By Linda Kohanov
Excerpt from The Power of the Herd
(New World Library: Fall 2012)
Sometimes people ask me how I can tell what a horse is feeling. To the untrained eye, equine facial expressions do seem more limited than ours. However, horses more than make up for this through consistent, meaningful changes in ear position and body posture that are recognizable at a considerable distance, an important adaptation for social animals grazing over large territories. Humans—who cannot move their ears—probably look quite stoic to the average horse, like a schoolmarm with her hair pulled back in a severe bun. And just think how close you have to stand to a person to see her wink, frown or smile, let alone clench her jaw in anger, turn red with embarrassment, or well up with the first sign of tears.
Science, however, has recently discovered that people are better at reading body postures than you might expect—sometimes trusting these cues more than facial expressions in determining others’ moods. In The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, biologist Frans de Waal cites a number of clever studies illustrating this point. In one experiment, scientists pasted an angry face on a fearful body and a fearful face on an angry body. At first the subjects were noticeably confused by the incongruity, which slowed down their reaction time, but “the body posture won out when the subjects were asked to judge the emotional state of the depicted person.” In another experiment, when people watched pictures of fearful body postures with the faces blacked out, “the subjects’ faces still registered fear.”
These and others studies led de Waal to develop the “Body First Theory,” which holds that sometimes “emotions arise from our bodies” and are also transferred between people through the body first. Most people believe that emotions arise from thoughts and memories, and while this is often true, the brain is not always in charge of this process, not by a long shot. Work by Candace Pert, Ph.D. and other researchers active in the field of psychoneuroimmunology proved that the molecules carrying emotional information (called neuropeptides) are not only generated by the brain, but by sites throughout the body, most dramatically in the heart and the gut. As it turns out, recommendations to “follow your heart” or “pay attention to gut feelings” are not metaphors. Researchers subsequently discovered that sixty percent of the heart’s cells are neural, and that the gut has more neural cells than the spinal column, prompting some scientists to consider the brain as one of three somatic intelligence centers that can gather, process, and yes, even communicate information.
In the late-twentieth century, scientists also confirmed that the body-mind connection is a two-way street. Postures and facial expressions not only express our emotional state by moving from the brain down through the body, they can change our emotional state by moving from the body up to the brain. So that while we smile when we are happy, “our mood can be improved by simply lifting the corners of our mouth,” de Waal reveals. “If people are asked to bite down on a pencil lengthwise, taking care not to let the pencil touch their lips (thus forcing the mouth into a smile-like shape), they judge cartoons funnier than if they have been asked to frown.” Similarly, various political, social and religious organizations have a long history of creating rigid, compliant followers by promoting submissive or militaristic, machine-like postures and behaviors, drawing, as we now know, on the contagious, consciousness-altering nature of body language.
Yet as de Waal also emphasizes, even seriously repressed people have some choice in the matter. We all know, for instance, that there “are times when matching the other’s emotions is not a good idea. When we’re facing a furious boss, for example, we’d get into deep trouble if we were to mimic his attitude.”
Social intelligence involves accurately reading people’s feelings and using this information thoughtfully. Increasingly, this also requires noticing when you’re catching an emotion or body posture that originated in someone else. For leaders, it can even involve recognizing unproductive emotional trends and turning them around, “driving emotions in the right direction to have a positive impact on earnings or strategy,” as Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee emphasized in Primal Leadership.
Contrary to popular belief, however, this doesn’t mean sweeping uncomfortable feelings and concerns under the rug. Add current research on the contagious nature of emotion, and you realize that to turn negative feelings around in a group, you must transform them, not hide them. And that means you must first turn them around in yourself, recognizing that your own heart rate, blood pressure, and body posture are being affected by the feelings of others, and vice versa. Sounds like an evil little hall of mirrors, doesn’t it? But it’s the “other 90 percent” at work, plain and simple.
Traditionally, riders have been told to never, ever, show fear to a horse, presumably to keep the animal from taking advantage of a perceived weakness. Life at the barn would be so much simpler if only people could comply with this age-old request. But as it turns out, horses sense as much as see emotion. So even if you manage to approximate the body posture of confidence, these highly sensitive prey animals can still tell you’re afraid if your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated. To a horse, congruence not only means that your words, actions, facial expressions and body language are in sync, but that your “insides match your outside.”
Once again, science shows that human beings are also affected by the hidden emotions of others. You can ignore that information, as most of us are taught to do through decades of cultural conditioning, but it still affects you unconsciously. And sadly, what remains unconscious ultimately controls you, usually at the most stressful, inconvenient moments when it really would be helpful to be playing, consciously, with a full deck.
In Chapter Two, I cited several studies exploring the effects of affect contagion, the (usually) unconscious transfer of feelings between living beings. For our purposes here, it’s important to emphasize once again that hiding emotion adds stress to group interactions, potentially causing others to act defensively or have trouble thinking clearly and creatively. In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Goleman showed that not only does a person’s blood pressure escalate when he tries to suppress feeling, the blood pressure of those interacting with him also rises.
