Mindfulness in a Round Pen

Mindfulness in a Round Pen

Article by Dr. Teri Davis

David was anxious, nervous, afraid of being hurt. He was busy looking for danger, pacing, exhibiting behavior that might be expected from any animal of prey in an unfamiliar environment. Johnny moved quietly and deliberately, as if to try to calm him by his peaceful presence.

David is an OIF veteran, a combat engineer near Fallujah. He served 23 years in the Army, 5 years with the Army National Guard.

Johnny is a quarter horse who was rescued last spring by Escalante Springs Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation on the southeastern edge of Tucson. He and his horse pal, Brownie, were living in a small pen next to the Old Nogales Hwy. They were neglected and starving to death. Finally a passing motorist called Animal Control.

In the above photo Brownie is in the background on the left and Johnny is in the foreground. Bob is holding the rope and David is pacing. At ease, Johnny has one ear on Bob and one ear on David, paying attention to both of them, ever mindful of his environment as any prey animal must be in order to stay alive.

This photo and several that follow were taken last weekend during a class taught by Johnny, with assistance from Bob and me. Through the Mindful Veterans Project, several programs are offered to veterans for free, and this is one of them. On this particular day, we took 5 vets to the ranch to meet some of the rescued horses and do a little ground work with Johnny. The program is very unassuming, we provide some basic safety instructions then ask participants to perform simple tasks with the horses that require a certain amount of mutual trust and respect.

David was enthusiastic about participating this day, even though he had never had any real experience with horses, and he mentioned several times his fear of being bit. When we first arrived and were just hanging out by the pen where Johnny and Brownie were, David mentioned to me that he thought the horses looked nervous . . . anxious . . . scared. (I find that in moments like this, when we are first observing the animals and I ask participants to tell me what they think is going on with the horses, the people will often tell me what is going on within themselves. If they are scared, they tell me the horses look scared, etc.)

After introducing the men to Johnny and Brownie and providing some general information about how to behave around horses, Johnny and the rest of us moved into another pen. And with a little help from his friend, David put a halter on Johnny and walked around with him. When David walked, Johnny walked; when David turned, Johnny turned; when David stopped, Johnny stopped. And I watched David’s grip on the rope loosen, I watched his posture let go just a little, his stride became shorter and softer, his head bowed slightly and his gaze remained on the horse and the task at hand. He appeared to mirror some of Johnny’s comfortable gait and posture as well as his presence of mind.

After just this, he told Bob, “I feel calm and safe.”

Bob and I have had conversations about PTSD – his, mine, and others’ – and we have talked about the word “safe”. In another program, we teach mindfulness meditation skills to veterans in an eight-week class (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR) and I sometimes say “May you be safe”. Bob experienced some resistance and told me that although he might feel more or less safe, moment by moment, he never feels completely safe – in fact, for some, feeling completely safe doesn’t feel safe. Not wanting to invite people to open to or explore a mind state that seems threatening to begin with, I now say “May you feel safe”. (Leaving room for those who only feel safe if they are feeling a little unsafe – just enough to be vigilant.)

David said he felt calm and safe.

In half an hour, Johnny helped David move into a calmer state of body and mind with the focused awareness to even notice his feelings in the first place and then put words to them.

The MBSR class is evidence-based. It is the Gold Standard for teaching mindfulness awareness practices. And with advancements in techniques to study brains at rest and brains at work, research shows that this eight-week class will lead to structural and functional changes in the brains of those participants who fully engage in the daily home practice (of about half an hour.) These brain changes can contribute to greater concentration, focus, and equanimity (balance of mind.) And they can dial down the habitual stress reactivity that so many people live within. 

Practicing mindful awareness is like using the mind to change the brain to change the mind.

This is not an essay about the brain science of mindfulness, though. Or the brain science of connecting with a kind horse on a beautiful day while surrounded by friendly people and wide open spaces. (Well, maybe it is just a little.)

It’s about that moment when David felt calm and safe. He felt that, he noticed it, he named it.  By simply paying attention to the experience of feeling calm and safe, he allowed it to sink into his mind and body. Our brains change moment by moment in response to what we are paying attention to, this is experience-dependent neuroplasticity. And when we slow down and really notice pleasant states of mind and body, when we take a few seconds to pay attention to the sensations and let the experience sink in, we leave a trace on the brain. And if we do that again and again, the trace becomes a track as the neurons that are firing together become wired together. (To paraphrase Dr. Donald Hebb.) And it becomes easier and easier for us to find our way back to that calm state of being.

Johnny didn’t create that inner calm and safety, he helped to reveal it. And David caught a glimpse of himself in a moment of peace.

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