Mindfulness-based Animal Interactions


    "Each of us has this spirit in us – sometimes hidden, sometimes more available. This light and this generosity and this peace are our greatest gift to the earth. In expanding our practice, we become the center of a circle, like a stone thrown into a pond that sinks softly to the bottom while ripples move to touch each shore. As the center of the circle, we become peaceful in ourselves and bring alive the same peace to others no matter what changes of life are before us." – Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

    As co-founder of the non-profit group MN LINC, I am in the "business" of "partnering individuals with animals and nature to inspire and instill human wellness" – MN LINC’s mission. Yet, I am amazed that such a business exists and am honored we are seen as a leader in the field of animal-, equine- and nature-assisted programming.

    Why have outdoor-adventure vacations become so popular? Why do we need, or even want, to swim with sharks? Where has the disconnect happened for some people so that they no longer recognize that they are animals themselves, created from the molecules of Nature?

    I share my life with a husband, dogs, family, horses, friends, chickens, colleagues – and wildlife that visits the MN LINC farm – and the environmental milieu in which we all exist. Interestingly, when I list them, there are numerous "interconnections" among the list members: my dogs are my friends; I am family to my horse; the land is my colleague and teacher. The distinction between all these energies is indefinable with the language I possess, and awakening this joy in others is my passion.

    At MN LINC, instead of teaching in a classroom, or holding seminars in a conference room, we practice in a barn, a chicken coop, or on a swing by a pond. Our co-facilitators are wise horses, insightful dogs, and engaging chickens – yes, chickens! We provide wellness, education and therapy services for people who feel stuck in life’s daily challenges and who want to move forward with clarity. The simplicity of what MN LINC offers is mindfulness – and there are few better teachers of this concept than the animals who share our lives.

    Body and mind
    When we conduct movement and mindfulness-based exercises with the horses, participants are asked to just notice – without judgment or alteration – what happens for them, both in the body and in the mind. Do thoughts race like a hummingbird, do new physical pains get discovered, is the jaw clenched, are they breathing? For clients or students, mindfulness and body-centered approaches – like Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) with a licensed mental health provider – can provide feedback about the congruence between one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. There are really no "rights" and "wrongs" in this process, rather an avenue whereby one can practice being in the moment, committed to being awake, and showing up for life.

    Recently, one participant shared the following: "I liked the horse interaction and quiet times; some exercises touched me far more than others. However, at the end of the program, I’m aware of a sense of expansiveness and peace in my belly – not a feeling I often notice." This "sense of peace" is perhaps one reason so many of us share our lives with other Earth creatures.

    Animals also bring the importance of play into our lives. As I write this article, I can hear two dogs in the other room making muffled snorts and I know they are inviting each other to play. I get up from the computer, sneak around the corner to watch, and smile as I watch an Irish wolfhound tenderly amuse a very small mixed-breed dog who weighs about 15 pounds. I am spotted from my hiding place and both tails begin to wag while one picks up a toy and brings it over to my feet. I get down and do a "play bow" and dissolve into laughter as the wolfhound jumps on my head!

    Pure play releases stress and allows us to achieve mental and physical rest. When we play, we often are spontaneous, mentally removed from daily challenges, and present in the moment – mindful. A participant at MN LINC’s "Spirit of Equus" workshop stated, "I loved feeling like a little kid again. The serenity, the escape from the city and the sounds, smells, sensations of the country and definitely the opportunity to ride and just be with the horses – to visit, sit and communicate." Play also brings about flexibility. Take your dog to an off-leash park when you are at a stalemate with a project and invariably, you will forget about the project while you romp with your dog and return to your tasks with a fresh, enlightened approach. Good dog!

    True attunement

    It is common in the field of equine- and animal-assisted activities to read or hear people say that "the horse mirrors your emotions" – meaning, if you are not honest about your feelings or thoughts during a session, the horse (or other animal) with whom you are working will "reflect back" those inconsistencies to you. However, the metaphor of "mirror" ignores everything that is not captured in its reflection and relegates a muti-dimensional relationship to a two-dimensional item. I propose that "attunement" is a more correct term for the interactions all species have with one another.

    Practicing mindfulness produces attunement with our environment and brings us closer to our true being. Why do animals know when we are coming home? Why does a bird’s face drain of all color if your intentions are suspect? Why do horses inspire such grand statements about how humans feel towards them? Possibly because non-human creatures are attuned to their surroundings and do not have the social filters through which to wade when they make decisions. It is this mind-body connection that animals model so eloquently which often engages and moves us humans to explore and take safe risks.

    Through mindfulness-based animal interactions come the opportunities to change, grow and manifest. In that growth, we experience our spirit, our truth. In that truth, we find grace.

    MN LINC will host its next "Spirit of Equus" wellness workshops on May 19, June 9 and July 14. A two-day "Epona" workshop, based on Linda Kohanov’s "Tao of Equus" book, will take place on July 21-22. Get more information about these workshops and other programs at www.mnlinc.org.

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    Tanya K. Welsch is a licensed social worker and co-founder of MN LINC. She is a life-long investigator of animal and nature rhythms, exploring why these relationships have been so inspiring and healing for people throughout history. For nearly 10 years, MN LINC has been providing various animal-assisted interactions for people by having them work with animals such as dogs, horses, sheep and chickens. MN LINC is a strong proponent that animals are never "used" and that the human practitioner should possess training in both animal and human behavior. MN LINC operates from a horse boarding facility, a private practice office, or can come to small groups at other locations. To contact Tanya and learn more about workshops and services with MN LINC, call (952) 472-2422 or visit www.mnlinc.org. Copyright © 2007 Tanya Welsch. All rights reserved.


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