Remember: unless you’re a sociopath, your heart rate and blood pressure rise when you’re frightened or angry, even when you’re wearing your best poker face. It takes extra effort to hide these feelings, energy that you and the people you’re interacting with could be using for other purposes. When emotions are suppressed long term, they intensify into other, more troublesome complexes and impulses (see the Emotional Message Chart in GP1), eventually causing people to act out in unproductive ways when the pressure reaches critical mass, sometimes damaging relationships irreparably. Our culturally-induced emphasis on verbal communication lessens awareness of this dynamic in its earlier, more manageable stages, but anyone who retains or reclaims awareness of affect contagion has a definite edge in influencing the nonverbal elements of social interactions.
As prey animals, the volume of this recently discovered “sixth” sense is turned way up in horses, who become noticeably agitated in the presence of people who are incongruent, who try to cover anger, fear, or sadness with an appearance of well being. This is not an equine judgment of our tendency to lie about what we’re really feeling; it’s a reflection of emotion’s physiology—and its contagious nature. Horses, who exhibit heightened stress when a human handler tries to suppress emotion, also show signs of relief the moment this person acknowledges a hidden or simply unconscious feeling, even if the emotion itself is still present. By making the fear or anger conscious, by becoming congruent, the handler effectively lowers his own blood pressure, even if only slightly. But it’s enough to drop the horse’s blood pressure in response, which the animal demonstrates by sighing, licking and chewing, and/or lowering his head.
So what are we to do with this information? Turn a business meeting into an encounter group? Absolutely not, you’ll be happy to know. Deciphering the information emotions present can be handled efficiently and professionally. Subsequent guiding principles, in fact, are designed to help you do just that. As a leader, it’s also important to remember that authentic positive feelings are contagious too. A person who truly feels peaceful in situations that unnerve others can have a calming effect on everyone around her.
Skills associated with driving others’ emotions in a more productive direction are outlined in the next lesson, which explores how to Manage Contagious Emotions. First, however, you need to notice how your body is affected by your own and others’ unspoken feelings. The good news is that rather than being victimized by this long-neglected yet thoroughly natural process, you can use it to your advantage. Engaging daily with your body as a sentient tuner, receiver and amplifier for that “other 90 percent,” you’ll gain proficiency in accessing all kinds of nonverbal information floating around, information that will give you a significant edge in achieving your goals and enjoying more satisfying personal relationships to boot.
A Mind of Its Own
I first realized that my body had a mind of its own when I noticed my mare paying attention to my body as if it were another horse. What I thought I was communicating was much less important to her than what I was unconsciously conveying through posture, heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, and the various emotions that either caused those physiological responses to rise and fall, or (as we now know) were created by the body first in response to the environment.
And so I began to think of my body as the horse that my mind rides around on. Like any horse, I could form a mutually respectful partnership with it, or I could rein it in and spur it on, refusing to listen to it, only to have it throw me during stressful situations and head for the hills when I needed it’s cooperation most. What’s more, I realized, when people are taught to focus exclusively on what an authority figure is saying, suppressing gut feelings and wildly fluttering heartbeats, their body’s intuitive wisdom and natural warning systems are muzzled, allowing, in the worst case scenario, a malevolent boss, cult leader, or dictator to corral them for any number of purposes against their better judgment, as history has shown time and time again. Accessing my body’s wisdom was therefore an act of revolution and empowerment.
It also took practice, like learning to ride a bike, drive a car, or operate a computer. Over time, however, the procedure became second nature, applicable to countless situations in everyday life and at work. Truly listening to my body, however, was quite different than what the vast majority of relaxation, meditation, massage, yoga, and sport-oriented coaches teach, including equestrians.
When I first started riding lessons in my mid-thirties, I was surprised at how little I could feel, being a musician and all. But I had been sitting in a chair for twenty years, holding my viola between my chin and my upraised left arm, an extremely unnatural position that my body adapted to over time. As a gymnast in high school and in various exercise classes as an adult, I would demand all kinds of other outlandish things from my body, pushing it through the pain, sometimes experiencing elation, sometimes experiencing frustration, all the while focusing on whatever posture was optimal for the sport in question.
And then there was the correct riding posture for sitting gracefully on the back of a trotting horse. My first instructors were like drill sergeants, shouting at me to keep my heels down, my shoulders straight, and my hands still. “Relax!” they would scream, causing the hair on the back of my neck to rise and my legs to tighten, whereupon my mare would lunge forward as I gripped her belly with my thighs, inadvertently giving her the cue to go faster or even buck, whereupon I would either hang on or crash to the ground, getting the air knocked out of me. Then, gasping and wheezing, checking for broken bones, I would get back on because, well, everyone knows what you’re supposed to do when you fall off a horse….
Then I found a more advanced instructor, and she raised the bar higher. I was expected to use my own body to help the horse achieve whatever I asked. No longer allowed to pull back on the reins or kick furiously, I was instructed to use my seat bones to communicate with my mare, either moving ahead of her current rhythm to speed up, or working against her forward movement to slow down like pedaling backwards on a bicycle without moving my legs. To transition up to a canter where her right front leg was leading, giving her optimal balance to move in a clockwise circle, I had to sense when the horse’s left back hoof hit the ground and give the proper “aid” (supportive, well-timed cue) then. This meant I not only had to know where all my own body parts were, using them independently and purposefully for a variety of desired effects, I had to literally feel what my horse’s legs were doing from moment to moment.
