Last month saw our first hurricane preparation at The HERD Institute. We are incredibly thankful that Hurricane Dorian spared us a direct hit. I cannot imagine the horrific devastation that this storm has caused for all those in its path, and my heart goes out to all those affected. Thanks to friends and neighbors who have been through this before, I am grateful that I am now equipped to prep for something like this. Yet another learning curve in my journey of living Stateside.
With all of that, I am recognizing, more and more, how change is the only constant in my life. Every day, something new presents itself to me, whether it be a new business challenge, an opportunity for connection, or the whispering winds of knowledge that I have yet to gain. Deep in my bones, I can feel the pull towards all the ways in which I want to develop the institute, provide support to our students and graduates, and expand the reach of the work that we do as equine-facilitated practitioners. I am motivated, committed, and dedicated to our vision to create a global community committed to furthering the work of the pioneers of our field. I am excited, curious, and hopeful for all the incredible services that all of our graduates are now offering to the communities they serve. So many moving parts, continuously changing, shifting, and growing. And, I am exhausted.
As I write this, I can look out of my office window and see my horses grazing in the pasture. When I do, I pause and breathe. Inhale, 2, 3, 4…exhale 2, 3, 4. Repeat. I notice the tension in my body, in my jaw and shoulders specifically, and intentionally yawn to release some of it. I can hear my friend and colleague, Sarah, in the background talking with an old high school friend of mine who has stepped in to help us revamp our website. They are laughing as they work together, and to my introverted ears, it’s too much, and I’m irritated by the sounds, so I stick my noise-cancelling headphones on to block them out. I wonder then, if I’m irritated because I’m exhausted, and what else might I be reacting to more viscerally than usual, and what else I might be blocking out, if I wasn’t so tired. I sigh, and again notice the tension in my shoulders and jaw. Taking a deep breath, I tell myself to “suck it up” because I have work to do. And then I laugh.
I laugh because I recognize the compassion that is needed in myself, for myself, is still something that I’m working on. I laugh because the sounds of my friends sharing moments of joy actually delight me. I spent the past weekend with some incredible women on our Empowering Women through The Daring HERD™ retreat, where we discussed the importance of knowing our core values, and the ways in which we sabotage ourselves in our quest to live to those values. We talked about the need for connection, support, and hope in order to build the resilience needed to live courageously. The women were moved to tears as I read Brené Brown’s Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted. As we invited the horses into the process, the mares we were working with chose to stand with us as part of the circle. They weren’t doing what they were trained to do. They were allowing themselves to be where they needed to be. For the women in the group, it represented their desire to join us in unity.
In the work that we do as equine-facilitated practitioners, we often highlight the ability that horses have to simply be in the moment, present in the here-and-now, and offer that to those we work with as evidence of a more peaceful, tranquil, and connected way of being. As if that’s what we should all aim for. In an ideal world, I would agree. I have also encouraged people to take a breath and focus on the here and now – it’s a core philosophy in The HERD model after all – and when I do, the feedback is usually that the participant feels more relaxed in that moment. That’s all well and good, but how do we translate that into every day life with all its associated pressures? How does that help to alleviate some of the stresses in our lives, and the burdens we might carry?
Recent studies have shown that intentional breathing exercises can help to activate the vagus nerve, which forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the regulation of which impacts our capacity for social engagement, trauma recovery and resilience. Bringing our attention into the present moment allows us to momentarily press the pause button in our lives, breathe, ground, and center ourselves. It is in this pause that we can reach for and access any available support, evaluate our choices, and reconnect with others. The connections that we reach for, and hold on to, in those moments of pause allow us to feel less alone in our struggles, and helps us to weather the impending storms.
Recently, one of my friends expressed her frustration with how this approach might lead to a “touchy-feely”, Kumbaya attitude where struggles are voiced but nothing is done, and at some point we all need to suck it up and get on with life. In this, I understood her urban definition of Kumbaya as the sitting around a campfire and singing variety; a naïve optimism that as long as we love each other, everything will be okay. This led me to wonder about the apparent gap between a Kumbaya approach and the polarity of just suck it up. It also led me to questioning how the refrain of Kumbaya got such a bad rap.
Historically, Kumbaya is acknowledged as pidgin English for “Come By Here”, and was sung by black folks in southern plantations, a chorus of unity to bring strength to each other, an anthem against oppression, and a plea for salvation through prayer. So much for the apparent polarity to the “suck it up and get on with it” mentality that it’s supposed to represent. The existence of the song and lyrics of Kumbaya are, in fact, a cultural containment for hope and resilience, without which it would not be possible to move forward to get things done. Kumbaya is the ultimate definition of acknowledging our struggles while shifting our understanding of what it means to suck it up. Kumbaya calls for strength through unity in order to carry on. Because no man is an island, and we all need support. Whether we are facing injustice, grief, uncertainty, or the reality of whatever hardships we face in life in that moment, we need the help of others to alleviate what sucks.
Once again, I’m reminded that it is never either/or, black or white, right or wrong, but always both/and. So moving forward, I will be taking on the mantra to Kumbaya the Suck out of life. So bring on the storms, and we will breathe and weather through them together. But maybe not the hurricanes ;-).
Dr. Veronica Lac
The HERD Institute