Calm, Forward, Straight

As a living, breathing human being, you are an animate creature, capable of orienting in, being motivated by and coloring your expression with a wide variety of spirits. The spirit which compels or dominates your expression in any given moment gives evidence to the true centering of your heart, regardless of what you believe mentally to be your core concern. It is for this reason that it can rightly be said of most people that they worship they know not what.

Whether you claim to be (and may be in fact) more predominantly right or left-brained, the state of both heart and mind is a dominant factor in any deliberate, creative process. It matters not if you prefer a logical, sequential and rational approach or a random, intuitive and holistic approach if your heart and the cloud of emotions which clothe it, is troubled.

While I could and have provided many different examples of this principle over the years, I found another that may help drive the point home. The example is given in the context of training horses and riders, but it is easy to extrapolate the principle into specific application in any field of activity. General Decarpentry, in his fine book on classical horse training, Academic Equitation, writes:

And as for the “spirit” that should animate the student, the formula used by General L’Hotte to describe the spirit of dressage in the sequence of its aims can be applied to it: “Calm, Forward, Straight” (Calme, En Avant, Droit).

The most perfect calmness is essential in any dressage operation. However, despite its firmest determination, the rider will not always be able to avoid a shaking of his moral calm and he will never be able to recover instantly his physical calm once it has been ruffled by however slight and transient a loss of moral calm.

A flash of temper can be inwardly suppressed almost as soon as it is aroused, but its resulting effect on the rider’s nervous tension will persist for some time and, what is more important, for longer than the rider himself realizes. The horse, on the contrary, immediately feels this nervousness and immediately shares it, but needs a much longer time to forget than the rider. In this respect, the horse is gifted with an astonishingly delicate sensitivity, such that even the movements of his ears are a permanent indication of the “state of the horse’s soul” – if this expression can be allowed, which provide the rider with the means of perceiving a change in his own state of nerves, so slight that he may remain unaware of it, and even if the loss of calm is unrelated to the horse’s behavior.

Therefore, as soon as the rider feels any disturbance of his serenity, it is absolutely imperative to allow time for his own physical calm, which determines that of the horse, to be completely restored. A pause, a halt, provided that submission is not in question, is necessary before the lesson can be continued.

After some strong vexation, even if it has nothing to do with the horse, the trainer must be sufficiently wise to put the lesson off until the next day, and be content with a quiet hack.

I find the last sentence ironic in that many people confess to riding horses as a means of soothing their own nerves, of taking their minds off of “life.” Such an approach is a disservice to the horse and must be avoided if there is a genuine concern for its welfare.

In any case, the same pattern holds true in any and every situation you face in life. Substitute the horse for a student, employee, friend, lover, parishioner or political constituent and the principle continues to have immediate, practical application. Notice that General Decarpentry, whose work and writings are considered by dressage experts to be amongst the most important contributions to classical training in the twentieth century, does not mince words. He says that it is “absolutely imperative to allow time” for calm to be restored before continuing on. This is not a suggestion, it is an order! Anything less is the genesis of frenzy.

Many wonderful things in life have been destroyed by acting with a troubled heart. A troubled heart clouds the mind and therefore suppresses wisdom. It has a narcotic-like affect on consciousness, limiting both vision and perspective. A troubled heart focuses on and magnifies the limitations or blockages present and downplays and undervalues the means by which those limitations can be successfully and sustainably overcome.

“Mind over matter” is possible, but only with a cooperating heart.

The Spirit of the Method

The old and familiar maxim: “Knowledge is Power” shapes the way we look at education, marketing, politics, religion and many other areas of human activity. The idea that knowledge begets power is based on the limited view that humanity is meant to dominate his environment, rather than have dominion over it.

Domination is established through strength and power. It is the product of forced compliance and it is unsustainable because of its disconnection from the larger creative context of which it is a part. Dominion, on the other hand, manifests through agility and suppleness. It inspires a willing submission and compels agreement because of its synchronicity with the unifying pattern of truth.

Whereas domination divides, dominion divides but also connects. Domination coerces control by introducing an arbitrary and inflexible restraint on true creative expression, while dominion extends control in lockstep with the wheels within wheels of creation. A horse, for example, can be held artificially in a desirable frame or he can be brought progressively into a state of fitness and understanding which allows him to hold that frame willingly and even proudly, if that can be said.

Likewise, a child can be educated in one of two ways. The first, and most prevalent is based on the notion that knowledge is power. To that aim, facts and figures are pasted on from the outside, typically with complete disregard to the inner wisdom of the child. The second, yet more desirable sees knowledge as the means of unlocking the true creative expression already resident in the child. Knowledge in the former is an end and in the latter is a means to an end.

Knowledge is not power, but the agility and suppleness that attend a well-organized system of knowledge do allow for a safe and contained increase in the expression of power. Loosely arranged or poorly organized knowledge is dangerous in that it does not provide a safe container for power. Power inevitably leaks through holes in understanding.

