Rise to the Occasion

When you face a challenge in life, you more often than not have the choice as to how to react. You can stand in awe, crumble in futility or rise to the occasion. In my experience, life’s difficulties are better met with gusto than distaste.

Every difficulty successfully met tends to produce: 1) some new element of understanding, 2) a new reserve of character and/or 3) an aperture into a new level of consciousness. Even failures reward you with a measure of personal growth. The nature of the circumstances is irrelevant; the way you carry yourself in them is paramount.

Most people are so busy reacting to their circumstances that they overlook the lessons to be learned as they pass through them. I’ve found, for instance, that crisis situations teach you a lot about the people around you. Crises throw into relief a man’s strengths and weaknesses and if you are concerned as I am to uplift all that you touch, such information is invaluable.

Your reactions are more a matter of habit than a foregone conclusion. They can be shaped over time, so if you don’t like how you tend to react to challenging situations, know that you can change your approach. It may take time and you will likely progress by fits and starts, but don’t give up…it can be done.

The first step to making such changes is to be honest with yourself about the way you acted or are acting. Ask yourself: “Which feelings am I giving the most weight to?” and then “Which constructive feelings could use more of my conscious attention?” Once you’ve made this determination, give it your best shot. Take new ground and don’t look back.

The second step is to hold fast that which you’ve gained in the process. Don’t squander your victories. And if you do waste them through petty reaction, absentmindedness or some other foolish splurge, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, pick yourself up, wipe yourself off and move quickly in the new direction you’ve set for yourself after reading this post.

And don’t forget to share your experience with this process in a comment or an email! I’d love to hear about it.

Leo’s Life Lessons

“The Horse” by Ronald Duncan

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is served with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent.
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.

My horse, Leo, has taught me a great many lessons about riding and just as many about life. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  1. It’s okay to be startled on occasion, but when you are, there’s no need to dwell on it. Examine the source of your distress, but move on as quickly as possible.
  2. Routines are good; they establish a basic underlying rhythm in an often chaotic world.
  3. Don’t limit yourself to routines. Patterns engender familiarity and familiarity breeds complacency. Change it up on occasion to revitalize your mind.
  4. Rhythmic suppleness leads to balance. Likewise, flexibility in dealing with both the predictable and unforeseen rhythms of life sets the conditions necessary for a balanced perspective.
  5. Subtlety is routinely underrated. In fact, less is more, more often than not.
  6. Conserve your physical, mental and emotional energy. Thrift is poetic.
  7. Be mindful of the fulcrum of opposing forces. It is wiser to work both ends from the middle than to play both ends against the middle.

This is a short list, though I could probably spend an entire year of daily posts just examining the implication of these seven lessons (and likely will in the recesses of my mind).

I’d love to hear from you about lessons you’ve learned from the animals in your world! Feel free to share in a comment…

The Bee’s Knees

Some life lessons come packaged in an instant. They’re the sort that you miss if you blink. I had a “funny in hindsight” moment on a mountain bike ride last weekend and as brief as the moment was, its implications keep expanding like one of those kid’s dinosaur sponges that grow to many times their original size when placed in water.

To make a short story long, I was zooming down a relatively technical (to me) downhill, one that required the majority of my mental and physical focus. I was going fast and the trail was fraught with turns and obstacles around and over which I had to maneuver. I could slow down but not stop without consequence and I certainly couldn’t spare a hand to deal with what was about to land on the doorstep of my experience.

I was on top of the world, large and in charge, and a millisecond later a yellow jacket decided to land on my nose and have a look around. I blew as hard as I could over my top lip (remember I was screaming down hill) to try and dislodge it, but my efforts were fruitless. I could see him in great detail, thanks to the amazing side-effects of the adrenaline rush he caused and I swear to you that I could even see his knees.

He turned downward, his stinger was straight up, and then stuck his head in my left nostril. I don’t remember exactly, but I am pretty sure I started blowing harder while simultaneously considering what to do: swat him with my hand and likely lose control and suffer a physical injury requiring weeks of healing time or wait for the sting and get over that pain in a couple of days. I elected the latter, but fortunately the sting never came. Fortunately, he finally got enough of his body in the wind tunnel I was creating and buzzed quickly out of sight.

All of this likely happened in the course of two or three seconds. I cannot help but think of how much detail we miss while moving through life on autopilot in a typical day! It proved to me that work I’ve done to maintain grace under pressure was paying off, as the emergency in my field of circumstance did not pull me from the larger task to which I was committed at the time. It also served to reinforce my belief of the power of relaxation, especially in times of high pressure or stress.

In most situations, the extension of control comes more from relaxation than it does from force. This is as true in the classroom as it is in the cockpit, saddle or driver’s seat. The next time you find yourself under the gun, find a way to relax more deeply, physically, mentally and emotionally. It may just end up saving your life!

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.

Simplest Terms

Even the most difficult problems can be overcome if you approach them in the right way. One of the many life lessons I’ve found to be extremely valuable is the fact that you can parlay success in one area of your life into other areas. The translation into application in a new area may not be direct, but the principle behind your success will arm you with useful starting points in any new challenge you face.

