“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
He stood blandly in the arena, the hot July sun beating down on both of us. ‘Come on,’ I encouraged with my rope, trying to get a trot out of him. He just looked at me, listless, his head hanging low, his mane a tangle of knots, and refused to budge. Pete, a short and stocky trail horse, had spent his entire day—like every day before it—carrying tourists up and down the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. It was a grueling and thankless career.
Now, at dinnertime, he was supposed to spend time with me in my efforts to explore the realm of pairing horses with clients to create breakthrough learning experiences. It was 2010, and the only horses I had available to me at the time were a rag tag crew of resort-owned hang-dog string horses, of various shapes, sizes and, well, dullness. I stood looking at Pete and sighed. ‘End of experiment,’ I thought to myself as I put him back in his paddock with the rest.
I drove home disheartened. How fair was my request that these horses be present and emotionally available for clients seeking insights and clarity? That night I called my mentor in Australia. ‘This is never going to work,’ I told her. ‘These horses are numb, and worse, they’re exhausted. They have a terrible life.’ She listened quietly. ‘Who am I to burden these animals with more requests?’ I continued, ‘I should find horses that are happy, healthy and spirited.’
‘Let me ask you something,’ she said, ‘When you had Pete in the arena, what thoughts did you have about him?’
I told her how I thought that Pete was probably the most tired of all the horses, because he was a favorite, and therefore went out on all the rides. I explained how he hung his head so low to the ground, and how he could barely swish the flies away. ‘His coat is fuzzy; he’s a mess,’ I said.
‘And what feeling, then, did you meet Pete with?’ she queried.
I paused. ‘Pity,’ I finally said, knowing where this was going.
‘And...,’ she said slowly, ‘…how do you think that felt to him, to be met with pity?’
‘And…,’ she continued, almost patronizingly, ‘what kind of impact do you imagine all of those thoughts and feelings had on him?’
She could have dropped the mic down right there and then. I had been called out. She was right. But what was the right way to meet Pete in the arena? Wasn’t it true? Wasn’t he exhausted and sad and downright bedraggled? Just one look at that scrappy herd of bony tired horses and anyone could tell they were miserable! My rational mind was spinning. Was my narrative just that—a narrative? Was my perception not only false, but creating a negative outcome for Pete?
'Try this as an experiment,’ she encouraged. ‘Go there tomorrow, at the end of another hot working day for Pete. Get him out. But this time, refrain from any story about him at all.’ She warned, ‘Now, don’t do the opposite, don’t have “positive” thoughts, that’s just another overlay. Instead, just meet him with presence, with the humility of not-knowing, but the graciousness and respect of appreciating his presence too.’
The next evening, I pulled Pete out again, and walked him into the arena—this time, absent an apology for ruining his day. The rest of the herd looked on mildly, their sway-backed bodies a patchwork of browns and tans along the fence line. The cicadas screamed their midsummer song, betraying the heat still hanging in the air.
Pete stood quietly and waited. I got present, and looked at Pete without my usual internal condoling narrative. I took off his halter, and twirled my rope to request a trot. In a sudden flurry of dust, he exploded into a joyful, bucking. He ran around the arena, tossing his long mane, sliding into a turn, a spin, and then galloped the other way.
I stood in the middle incredulous, my rope limp at my side. Pete continued bucking wildly, throwing his head in the air and snorting gleefully as he ran. The other string horses in the paddock nearby suddenly raised their heads in alert attention, ears pinned excitedly on Pete’s escapade. Then they too followed suit. Within moments, what first looked like a death camp, came alive in a flurry of manes, tails, snorts and hooves.
For several minutes I stood at the center of a jubilant horse hurricane, awestruck. And humbled. They slowly wound down to a trot, then quieted to a walk, and stopped, turned to me, their rib cages heaving with breath, their eyes gleaming, as if to say, ‘Who do you think we are now, sista?’
That day those ‘numbed out’ string horses taught me an essential lesson—my thoughts and feelings about others do in fact impact them, and shape outcomes. What I think may be care or concern for another, may in fact be my own arrogance parading around as compassion.
For several years, that wise string of rough-hewn horses became my first co-facilitators of awakening, and accompanied me inside companies like Amazon and REI, and alongside leaders on the front lines of their fields. And during those years, their coats got shinier, their eyes brighter. At the end of any long day up a mountainside, they happily entered the arena to accompany a client into self-inquiry.
The secret to transforming a weary deadbeat herd of horses into a lively and uncompromising force for change? I saw them as whole. Instead of seeing the sway backs and dull coats, I saw strength and wisdom. Instead of seeing empty eyes, I saw infinity.
Mystic and philosopher Joel Goldsmith says it this way, ‘The work [to heal another] is always within your own consciousness.’ He explains that we can never trust what seems apparent to our eyes, from our mind’s point of view, because it is shaped by our own inner filters. ‘Mind can only interpret Infinity "through a glass darkly"—meaning: mind deluded with the conceptions of good and evil, incorrectly interpret Reality.’