I have found this distinction to be an important one in every field of human activity I’ve explored. While there are many examples that could be given in support of it, I am privileged to share an example that comes from the field of classical equitation. General Decarpentry, a distinguished scholar of artistic equitation who served in the venerable Cadre Noir from 1904 to 1913 and again from 1925 to 1931 as the school’s second-in-command, provided a useful explanation of how dominion can be established in the field of equitation in his book Academic Equitation, A training system based on the methods of D’Aure, Baucher and L’Hotte:

The methods employed in Academic Equitation are in no way different from the ones used ever since the beginning of training, and they are in fact the only means man disposes of to train any kind of animal.

They consist of progressively developing applications of the principle of submission, by substituting for the means primitively employed to obtain it, other more convenient means that give scope for wider and more subtle applications.

The conventional language which has been thus gradually established between rider and mount becomes enriched with new signs. The understanding of the horse develops. The combined use of the signs, the isolated meaning of which has been established separately, allows the rider to enlarge the scope of his teaching, which always proceeds from the known to the unknown.

This is the spirit of the method. It uses conventional language to apply to the body of the horse the gymnastic progression of a series of movements intended to develop his agility rather than his strength, and his suppleness rather than his power.

The End of Disbelief

In every creative endeavor there is moment just before the victorious culmination where you are called to rise up out of the old state and into the new state. It is the moment, you could say, where you finally release all disbelief that the new state is actually achievable.

The niggling doubts that we as human beings are so keen to hold on to may be healthy in the sense that anything could go wrong even seconds before the goal is achieved, but weighting them overly causes unnecessary drag on movement toward the goal at hand, drag that can in and of itself be an impediment to victory. Herein lies the difference between the traditional skeptic and the honest skeptic: the former is convinced that victory is impossible while the latter leaves room for the possibility of another detour or obstacle while keeping his head high and his eye trained on the steps just beyond the finish line.

You must be careful not to rush matters at this point in the process, for pressing ahead of the natural cycle of fulfillment can also foil the best laid plans. When victory is in sight, keep your wits about you and take care not to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Think of the cartoon runner who is neck-to-neck at the finish line and dives prematurely to beat his opponent, only to slide to an ignominious halt just inches before the finish line. There will inevitably be a natural lift in the final stages that will move you more quickly to your goal but manage it wisely, for perfection cannot be rushed.

That’s not to say that you don’t have to put and keep the coals on occasionally. Slow and steady does not necessarily always win the race. I believe that it is more important to live with wisdom, with a sensitivity to the background timing and impulses in any creative outworking, whether it be an important debate or a complex project at work, than it is to try to stuff life into a collection of idioms and inflexible opinions. When you make room for the natural and invisible impulses contained in the flow of life, something magical begins to happen: you move from glory unto glory no matter what challenges you might face from day to day.

The next time you have a finish line in sight remember these words. Don’t rush. Relinquish doubt. Focus your energy in relation to the goal. Just as the seconds before touchdown on a 10 mile long instrument approach in an airplane are the most critical, so too are the final moments before you move through to victory in any activity you undertake. The tolerances tighten. Wiggle room decreases. The margin for error constrains to zero.

Don’t tense up! For this it the perfect time to relax more deeply into the conviction within you that victory is at hand!

In Retrospect

“Righteousness is easy in retrospect.” ~Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

How true is that?!? More often than not the right thing to do is the least popular thing to do. Politicians find themselves between a rock and a hard place on this point as reelection concerns are often pitted against the need to support unpopular but clearly necessary legislation.

If you’ve ever had to take an unpopular stand with your family because it was the right thing to do you likely faced chastisement, disdain and perhaps even rejection. For whatever reason, mankind tends to prefer the comfort of the known to the discomfort that often accompanies the road of integrity, which, incidentally, is typically the road less traveled.

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” ~Alan Simpson

To that I would add: “…neither friends nor family, worldly possessions nor reputation.” Your value as an individual requires that your character stand above all these. I repeat. Your value as an individual requires that your character stand above all these.

If righteousness requires that you take a stand, then stand! Don’t apologize. Don’t be afraid. Don’t lord it over those around you. If the stand you are taking is the right thing to do, you will feel good about yourself, you will be at peace with yourself. And that, my friends, is the perfect starting point.

I’ve made decisions in my life that took years to come to fruition. You must be careful not to set fixed expectations as to how and when the harvest should appear, for what you send out in righteousness rarely comes back in the size, shape or timing you anticipated.

Many people have nullified what could have been tremendous if not miraculous blessings because they reacted unnecessarily to the time between the planting and the harvest. Reactive proclamations like “Well I didn’t think it would take so long to work out” or “I made the right choice and I have lost so much” turn into attitudes and actions that abort the creative process.

While it is true that righteousness is easy in retrospect, I would be remiss were I not to mention a balancing factor. The French have a proverb which clothes this balancing point nicely: “Une bonne conscience est un doux oreiller(“A good conscience is a soft pillow”). Even if the world turns against you, if you have done the right thing and you know it you will be at rest with yourself, a rare state of being that can only be described as “priceless.”

To William Lloyd Garrison’s question posed over a century-and-a-half ago…”Are right and wrong convertible terms, dependant upon popular opinion?” I reply: absolutely not!