Body language took on a whole new meaning at that point. But spending time with herds of horses took me to a much deeper, completely unexpected place. I realized that their emotions could dramatically affect my body. And that, for better or worse, my own emotions could affect the entire herd.
A Language Older than Words
To even notice this dynamic, let alone learn to use it productively, I literally had to “get off my high horse” and spend large amounts of time with these animals on the ground. Yet while I’d like to say that curiosity led me down this surprisingly fruitful path, a seriously injured mare was my sole motivation for hanging out with a herd of horses on their terms. In 1994, Rasa, a beautiful three-year-old Arabian full of enthusiasm, power, and potential—the very first horse I learned to start under saddle—showed up lame the morning after an extended trail ride. Much to my growing disappointment and despair, x-rays revealed that her right back stifle (similar to the knee in humans) was damaged, probably congenitally, making it doubtful that I would ever ride her again, squashing my advanced riding ambitions. I’d even sold my viola to pay for this purebred mare; I wouldn’t be able to buy another horse in the foreseeable future.
During Rasa’s initial, three-month convalescence, I couldn’t even engage conventional ground training activities with her. And yet we were deeply bonded. While other people joked about my “thousand pound pet,” I yearned to spend time with her. So after I got off work as an apprentice trainer riding other peoples’ young horses I would mill around a large back pasture with Rasa, my husband’s ex-cowhorse Noche, and several other borders’ horses. And it was there that I gained access to a secret world, one that would alter everything I thought I knew about how living beings relate and communicate.
I was intrigued first of all to find that mainstream theories about dominance hierarchies didn’t quite fit this herd’s behavior. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, the horses in Rasa’s pasture seemed to trade leadership roles according to who was calmest, most experienced, and/or most invested in whatever situation arose. And there was something else happening, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, some kind of nonverbal coordination I couldn’t begin to explain. Then a month later I was hit, in the gut, with the knowledge that horses could broadcast fear over considerable distances before they were able to move their thousand-pound bodies into flight or fight pose, let alone take off running.
The events of that pivotal October afternoon started out calmly enough. I was grooming Rasa, feeling unusually relaxed and content; enjoying the perfectly clear, deep blue desert sky and the warm, dry wind gently blowing through my hair. Noche was grazing with the other horses at the far end of their two-acre pasture; the black mare was dozing as I braided her mane and stroked her shiny coat. Suddenly—out of nowhere—I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. My gut clenched, my heart skipped a beat, and my breath caught in my throat as a strange invisible force seemed to move up my body toward my brain, turning my neck and causing me to look at Noche, who was simultaneously lifting his head up from the ground in obvious alarm. At that moment, some involuntary switch was tripped, and all our bodies became coordinated. Noche and the other horses took off. Rasa and I too began to run—away from a threat I couldn’t see. Yet as the rest of the herd galloped on by, my stubby legs failed me, and my human brain finally took over, wondering what the hell was going on.
It was a man on a mountain bike, riding a nearby trail. And I realized that from a horse’s perspective, this guy looked downright sinister. Dressed in a fluorescent silver and cobalt shirt with orange skulls on his little black socks spinning around and around as he pedaled, he seemed to slither, fast, hissing through the sand, like some demented cross between a snake and a massive, multi-colored beetle: His black backpack, filled with water, rose and fell like wings trying to unfurl as he negotiated the rough terrain. And his helmet, shaped like the head of the creature from Alien, melted into mirrored sunglasses, accentuating a disturbing, grossly unnatural appearance.
If this lithe yet suspect creature had been a mountain lion, I would have been the first to go: The horses easily outran me as I took those first unconscious steps in sync with the herd. But realizing—seconds later—that I was not about to be eaten, the whole thing struck me as incredibly funny. I was just about to turn around and let the horses know that everything was fine, when I realized that they had already sensed my relaxation and amusement, and were now standing right behind me, staring curiously, yet still cautiously, at the insect man, as if they too were smiling, though a bit more nervously than I.
As Frans de Waal observed in The Age of Empathy, “The primacy of the body is sometimes summarized in the phrase ‘I must be afraid, because I’m running.’” That’s exactly how I felt the day I experienced a whole herd of horses speaking through my body in a language older than words. Over time, I realized that I could use these “Body First” signals to sense what a fearful colt or angry stallion was about to do before he could actually do it. And in that split second delay, I could turn a dangerous trend around—if I breathed into the rising tension in my own body and loosened my spine, creating a response I now call “the opposite of fear.”
In fostering a relaxed yet heightened awareness that literally saved my life with challenging horses, I also became more conscious of sensations and postures my body would take on in the presence of other people. And I realized, long before I found research to validate my experience, that humans share emotions like horses. If I was really paying attention to what was happening during interactions with my own species, I could sense others’ moods, and sometimes turn an unproductive emotional trend around—through body language conveying “the opposite of fear” combined with discussions addressing people’s unspoken concerns. This was more difficult, though certainly less dangerous, than working with horses, not only because I had to learn to speak and feel at the same time, but because I had to find ways of addressing uncomfortable emotions and other subjects that no one really wanted to talk about, including me!
