? . . teacher . . my son wants to be a teacher . . wonder if he’s enjoying his first week back at college? I should call or Skype him after my husband finishes . . Oh! Wait!”
(Sweetie, if you’re reading this, know that I am very ashamed of my behavior and that I am really working on it. I’m thinking of joining a 12-step program.)
So, mindfulness in relationship is about really focusing in on our partner and actively listening to what they are saying (neither of which I was doing in the above example), and then somehow communicating back to them our understanding of what they have said (which I could not have done here, even for a promise of really good money).
When we stop being mindful, we may look like we’re listening, and may be able, through parroting back a few key words, convince our partner that we heard them. We may even think, on some level, that we did hear them. But we are no longer actually in a mutual conversation.
Our partner knows the difference. And, suddenly, the chance for real communication, real partnering, is lost.
And here’s the kicker. This missed communication opportunity can have dire consequences, because offering our partner a huge slice of our attention is the foundation for everything else we do in a relationship. Mutual support, management of conflict, compromise – none of these are possible without first engaging in mindful listening.
Our worried minds and busy lives, our media-hyped day, our tweeting and sound-byte world, our own agendas – all of these things conspire to encourage distraction and discourage mindfulness.
Our partners, children and friends (and our horses, our bodies and our writing projects) want us to stay with them, to hold fast to the moment, to ride every stride.
If we can manage to accomplish this state of mindfulness, even for a moment, the chance is there for us to experience the incredible intimacy and understanding that is born of real, mutual communication, and that makes it possible for us to genuinely support each other when we are down, dance for mutual joy at our successes, and help each other jump the world’s high fences.
Tell us about your experiences (successful or otherwise!) with mindfulness. If you’ve lived it, someone will benefit from it.
And if you’re interested in exploring mindfulness in body work, check out this previous guest post from Kendra McCallie, psychotherapist and yoga instructor.