The Wisdom of the Open Heart – By Linda Kohanov
Over the years, I’ve written many times about miracles that my own animals have shown me. These experiences communicated profound and unexpected insights into love, spirit, and the untapped potential of the human heart. Some of my horses recovered against all odds from life-threatening conditions. Other herd members helped people to heal from depression, abuse, and physical illness. Still other animals gave our clients a glimpse of the sacred that deepened their understanding of insights normally reserved for religious and spiritual consideration.
Pleased to share these experiences in books like The Tao of Equus, Riding Between the Worlds, and Way of the Horse, I was gratified to receive letters from people who said that many of these stories inspired them during troubling times, boosting their faith in the benevolence of life, and allowing them, in the process, to access the wisdom behind adversity and pain. And yet I was surprised to learn that a few readers felt like failures in response to some of these stories. “My horse colicked last year,” one woman wrote me, “and I just didn’t have the strength or faith to save him like you and your horses saved your stallion Merlin when he was dying of the same thing. Please tell me, what should I have done differently?”
To say I felt sad and helpless reading this letter would be an understatement. Actually, I hadn’t done anything significant in these situations, other than sit with my horses in that place of utter darkness, that void between life and death. Charged with the final say in whether to euthanize them or give it one last try, I maintained faith in the possibility of recovery while letting them know that I would be with them until the very end.
I listened to different experts, of course. Sometimes in the face of differing opinions, I went with my gut, still feeling fearful and uncertain. Yet I didn’t do this alone. Others were willing to drop what they were doing during these emergencies, rush to the barn and sit with us, lending their moral support, their experience, their prayers, their energy. In these times, I saw very clearly who my friends were. They weren’t the people standing on the sidelines, offering strong advice, grumbling pessimistically if I didn’t heed their every recommendation, willing to stand by me if the animal lived and abandon me if he died. The feeling instead was of being held by a chain of hearts, strong links of affection and support no matter what the outcome.
To know that your own heart may be ripped out of your chest at any moment, and there’s someone to catch it, that is friendship. My friend and colleague Kathleen Barry Ingram calls this “holding the sacred space of possibility.” It’s an active form of patience unattached to outcome, allowing someone in a place of uncertainty to feel supported through the darkest night of the soul.
Until you hit this state of complete vulnerability, you really have no idea who you are, let alone who your true friends are. Afraid to feel anything significant, the human ego creates an intricate suit of armor that might seem brave, accomplished, and successful on the surface. Ultimately, however, this false sense of self is more concerned with avoiding pain than living authentically. Proud, critical, competitive, controlling, and manipulative, the persona’s compulsion to shield us from life’s inevitable challenges and surprises ultimately backfires, isolating us from the love, beauty, connection, and fulfillment we so desperately crave. Paradoxically, we must be willing to feel vulnerable to access our true power.
My Friend Flicka
I don’t think I fully understood this until I rescued a newly hatched woodpecker. Working with my herd on pasture one luminous late-spring day, I kept hearing a strange, rhythmic, guttural sound. Heading toward the gate an hour later, I finally discovered its source. Naked and squawking, her skin paper thin, the creature must have fallen a good fifteen feet from the nearest tree. At first it didn’t seem possible that such a tiny being could make such a big noise, let alone survive the hot desert sun for that long. I had no idea what kind of bird she was or where her nest was located. Unable to put her back where she belonged, I scooped her up and took her home, doubtful that one so young and fragile would survive the afternoon.
Her resilience was astonishing. Slurping down significant helpings of baby bird formula, she seemed to sprout feathers before my very eyes. By the next day, she knew my voice. Her spirit was so strong and assertive, in fact, it seemed more like she had adopted me. Watching the pasture at a distance over the next week, I discovered she was a flicker, a gregarious gray-speckled woodpecker with striking orange feathers under its wings, vibrant splashes of color you couldn’t see until the bird took flight. Her parents didn’t seem to miss her. They had a brood of screaming youngsters to take care of in a small hole high up in the very tree under which I’d found her.
Soon enough, my friend Flicka, as I called her, took to hanging from everything – my shirt, the couch, a towel dangling in her cage – strengthening the muscles in her oversized feet to prepare for a life climbing up and down pines, pecan trees, and cottonwoods. She’d peck at the furniture, using her unusually long tongue to explore all the nooks and crannies. She took her first tenuous flight from the ottoman to the coffee table. Shortly thereafter she began fluttering between my husband and me, affectionately cooing and playing with our hair. We were both surprised at how attached we were becoming to this feisty little woodpecker. Just the thought of letting her go gave us a major dose of empty nest syndrome.