And so today, I’m inviting you to take the first step in mastering that “other 90 percent,” namely listening to the marvelous sentient being your own mind rides around on. Over time, if you treat your body as an intelligent partner, not a slave or a senseless hunk of meat, life will not only become much more interesting, it will become more fulfilling and empowering as a result. The catch is that once everyone in our human herd learns how to do this, we have to imagine a new form of leadership, one that values feeling and reason, empathy and assertiveness, transparency, cooperation, and mutual empowerment—a style of leadership that, I’m happy to report, Rasa, Noche, and those other horses showed me in that very same pasture years ago.
Listening to Your Body
The Body Scan described at the end of this lesson is a simple six-point technique for using the body as a sensing device, as a tuner/receiver/amplifier for information coming from the environment, other people, and one’s own internal compass/safety system/authenticity meter/intuition/genius.
This is not a form of self-hypnosis or a technique for promoting relaxation/optimal body posture. When scanning the body to collect information, you do not want to “relax out of” or adjust any sensations/postures on purpose, but rather notice how your body changes according to various environmental influences, including encounters with other people.
Later, we will learn how to use this information for various purposes, but in order to build emotional and social intelligence, it’s essential to first become conscious of “what is happening” with your body instead of fixating on what should or shouldn’t be happening, or ignoring the body completely, as most of us are taught to do.
If you’ve been sitting at a desk for twenty years, suppressing emotion because you didn’t know what else to do with it, you might be reluctant to engage the body scanning technique for one of two reasons:
- Fear of failure (Comments to this effect include: I can’t feel anything below my neck. I feel like a brain rolling around on a metal box. I feel fine. I feel numb. What do you want me to feel? I never really understand what people mean when they tell me to “listen to my body.” This is dumb. When’s lunch? Where’s my Blackberry?)
- Fear of feeling overwhelmed (Comments include: I’ve been suppressing so much for so long I don’t know what might come up. I don’t want to open the floodgates. If I were to start crying I’d never stop. It’s dangerous to go into the body. I’m not here for therapy!)
It’s important to realize, first of all, that your body registers information from the environment and other beings all day long, changing heart rate, breathing and posture in response to these stimuli regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not.
The idea that emotional intelligence skills automatically fall under the heading of therapy, however, goes back to the ancient Greek stoics, seventeenth-century rationalists, and various religious traditions that believe emotions are by-products of a dysfunctional mind or evidence of an “un-evolved, lowly animal nature” taking over. We’ve since learned that emotion is essential to the healthy functioning of the mind. In Descartes Error, for instance, award-winning neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., shows that brain injury patients who’ve lost contact with key emotional centers, while maintaining full reasoning powers, have trouble making simple decisions. In Radical Knowing, consciousness researcher Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., believes that people must learn to “feel their thinking” to develop stronger relationships and access a more creative, balanced approach to life.
If emotions were innately dangerous, artists would automatically be traumatized by their work, as would anyone who viewed their paintings, listened to their music, or attended their plays and films. As a violist in orchestras and chamber music groups, I was encouraged to express all kinds of emotions from age ten, everything from elation and power to rage, deep longing and sorrow—without losing my place in the music, losing contact with others, or going insane. When I visited my alma mater twenty years later, I found that our concertmaster, a talented violinist named Rick Smreck, had become one of the high school’s guidance counselors. As we reminisced, he told me that he’d been intrigued to find that the vast majority of our fellow players had become highly successful in all kinds of fields, excelling as doctors, lawyers, engineers, writers, and professors. He believed our music training gave us important emotional and social intelligence skills that few people access in today’s increasingly mechanistic education system.
Abuse or trauma survivors can become easily overwhelmed by their own feelings and body sensations, as well as strong emotions coming from others. At work these people often function respectably, not so much exploding as dissociating during tense situations, becoming foggy, spacey, and unable to act assertively. This quite often leads to the “perpetual assistant” phenomenon, where an executive secretary or computer specialist seems talented, supportive, and filled with great ideas. Yet because this person goes blank under stress, he or she is repeatedly passed over for promotions.
Some “perpetual assistants” are shy and/or highly sensitive people who need assertiveness and public speaking skills. Others are untreated abuse survivors. In the latter case, as with any trauma survivor, emotional intelligence skills should be practiced in conjunction with a counselor specializing in trauma. A number of Epona Approved Instructors who are licensed therapists have found the Body Scan useful in teaching important self-regulation and mindfulness skills that also translate to success in work and relationships. But if you know or suspect you may be a trauma survivor, contact one of these professionals, not only to learn this technique, but to gain long-term support in moving beyond other challenges that make it difficult to function under stress. Equine-facilitated psychotherapy, in fact, is an unusually efficient and quite often fun way to move beyond the past and embrace a new, empowered way of life free from fears that were once legitimate and debilitating. (See Appendix One, Choosing an Instructor, Coach, or Therapist, to find the right person for your current needs.)
The Binary Code
If you’re more comfortable relating to digital processors than to horses or people, it helps to think of the body’s ability to register tension and relaxation as a kind of binary code. Like computers receive, store and translate all kinds of complex information through a series of 1s and 0s, the body operates through a similar principle. By noticing which body parts feel tense, which feel relaxed, and how this changes in various situations, you’ll be scanning your body. You can also notice when you’re holding your breath and/or breathing fast and shallow, and when you are naturally breathing more deeply—evidence of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in action, another somatic binary code that we’ll be engaging consciously for more specific purposes later on.