In one of my favorite books on horseback riding, Reflections on Riding and Jumping, the author, William Steinkraus, draws an interesting correlation between two loves of his, music and riding. He describes how a systematic and progressive approach to anything – building a sound foundation and then building upon it – can lead to successful outcomes:

Surprisingly, perhaps, my belief in this approach has been reinforced by my musical experience. People who know that I love music and still play the viola or violin almost every day have often asked me if there was any relationship between my musical activities and my riding. They probably expect me to say something about hands or rhythm; but I’ve never found these things to have much direct relevance per se. What has been relevant, however, is the relationship between position and function, and especially, the method of practicing difficult technical material by isolating all the elements involved, reducing them to their simplest terms, and learning to cope with them on that level before putting them back together. To master a very difficult passage on the violin, fiddle players often practice the actions required by the bow arm and the left hand separately, and invent little ad hoc exercises that accentuate the particular patterns involved. Then they go back to the passage and practice it in slow motion, to give the correct neural paths a chance to establish themselves; and when they finally play the passage at the proper tempo, it’s all there – not miraculously, but mechanically.

Difficult riding problems can be dealt with in exactly the same way. The key to a demanding Grand Prix jumper course is often a particular difficult line involving big fences, difficult distances, a combination and a turn that must be executed with great precision. Yet each of these elements can be isolated and mastered in simpler form in schooling long before we face them all together and in a more complex version during competition.

Instead of being overwhelmed by the difficulty or complexity of a large project you face, you can retrain your first flush of feeling. Where there was panic, there can be poise. Where there was fear, there can be wisdom, if not the state of mind and heart that leads to wisdom if you stop and take the time to think, to analyze the situation and to break it down into its simplest terms.

Try Something New

One of the several books I am presently dipping into is William Steinkraus’ Reflections on Riding and Jumping. If you aren’t an equestrian or are and haven’t heard of this remarkable man, I would highly recommend that you take a moment to discover more about his love of music and horses.

William Steinkraus is one of the most successful riders in show jumping history. He rode for the USA in five Olympic games, won four medals, including the 1968 individual gold in Mexico City and was on the United States Equestrian Team for twenty years, serving as captain for sixteen of those years. He is also a talented and avid musician and plays chamber music on the viola and violin if I am not mistaken.

Early in this particular book (he wrote extensively and was also an editor in his “day” job), Steinkraus made the following observation:

One of the principal distinguishing characteristics of the good rider is his technical resourcefulness. If what he’s doing isn’t working, he’ll try another approach until he finds something he can get by with, at least for the moment…

It’s surprising what a big deal it is for most people actually to try something new. Thinking about it is one thing, but having to try it out on your own horse or with your own body means abandoning what you have always done before. Many riders can’t bring themselves to do this, even when they’re seeking advice in the first place because they aren’t having much success with their old techniques. Every clinician has had the experience of describing and demonstrating a particular physical attitude he wants the class to assume, only to find that half the class isn’t even attempting to do what he suggested. Consequently, most riders display the same faults year after year, their progress blocked by their won resistance to change, forever bogged down at a lower level of success than they are capable of achieving.

This is as true at the barn as it is in life.  People get into trouble when they get in the habit of acting without thinking or when they become dogmatic in their approach to problems in riding and living. In most cases, you can think your way out of a problem. Moreover, just because something worked for you once doesn’t mean that the exact same approach will be warranted every time you face a new problem, even if it looks essentially similar on the surface!

There are of course certain well-worn systems developed in the equestrian arts for dealing with the age-old equestrian problems of lengthen, shorten, turn and jump, but rigid thought eventually makes a supple mind brittle. So it is in life. When you break it down into its component parts, life and its daily challenges are not really all that complicated. That said, no moral code, system of rules and regulations or magic pill can work in every situation. We still must learn to think and feel in creative ways to emerge victorious at the end of the day.

Life is dynamic. There is no doubt in my mind that technical resourcefulness in living can typically take you much farther than a more circumscribed approach. Be careful not to develop too many habits. Stay light on your feet. Look for opportunities for growth and development. Stay humble. Don’t assume that you’ve been there an done that the moment a conversation or situation begins to take shape.

You can be progressive in your approach to living. Many people die mentally and emotionally long before they are physically dead because they sacrifice wonders of change for the familiarity of comfort. The comfortable or familiar approach rarely leads from glory unto glory, in fact, it constrains to diminishing returns in satisfaction and success. If you feel bogged down in any area of your living, this may well be the reason. Take note and take a new approach!

Making it Manageable

If our education had included training to bear unpleasantness and to let the first shock pass until we could think more calmly, many an unbearable situation would become manageable, and many a nervous illness avoided.” ~ Claire Weekes

In a world where most people are not consistently giving their highest and finest you are bound to run into unpleasant situations every now and again, if not daily. The world we have is the result of the choices we’ve made collectively, and no matter how perfectly you’ve carried yourself in the midst of the chaos you are bound to feel the results of poor choices being made elsewhere.

Ask the toe who in and of himself would be healthy and strong were it not for the mouth who found an overly rich diet irresistible. Gout may be his burden even though it might not be his fault directly. So it is in the body of humanity. We may not all be visibly connected to one another, but the causal ricochets of the choices made and actions taken by others impact us constantly.

Realizing this, we needn’t be shocked when things don’t go as expected or when we encounter an unexpected rough patch. You can broaden your scope of expectation – anything can happen! – and resolve to make the most out of whatever does.

The vicissitudes of life are much more manageable than some would have you think. If you didn’t learn this lesson at home or at school while growing up, who says you can’t learn it now?