The day arrived all too soon. Releasing her into a grove of live oaks between our house and a nearby canyon, Flicka reveled in her freedom. A male flicker immediately flew over from a towering juniper and danced on a limb beside her.
“Wow,” Steve said, shaking his head like a disgruntled father, “barely, out of the nest and already she’s being hit on.” We checked on her throughout the day, hand-feeding her mealworms as she continued to respond to our calls and swoop down to meet us.
By three o’clock, however, she was nowhere to be found. Feeling a surge of panic, I checked around the outside of the house and was horrified to find a female flicker lying on the ground next to my office window, her neck broken from sudden impact. Tears streaming down my face, I carried the still-warm woodpecker to Steve’s studio. Both of us were speechless.
“Never again,” I thought, as I took her out to the oak grove, filled with grief, confusion, and anger at the unexpected task of burying her. “What’s the use of opening my heart to such a beautiful, fragile creature when life can be taken away so suddenly? How can the universe be so incredibly cruel?” As I sat on the edge of the stone wall where Flicka had flown down to meet me a mere hour earlier, a still, small voice inside gathered like a mist around my heart. “The pain does not overshadow the beauty,” it whispered. “Stay open to life.” And I knew, right then and there, that a much wiser, more courageous part of me had stepped forward, making a commitment to keep my heart open, no matter what the consequences.
At that moment, the wind shifted, and I sensed a familiar spirit. A fluttering blur of gray and orange landed beside me on that wall, a mirror image of the lifeless bird I held in my hands. The apparition strutted over to me, cocking her head to the side.
“Whatcha doin’?” she seemed to say. I could hardly believe my eyes. “Flicka!” I cried out. Setting her limp cousin down gently, I picked up my very-much-alive woodpecker child and ran into the screened summerhouse nearby. Tears of joy and wonder filled my eyes as she hopped onto my shoulder and licked my cheek with her long, skinny tongue. Over the next two weeks, she cavorted in this smaller, safer space, greeting Steve and me each morning as we wandered out with worms for her and coffee for us. As we worked on bird-proofing the windows of the main house, Flicka “helped” me write the essay on Black Horse Wisdom for the Way of the Horse guidebook, climbing up and down my shirt, jostling my hair, leaping onto the computer and pecking at the keys, conversing with the striking blue and lavender Mexican jays who stopped by to greet her through the window screen.
As it turned out, my feisty little friend stayed around just long enough to remind me of my promise. A week after the bird initiated me into the wisdom of the open heart, our sleek and graceful mare Comet gave birth to a colt as father Midnight Merlin watched from a nearby corral. Jet black, except for a bright, white flame in the center of his forehead, Midnight Mystique was in fact born just after midnight on a still, moonless July morning.
For the next two days, the entire staff delighted in his shiny coat, handsome face, and profoundly serene presence. His mother gently introduced him to the nuances of this world, trotting beside him through the pasture, standing over him as he slept. The colt seemed perfect in every way, yet by the end of the second day, watching him gallop around the corral, I felt an inexplicable sadness.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked that night.
“I don’t know,” I said. “When I look at Mystique, all I can think about for some reason is how fragile life is, how every moment is precious.”
The colt seemed strangely lethargic the next morning. By midday, there was blood in his stool. The vet thought he might have a bacterial infection and proceeded to do everything in her power to help him. While the entire staff rallied around the brave little horse, we watched him fade before our eyes. Comet stood patiently beside him through it all, yet just after sunset, her eyes seemed more distant, as if she was staring into another world. An hour later, I held her beautiful colt in my arms as he took his last breath, though his unusually strong heart continued to beat for almost a minute after. Mystique, as it turned out, had been born with an intestinal defect. There was nothing we could have done to save him.
The next day, from the summerhouse, I watched the childless mare and her pregnant herd sister Rasa grazing side by side. I felt tremendous grief, for myself and Comet, yet I was also impressed by the generosity of her love, the grace of her release, the harmony of her acceptance. My colleagues and I had been willing to fight for life while embracing death, and I knew that we were capable of nourishing the mystery and poetry in each other.