If you feel “nothing,” notice if you’re feeling numb, neutral or calm. If you’re feeling numb, you may be dissociating (disconnecting from the body to avoid feeling overwhelmed). However, just as often, people say they feel nothing when their body feels relaxed, safe, or just plain good.
It’s important to notice positive or peaceful sensations as well as negative or tension-related sensations. As a leader, you will at times be charged with helping people feel calmer, safer, more energized and/or enthusiastic, so you have to start paying attention to these sensations and emotions in yourself and others simultaneously. Some people have been taught to emphasize what’s wrong while ignoring what’s actually going well. Others gloss over negative emotions and sensations in favor of an overly optimistic, Pollyanna-like attitude. Masterful leaders are secure in gaining information from both positive and negative sensations/emotions, and their comfort in this regard is contagious, helping to calm and focus people in tense situations.
One Horse at a Time
We all feel overwhelmed at times. If you’ve been suppressing emotion and sensation for years, you might be worried about “opening the floodgates” when you invite the body to speak. For this reason, it helps to add a “self-regulation program” to your “hard drive” as you boot up the first time.
To get started, imagine “breathing into” the intelligence centers in your heart and your gut, not to relax anything, but to infuse the neural cells concentrated in these areas with oxygen and awareness. The goal is to create a kind of “email connection” between the brain in your head, and the other two “brains” in your body. So as you breathe into your heart and then your gut, also imagine that the “light” of consciousness centered in your head is traveling down your body, lighting up these other intelligence centers as you “plug them in.”
Before you invite your body to send messages to your brain, however, let your brain send an important message to your body. Tell it that you’ll listen to its concerns and insights, but only if the body releases this information one message at a time. You should also do this with any sensation that seems to hold a lot of information/energy/tension, such as an exceedingly nervous stomach, a lump in your throat that’s holding a lot of emotion back, a fist in your heart that’s struggling to “get a grip,” or a dizzy, “crowded” head.
Some people find it helpful to imagine a whole herd of mustangs crowded into an intensely activated sensation. Even inexperienced riders know that when you approach a corral of feisty, untrained horses you don’t swing the gates wide open and let all them all run free. You take one horse out at a time, halter it, teach it a few basic safety and socialization skills, and then go back and get the next horse. Because somatic intelligence often communicates more like an artist or a poet than a scientist (and can jump-start creativity as a result—a concept we’ll explore later), the body seems to find this wild horse image meaningful and enjoyable, immediately understanding the self-regulation wisdom it conveys. And I have to say that in teaching the body scan to abuse survivors and soldiers with PTSD, the request to “take out one horse at a time” or release “one message at a time” works much more easily than most people would expect. It is as if the body, like any horse or child or employee, appreciates limits that are set fairly and clearly, even as it wants to speak and (finally) be heard.
The Language of Sensation
The first step of the Body Scan involves “mapping the sensations.” What I mean by this is that you will draw your awareness to each part of your body and notice what you are feeling without trying to relax out of it or change it any way. The following chart offers some examples of sensations people commonly encounter. Remember to notice what feels good or peaceful, in addition to tension related sensations.
Head — Clear, cloudy, dizzy, spinning, crowded, dull aches, sharp pains, neutral, peaceful, activated, “lit up” or filled with ideas
Eyes/eyelids — Fluttery, heavy, tired, itching, aching. Sometimes you can feel one eye more strongly than the other. Sometimes you can see colors or images behind closed eyes.
Nose — Clear, stopped up (sometimes on one side more than the other), dry, itchy
Ears — Clear, stopped up, hyper-sensitive to sound, muffled. Sometimes you can hear internal tones, or hear more clearly out of one ear than another. (This can actually change from moment to moment in various situations, so don’t automatically assume muffled/uneven hearing is always a physical ailment; the body can actually send messages through such sensations.)
Jaw — Relaxed, clenched (evenly or more on one side than the other.) If your jaw is clenched, don’t automatically try to relax it. You can access important information from a clenched jaw during the “get the message” process described in the next section.
Neck/Throat — Open, relaxed, sore, lump in throat, breath caught in throat, dull ache, tired, sharp pain in a specific area, aligned, out of alignment, strong, weak or wobbly
Shoulders — Even, slumped forward, bunched up to your ears, rigid/militaristic, heavy, one shoulder higher than the other
Back — Aligned, out of alignment, tense, relaxed, sharp pain behind shoulder blade, lower back pain, neutral, strong, weak, no back bone
Arms/Hands — Neutral, one arm longer than the other, energy running up and down arms, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, one hand larger than the other, oversized “clown hands,” healing hands, energy in one or both hands (Note that even old or chronic injuries can carry important information. Most notable is the ability of an injury to become more activated during times when your safety may be at risk. People sometimes notice that chronic pains lessen or relax completely in the presence of horses, other pets, or other people they feel comfortable with.)