He says that how ‘healings’ take place, is not through seeing something as broken, and healing it, but by seeing wholeness, and thereby correcting our own false notion of ‘broken’. ‘God never made anything that needs to be healed,’ he says. ‘Therefore the external conditions [you see] that suggest such nonsense is the very deception of mind and needs only to be realized as the Nothingness it already is!’
So, the strange paradox here is that healing happens when we realize no healing needs to happen.
Clients sometimes ask how to best support a colleague or employee who may be having a hard time. Or they may wonder how to elicit more leadership from a team member who is dragging along. Often parents will want to know how best to support an adult child who is struggling with an illness, or a toxic relationship.
I often recount the Pete story. If we engage with someone believing our own narrative about their life, their circumstance, their skillsets, we limit their ability to move through that situation with strength and dignity.
Our rational mind will tell us that a horse whose coat is dull with his head is hanging low must be sad and bedraggled, but life is much more complex than that linear interpretation. Our logic may alert us to a friend’s toxic relationship, but we know not the larger wisdom-teaching that may be at work for that couple. Embedded into the Pete story is an invitation to reconsider the true meaning of compassion.
Many of us seek to be compassionate. But what does it really mean? Most of us would respond that compassion, like empathy, is a sympathetic way of understanding another, and being in their shoes. Yet, if we are all honest, there is also a filter of ‘sorry-ness’ for the other. We say we have compassion for someone who is having a hard time, or feel compassionate towards someone who wronged somebody. But we never say we feel compassion for someone who just won the lottery, or who was promoted to their dream position.
The modern sense of the word is a diluted substitute for it’s older, more original meaning. Compassion is made up of the prefix com, comes from an archaic version of the Latin preposition meaning with. So, compassion, then, means with passion. The word passion comes from the Latin root word, patior, which means to suffer.
However, deeper etymological research into the word suffer reveals something fascinating. According to studies, suffering did not imply negativity, unless of course the word was coupled with a negative feeling, ie, pain, hurt, sadness. The word suffering itself has far greater, deeper, more awareness-based applications.
It actually means to “allow to occur or continue, permit, tolerate, fail to prevent or suppress," from Vulgar Latin sufferire, variant of Latin sufferre "to bear, undergo, endure, or carry.” In other words, suffering basically means ‘the ability to feel everything without suppression or limitation.’
It’s interesting that a culture that barely tolerates feeling anything, let alone anything difficult or challenging, has lost the true meaning of the word suffering. Mostly we equate suffering with negative connotations. But the true meaning of the word invites us to feel and experience the entirety of existence.
So, then, the real meaning of compassion is to feel all things with, experience all things with, another. Compassion does not mean to feel for another who is going through a hardship. The difference is essential.
I’m not implying that we need to meet each other with Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses. Far from it. To have the courage to ‘feel all things with’ another is quite a calling. When we stand next to another, and have the capacity of heart to set aside our limiting narrative, and our knee jerk desire arrogantly problem solve for them, and instead just feel the pure rawness of life with them, then something else can happen.
This is truly ‘seeing one another through our hearts’.
As a recipient of well-meaning, but misaligned ‘compassion’ I can say that it does not feel good. In fact I find myself repelled, anxious, and sometimes even slightly antagonistic. Often I know I’m being met with another’s limiting belief about me because I feel suddenly claustrophobic or exhausted in their company.
In times of serious personal challenges, I discover that I inadvertently end up limiting my contact with folks who are good hearted and well meaning, but who are unable to identify and arrest their own projections about my situation. They have lots of well-meaning advice, or worse, they avoid certain topics altogether and just act like everything is normal.
My closest allies have mastered the art of just ‘being with’ me. I’m aware of their deliberate way of being with my experience, without the overlay of story, opinion or determination. There is a sense of fearlessness from them. They are neither afraid for me, or afraid of what might happen to me. It feels good and it feels safe. This is how it feels to be seen by another’s heart. It creates an environment for me that allows my wise-self to emerge.
The best thing we can do for anyone, regardless of their perceived circumstances, is create conditions for their wise-self to emerge. It is not for us to know what that wisdom is, or how it might appear. It is not for us to advise, pretend, imply or even imagine. Our job is to simply be with, and by doing so we see only wholeness.
It’s a deceptively simple, yet powerful way to lead and love. The sufficient act of simply being with another, and being with another’s experience, benefits not only them, but you.
Now finally you can quit worrying or controlling. Now you too can be liberated from limiting beliefs that keep your world small. Now you can stand at the center, arms down at your side in humility, and watch in awe the glorious galloping spectacle of everyone, liberated at last, from any idea of broken-ness.