A few years ago I was in Arizona one weekend learning horse whispering (just a fancy name for a style of horsemanship that focuses on building rapport with, instead of using force on horses. Actual whispering is entirely optional and probably futile).
I’ve always loved horses but had little experience with them. To get things started, the trainer made me stand in a round pen by myself with a chestnut colored beauty.
“Let’s first test your current skill level,” The trainer said. “Why don’t you try making her run?”
I got immediately nervous. My “current skill level” was below zero. I didn’t know what to do, felt embarrassed but didn’t want to show it. The horse, I’d call her Emily, stood quietly a few feet away, minding her own business, not interested in me at all.
I inserted myself right in her face, waving my hands trying to get her attention. She turned away and greeted me with her behind. I pushed her butt (Dangerous move! Don’t try at home!). She stood sturdier than a rock. I grabbed her halter and pulled on her lead, which annoyed her even more. She swayed her head to get rid of me, while standing stubbornly where she was.
Twenty minutes later I was all sweaty and out of breath. But Emily hadn’t moved one inch. Exasperated, I thought the trainer must have handed me a defective horse that had a leg problem.
“You look very busy over there,” The trainer said, amused. “Why are you doing so much?”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t understand her question. “I was trying to make the horse move!”
“Yeah, but why do you think all that maneuvering was helpful?”
“So that at least I was doing something,” I said. “So that I don’t just stand there feeling useless.”
“You mean you’re not useful when you don’t do anything?”
“Probably…yeah.” I was caught off guard. “I mean…at least it feels that way.”
The trainer pointed at Emily. “She’s not doing anything right now. Is she useful?”
“Of course!” I said without hesitance. “She’s a beautiful and spirited animal. She’s a great presence on earth. She doesn’t need to do anything.”
Then the trainer asked me a question I’d remember for a very long time: “How are you different than her?”
The truth is I’m not different from Emily. You aren’t, either. Just like Emily, you’re a glorious presence on earth, beautiful and spirited. The world is lucky to have you. And you don’t need to jump through hoops to justify the value of your existence.
But for most of us, most of the time, it’s hard to see things this way. From early on in life, the human experience in modern society is largely performance based. As a kid, you were rewarded for good behaviors and punished for mischief. If you do the right things, you’d get into the right school, make the right friends, get the right job and marry the right spouse. By the time one reaches adulthood, our identity is so intertwined with our actions that if we don’t do/act/produce something, we no longer know who we are or why we are here. (You see this action-oriented identity in large corporates often. Most large organizations are a bunch of people trying to out-busy each other, creating work for each other, imposing deadlines on each other, so that everyone could feel even busier and more important, until we make each other’s life hell.)
It is difficult for you to live like Emily the horse also because human consciousness has extra strong sequential functions. We’re a lot more interested in cause and effect than any other creatures. One manifestation of that is we tend to think that our life has a “purpose” and this purpose involves some sort of action. If a bed’s purpose is for you to sleep on and a dog’s purpose is for you to pet, then your life’s purpose has got to be for you to do something, no? Though if you ask a thousand people, you’d get a thousand answers of what that something is. And most time when people say “I haven’t found my purpose”, it usually is just a poetic way to say that they aren’t enjoying earth life as much as they’d like.
No creatures other than humans on the planet think they need or have an action-oriented purpose. If anything, a living being’s true purpose is just to live, which is underwhelming to the purpose-seeking human ego because that is a purpose impossible not to fulfill as long as you are alive.
Our habitual perspective on life may be hard to change. But when it does, amazing things can happen. So here’s a challenge for you—
What if, for just one day, you allow yourself to think about your value and your purpose in a different way? For one day, live your life as if
1) your existence is valuable enough, with or without you doing anything;
2) your only purpose in life is living, moment by moment, in breath and out breath.
I call this a detox day. During this one day, remind yourself of these truth whenever you’re tempted to blame yourself for not being good enough, productive enough, smart enough, or competent enough, whenever you feel pressured under a deadline, and whenever you’re frustrated about not having clarity for the direction of your life. In fact, remind yourself of these truth, period.
And then notice what happens to your mood, your stress level, your relationship with yourself, your relationship with others, including that stranger who cut you off on the highway.
And then notice what happens to your productivity and creativity, when the pressure to create more values and purpose is no longer chasing you like a hungry ghost.
If you happen to like your detox day, you’re allowed to try a second one.
To finish the story with Emily, once I dropped the need to feel smart and useful by busying myself with frantic actions, I became more relaxed and grounded. Horses are sensitive to energy dynamics and Emily immediately sensed the shift in me. She was willing to come closer as she no longer saw me as a toxic threat to her wellbeing. Eventually she let me lead her into a run, and I didn’t even move a pinky.
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