Chest/Heart — Warm, connected, cold, numb or shut down, fist in heart, strong, fast or irregular heart beat, walled off, radiating light or love
Stomach — Full, empty, queasy, strong, powerful, excited, butterflies in stomach, nervous, fearful, folded over in a fetal position, kicked in the belly, peaceful
Sexual Organs — Calm, neutral, excited, emptiness in womb (can be an open, creative emptiness or a lonely, longing emptiness), cramped, full, fertile, protective, powerful, numb
Legs/Feet — Strong, even, one leg longer than the other, weak in the knees, tenseness in one or both calves or gluts, locked knee/s, sore, pins and needles, toes curled, weak ankles, feet grounded, rooted in the ground, floating above the ground
Also check for body postures—usually involving some combination of shoulder, back, pelvis, and solar plexus engagement, though sometimes also head, neck, arms, feet, or leg position. And remember, this is not a relaxation or self-hypnosis technique, but a simple body awareness or mindfulness technique. In preparation for the scan, don’t roll your neck, loosen your shoulders, try to stand straight, or ground yourself at this point. Just stand or sit in a position that comes naturally to you at that moment (as postures can change from day to day and situation to situation).
Getting the Message
Rather than second guess the information contained in a specific sensation or body posture, it’s advantageous to “ask the body itself.” An easy way to do this is to pick a prominent sensation, let’s say shoulders slumped forward. Accentuate that posture (rather than try to adjust, relax or wriggle out of it). Then “breathe” into the sensation without trying to change it, in this case imagining that you’re creating an email link between your slumped shoulders and the brain in your head. Ask, silently, one of the following questions: “What information is held in this sensation?” or “What is the purpose of this posture?” or “What do you want to tell me?” or simply “What do you want me to know?”
Clear your thinking brain of preconceived notions, and just wait for an answer to rise up from the body to the brain. Sometimes, the information is obvious and received quickly. In the case of slumped shoulders, many people feel “the weight of the world,” or see a statue of Atlas hoisting the earth on his back. Another common image is a yoke around the shoulders. One woman saw this yoke attached to a wagon carrying all her family members. Through this image, she quickly realized that it wasn’t work responsibilities that were getting her down. Her spouse and children weren’t “carrying their own weight” around the house. When she received the message and spoke it out loud to me, her shoulders lifted and rebalanced themselves.
The fascinating thing about this technique is that if you truly get the message, the body releases the tension and/or adjusts itself. Really! I’ve seen it a thousand times. Conversely, if the mind is second-guessing the body, quite often there’s no change in sensation or posture. I often see this happening with people who say “Well, I think I’m just a little stressed.” The key word here is think. Don’t think, ask!
I stumbled upon this technique working with beginning riding students. I was teaching a woman who couldn’t keep her heels down (an important position for optimal balance and safety—you don’t want your feet sliding through the stirrups, especially if you fall, as you could easily be dragged). After telling “Maggie” to keep her heels down ad nauseum, I finally wondered what would happen if she asked her ankles what they were trying to accomplish; they truly seemed to have a mind of their own. I directed her to momentarily accentuate the tension in her ankles, causing her heels to rise even higher, and then “ask her body” what its purpose was in emphasizing this position despite our efforts to change it.
Then, of course, she asked me how in the world she was supposed to ask her body anything. For some reason, I suggested she “breathe into that tension, sending it oxygen and awareness with an open, inquiring mind.” Within seconds, Maggie’s eyes shot wide open and her head jerked to the side, like a faint electric current jolting her brain.
“I keep getting the phrase ‘Gotta be on your toes!’ she said. “It’s playing over and over again.”
Much to my amazement, Maggie’s ankles seemed to relax of their own accord. I asked her to continue to breathe into her ankles and ask what they were trying to convey through this phrase. Was she a former ballet dancer? Or was there some kind of concern being communicated through her body by creating a posture that was, essentially a metaphor: “Gotta be on your toes!”
Maggie’s ankles continued to relax as she remembered falling off a horse at her previous instructor’s barn. A flashy appaloosa she “didn’t feel connected to” had shied and dumped her when the wind suddenly picked up. “Gotta be in your toes” made sense, as Maggie was once again riding a horse she didn’t know. So we addressed this concern by allowing her to dismount and do some ground work, leading and bonding with my older, more experienced lesson horse, contrasting his gentle, poised demeanor to that of the younger, more spirited gelding who had thrown her at another stable the year before. Thirty minutes later, she remounted, and experienced no trouble keeping her heels down.
The following week, however, Maggie told me that she’d been riding a friend’s horse during an impromptu trail ride, and her ankles tensed up again. This time, she quickly read the message, got off and walked the horse for a while, petting him for a few moments. Then she got back on feeling safer and more connected. Once again, her heels stayed down.
Everyone’s body “speaks” a bit differently, though there are some patterns. Some of my clients, including one skeptical scientist who didn’t consider himself the least bit intuitive or creative, have found that breathing into a sensation produces colors with consistent symbolic meanings, like red for fear, yellow for caution, blue for comfort, and lavender for love or connection. Some people “hear” brief clichés, strange poetic phrases, or song fragments that, when they later look up the lyrics on the internet, turn out to be relevant to a current challenge in their lives.