I was filled with gratefulness for Mystique’s brief yet powerful journey and for my own ability to stay present for the entire experience.
Flicka flew across the room and landed on my shoulder, climbing down to the center of my chest. The little bird pecked at my heart, dislodging the strange fragment of a memory, a religious icon I’d seen on a Catholic prayer candle: Jesus holding his chest open, revealing a graphic, anatomically accurate heart. The image had seemed over-the-top at the time, yet I was beginning to understand the challenge it conveyed. To keep your heart open, no matter what, took tremendous courage and endurance. Yet Spirit cannot work with and through you until your defenses melt away.
Two thousand years after Christ’s birth, this is the hardest lesson to fathom. People expected the Son of God to have his act together, to be triumphant over his enemies, to model “flawless” behavior, to radiate peace and power, to fly down from heaven and fix everything. Quite obviously, he had something else in mind, and it had little to do with validating humanity’s concept of perfection. Sometimes, he expressed anger, chasing gamblers and merchants out of the temple. (Since this emotion signals a boundary violation, he was in fact responding to the message). Episodes of loneliness, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and hesitation were also recorded. Ultimately, he submitted to torture, ridicule, and death. The point wasn’t to control reality but to meet it wholeheartedly, to engage fully with the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows of life.
I thought back to the arrival of Rasa’s first colt Spirit in 2002. Born prematurely, he needed twenty-four-hour care for ten weeks. We had to milk his mother and feed him with a bottle because he couldn’t reach her udders. His legs were so fragile that we had to limit movement and weight bearing, lifting him into a sling for recreation.
Nearly a hundred people volunteered. They’d enter his stall chattering, laughing, and cooing over the little horse baby. Several hours later, they’d leave in hushed reverence. Spirit literally didn’t have a leg to stand on, and yet he opened people’s hearts and gave them an experience of the divinity of pure being.
Spiritual seekers finally understood that many of their practices were still operating from a hierarchical mentality in which people felt the need to constantly prove themselves worthy of love and respect. As they sat with a tiny horse who radiated pure, living Presence in a state of complete vulnerability, healers and leaders of all kinds took a second look at the belief that they had to model soundness of body, mind, and spirit at all times to be effective.
While I was thrilled to see Spirit grow strong, run free, and eventually sire his own daughter Artemis years later, I recognized that he had the most powerful transformational effect on others during the time he was most fragile. Yet what lesson could I possibly derive from Mystique’s short life? I grieved for the fact that people would never get to experience his peaceful yet deeply stirring gaze or witness the beauty of Comet’s graceful, gently loving mothering skills.
We buried Mystique in a grassy area near the canyon and invited the nine people who had been present at his death to say a few words at his grave. After receiving our electronic newsletter, many people sent heartfelt cards and emails, sharing their own significant, deeply moving experiences. Over time, the meaning of Mystique’s brief yet potent life became steadily more apparent as his spirit moved out into the world through the power of his story. One woman who had lost her own son a year earlier sent a note written on a piece of paper with the colt’s photo printed in the corner.
“I have not had Comet’s generosity of love,” she wrote. “I’ve been so sad, so depressed, and yes I went for help but I didn’t let it in. I just wanted to suffer, and for the universe to suffer with me. Your mare Comet and her baby boy Mystique have opened my eyes and my heart.”
Sometimes the miracle happens after everything goes wrong, though it takes time, too, for this wisdom to blossom. Marion Woodman calls this experience the “rose in the fire,” when the “daily round of human passion” is “intersected by the divine.” When we engage with life’s mysteries, what could so easily be rejected as “meaningless suffering is transformed into soul making.” By holding the sacred space of possibility for ourselves and others, those moments of imperfection, uncertainty, and even tragedy can actually strengthen and open our hearts. Resisting the urge to defend ourselves with a rigid mask of perfection, we embrace the beauty behind the pain and, in doing so, inspire others to do the same.
is an author, speaker, riding instructor, horse trainer, internationally recognized innovator in the field of Equine Experiential Learning, and respected writer on the subject of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. In addition to her latest book, The Five Roles of a Master Herder: A Revolutionary Model for Socially Intelligent Leadership, she has published The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse, selected as one of the Top Ten Religion and Spirituality books of 2001 by Amazon.com; Riding Between the Worlds: Expanding Our Potential through the Way of the Horse; and Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self Discovery. She is the founder and director of Eponaquest Worldwide near Tucson, Arizona.
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