I advise scanners to close their eyes when checking for a message. The body, which as I mentioned earlier often speaks more like an artist or a poet than a scientist, can relay visual material, sometimes in a sketchy, monochromatic format, sometimes in Technicolor. Once in a while, people experience intricate mythical or metaphorical mini films, “waking dreams” that turn out to be deeply meaningful and even transformational. More often, people see static, symbolic pictures. Some of my students have accessed unique, highly evocative images that they’ve turned into business logos.
People occasionally receive brief, nonsensical visions or phrases. One teenager felt a tension in her thighs before directing her horse to move from a walk to a trot. When she breathed into the constriction, she saw a pterodactyl flying next to a purple sun setting over a mountain shaped like a pineapple. Yet in acknowledging this strange scene out loud and checking back with her body, the tightness released completely, suggesting there was no further need to interpret the message. Apparently, by sending her a goofy image that made us both laugh, this colorful young rider transformed the anxiety she often experienced in changing gaits. Her body wasn’t sending a metaphor to be analyzed; it was urging her to laugh and have fun, apparently advising her not to take riding so seriously.
In scanning down the body, learning to receive its sometimes mundane, sometimes creative, sometimes amusing or uplifting messages, you’ll not only activate the wisdom of that “other 90 percent,” you might very well find that you’ll never feel bored waiting in line at the bank or the DMV again. More importantly, you can use this information to make decisions that draw on the wisdom of all three of your “brains,” as one trauma survivor learned to do in her very first session:
“Emily,” a therapist who had read one of my previous books, brought a rape survivor to do some equine-facilitated learning activities with me, reporting that “Amy” seemed to be “stuck” in moving forward with her life. Yet Dr. Emily also had some concerns about the safety of this work. While hopeful that these sensitive yet powerful animals might provide an important key, she wasn’t sure if Amy would be “grounded enough” to interact with a loose horse, even one known to be unusually generous with fearful amateurs.
Sure enough, doing a quick body scan before entering the round pen with Rasa, Amy couldn’t feel her feet. Yet rather than “making” her body “get grounded,” as she had been taught to do—with limited success—I invited her to explore what her body was trying to achieve. Knowing that Amy had been working with Emily for over a year and had already learned some important self-regulation skills, I felt confident that she was ready to try a little somatic experiment, one that I had seen work reliably with other “ungrounded” people over the years.
“In scanning your body, how far down does your awareness go?” I asked Amy.
“To just below my knees,” she said tentatively. “I guess down to my shins.”
“Breathe into your shins, and ask your body ‘Why stop there?’”
Amy closed her eyes and seemed to struggle for a moment, then sighing in frustration she said, “All I get is the phrase lighter than air, but I can’t make any sense of it.” In checking back in with her shins, she still couldn’t feel her feet, but Amy did notice that her legs seemed to be “getting warmer,” suggesting that she was on the right track even if the message itself wasn’t yet decipherable.
“OK, I want you to imagine two different scenarios, and we’re going to see how your body reacts to each one,” I said. “First, imagine going in with Rasa alone. What happens to your body?”
“It feels the same,” Amy replied, shrugging.
“Now imagine me going into the round pen with you and Rasa,” I offered.
Amy’s eyes got wide as saucers, and she began to smile. “I can feel my feet!”
As it turns out, Amy’s body easily grounded itself when supported in choosing actions that felt safe. From that day forward, she and Emily began using what they called the “lighter than air” technique for decision making. Amy’s lack of sensation in her feet became a warning signal, keeping her from stepping forward until she weighed her options. “I play through different scenarios in my head as I check in with my body,” Amy explained. “When I can feel my feet, I know that I’ve hit on a good option, and my body hasn’t steered me wrong yet!”
The Body Scan
A Tool for Building Emotional and Social Intelligence
Now that we’ve explored a number of case studies and helpful hints, it’s time to put the body scan in action. Using the following method often, sometimes just for fun, will help you gain confidence in listening to your “horse,” accessing all kinds of information you can put to any number of uses.
1. Map the sensations. Before you enter a situation involving other people (a business meeting, for example), scan down your body in a neutral environment where you are alone (your office, the car, the restroom). Notice what sensations you are feeling—without trying to “relax out of them.”
2. Dialog with Prominent Sensations: If any sensations or postures stand out, dialog with your body by expanding the sensation and asking it for a message. What information is that sensation/posture holding? It may be a tension, a feeling of “pins and needles,” energy, excitement, anxiety, openness, fullness, etc. (So-called “negative” as well as “positive” sensations can hold valuable information.) Imagine breathing into the sensation, sending it oxygen and awareness. This encourages the sensation to “speak,” almost like it’s “sending an email” to your mind, in the form of an image, a brief “text message,” a color, a memory, song fragment, cliché, poetic phrase, or strange, irrational phrase, etc. Remember that the message can be quite simple and straightforward: Feeling “the weight of the world on your shoulders” or that “someone has kicked you in the belly” or that “you don’t have a leg to stand on” are messages in the form of metaphors, no less meaningful because they are common!
3. Assess the result. When you receive the message, whether it makes “logical sense” or not, check back in with the sensation.
If it has released completely, this means the message was received to your body’s satisfaction, even if your thinking brain doesn’t completely understand “the symbol.” (Proceed to step 4.)
If the sensation has released slightly, it means you’re on the right track, but that you probably need to change something. When Maggie’s ankles began to relax in response to the message “Gotta be on your toes,” she still had to dismount and connect with the horse before her heels would lower completely in the stirrups. Sometimes you can’t address the issue raised right away, such as a tension related to your spouse when you are at work. In this case, take note of the body’s insight or recommendation, and put it into action the next time you have some quality time with your mate. If a work-related tension arises at home, you might discuss it briefly with your spouse in order to become congruent, to make sure that he or she doesn’t take the agitation, frustration or anger you’re experiencing personally, perhaps inspiring him or her to offer valuable suggestions or support.
If the sensation has intensified, it generally means your body has more to say on the subject, or it has other issues to address. (You may choose to ask for another message, if time permits, or check back in with the body for more information later. Remember to invoke the self-regulation program, releasing one “horse” at a time.)
If the sensation stays the same, it may mean the circuit between your mind and body is interrupted or “offline” in some way. In most cases, this happens when an initial, subtle message from the body was ignored or judged as “irrational” and so the mind came up with a message it thought was more appropriate. The lack of response from the body means the mind has missed the boat. Go back and engage with the sensation, remaining open to how the body might speak. The body is often more like an artist than a scientist in its communication style, using imagery, color, song fragments, or odd poetic phrases to communicate insights that are too complex to fit into plain linear statements. However, if you still can’t get a message, just move forward with your day, noticing if the sensation changes when you interact with other people, horses, situations, etc.
4. Get a new baseline reading. By dialoguing with the body, sensations will change. Before you walk into that business meeting, scan down your body one more time, without dialoging, to get a new baseline reading.
5. Stay in contact with your body as you walk into the room and notice any changes in your body. If your baseline reading included tension in your right shoulder, butterflies in your stomach, and energy in your hands, notice how these sensations intensify, release, or shift (or what new sensations arise) as you enter the meeting, sit down, and interact with your colleagues. Any new sensations that come into your body are a direct result of something nonverbal that’s already happening in that meeting before anyone even speaks a word. If the butterflies in your stomach go away, and the tension in your shoulder releases, your body not only feels safe, but nourished by the setting/people involved. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re getting kicked in the stomach whenever you look at one of your supervisors or potential clients, you’re body is sending you a potent alarm. If you feel inexplicably agitated with someone who is smiling and saying he’s “fine,” this person may be incongruent, in other words he’s consciously or unconsciously hiding something. It may be a personal issue, trouble at home, etc., and truly none of your business. Even so, this person is likely to act unpredictably because of his conflicted emotional state, and his judgment regarding work issues may be temporarily impaired. It is to your advantage to be aware of this.
6. Continue a silent dialog with your body. As new sensations rise or previous baseline sensations intensify, breathe into them and ask for input. Most business meetings offer lots of little opportunities for checking in. Rather than resort to daydreaming or “going over your grocery list” when things get boring or tedious, check in with your body, watch other people’s nonverbal responses and take notes. If you feel uncontrollably tense or overwhelmed, you may choose to take a “bathroom” break. Rather than step outside for a smoke (a way of releasing tension without getting the message), step into a private space and dialog with your body.
Teams of individuals who are fluent in using the body scan and assessing the messages behind sensation/emotion can engage in “consensual leadership,” a principle we will explore more deeply in Guiding Principle Ten. Here the word “consensual” does not mean that everyone agrees, but that everyone is willing and able to “sense together” in determining the most promising course of action. In teams that employ consensual leadership, the group can more accurately assess which team members are calmest, clearest, most experienced, most inspired and/or most invested in handling certain challenges.
Using “the other 90 percent,” teams can also enter the unknown more confidently, realizing that their own bodies will send them little “warning lights” when the plan needs to be altered or reassessed—early enough to avoid a mishap. By checking the Emotional Message Chart in response to these subtle somatic alarms, members can tell the difference between fear (a legitimate environmental threat) and vulnerability (performance anxiety, a need for additional staff or training, or a challenge to an outmoded method, paradigm, or belief system). They can tell the difference between anger (boundaries that have been crossed) and frustration (blocks in the road to success). (These self-assessment, inter-subjectivity, and emotional fitness skills are helpful in overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team as outlined in Patrick Lencioni’s bestselling leadership book, which we will explore as a part of Guiding Principle Seven.)
You can also use this scanning and messaging process privately to aid in problem solving, accessing your body’s genius—its direct line to creative, metaphorical, poetic, and intuitive forms of wisdom—to help you develop fresh approaches to challenges that your linear, logical mind might not otherwise entertain or even begin to imagine. Like Amy, you can learn to sense when your body is skeptical of a certain course of action, when it feels safe, and when it feels excited moving forward, allowing you to “really put your heart into” whatever you decide to do.
With all three intelligence centers online and aligned, you’ll have much more energy to accomplish your goals. Other people will sense your clarity, vision, focus, inspiration, enthusiasm, and authentic, full-bodied conviction, finding it difficult to resist following your lead—whether you’re the official leader or not. That is charisma in the purest, most productive sense of the word.
Copyright © 2011 by Linda Kohanov from the upcoming book The Power of the Herd: Building Social Intelligence, Visionary Leadership and Authentic Community through the Way of the Horse. All rights reserved. No portion of this chapter may be reproduced without written permission from the author.