Compassion. Acceptance. Courage. Detachment. Wisdom.
Those of you who follow the world of dressage will already have heard the tragic news of the passing of the brilliant Cadillac who was ridden by the equally brilliant Catherine Haddad Staller. Catherine wrote about Cadillac’s passing in The Chronicle of the Horse with such openness and wisdom, I have read and re-read the piece several times. It continues to move me.
All of us who choose to share our lives with animals have faced the kind of situation Catherine faced when Cadillac’s injury and its complications were beyond hope of recovery. I adopted a dog when I returned to Ohio after graduate school. My nephew Adam helped me pick her out. We named her Lacey. She was a delightful little girl with the look of the dogs who roam the streets of third world countries. She also had a 4 foot vertical leap which required a 5 foot fence. She contracted a vaccine resistant strain of parvo when she was just 2 and nearly died. She had bled internally and sustained liver damage but she lived and I was grateful. She was happy and a devoted companion even forgiving me when my new husband couldn’t abide her sleeping in our bed. She lived only a few more years eventually becoming unable to absorb nutrients. She was literally wasting away. We took one last walk with her as a family (our daughter Emma was 1) and had to carry her after she tired halfway around the block. The next day, we took her to our wonderfully sensitive vet and let her go.
That common experience is not what I have found so moving in Catherine’s essay. Instead it was the way she described coming to relate to Cadillac using the teachings of Buddhism. In her words:
Compassion. Acceptance. Courage. Detachment. Wisdom. These were the qualities required to ride such a horse.
I had to develop Compassion for his nature in order to understand him and Accept him for what he was. I had to have the Courage to love him and revere him in the face of criticism from less enlightened horsemen. I had to Detach myself from the outcome of every test and ride as if nobody was watching. I had to have the Wisdom to let him go when his welfare hung in the balance.
I find this powerful for me for reasons that have nothing to do with horses but everything to do with how I relate to myself and others. I don’t think I am unusual in struggling to show compassion for and acceptance of others with unconditionality. I have competed with them, fought with them, and attempted to manipulate them so that I will feel better about myself. I have often been challenged by my inability to be open to the experience of true compassion. It is far easier to exist in the separateness of criticism and comparison. Choosing such a position rejects the truth of who we all are, however.
Valuing others even when it is challenging to do so is painful and requires courage. I’ve been told to give up on this horse or that person because he/she is simply too much trouble. As much as I enjoy trouble (I’ve even been described as too much trouble myself), it is sometimes easier to go with the group and declare the other to be without value. As a teacher, I admit to enjoying group venting sessions with faculty where the latest stories of student misbehavior are batted around the room. I engage in this knowing full well that the more courageous act would be to engage my “difficult” students with more mindful attention to where they are right now and what I can learn from them.
Detachment from preferred outcomes, from wishing, from imagining what I want to have happen is always hard for me. I can’t count the number of times I have walked into the barn with a new plan for training my horse or I have entered a meeting with the script written in advance. These plans usually involve some shortcut for producing a quick transformation. With horses, it used to be a new bit. I have so many bits because I fell into this delusional trap that, if I could just find the perfect bit, I could get exactly what I want from my horse. I have done this within the last year and there was no magic transformation. I’m a slow learner. With people, I have frequently doomed myself to an unhappy outcome by being so set on reaching one or another goal, that I render myself incapable of compassionate interaction. I have a tendency to be an agenda slave and take it as either a personal failure or an assault on my power when deviation from the plan is required. Either one tends to get me wound up. Why? Fear of failure and humiliation.
Detachment is particularly challenging with my children. I admit that I have images in my head of what I want my kids to be like and, thankfully, they don’t look much like those images. They are their own people. They are unique, talented, and infuriating. They are beautiful, difficult works in progress. The more I get out of their way, the more they blossom. When I can forget to fear the judgements of others, I find my interactions with my daughters to be far more loving and productive.
Even at my best, I don’t feel particularly wise. I still have so much to learn. One thing I know for sure is that I only have now. Throwing myself back in time or projecting myself too far forward leads to damaging regret and the seductive desire for more control. I’m learning. I’m learning mostly to sit and listen.
Catherine describes riding Cadillac as “Iridescent. Enchanting, thrilling, awesome, ethereal…transient.” I am learning to allow myself to be open to such experiences. Ego continues to try to trick me into responding to my world with fear and anger. Sometimes I give in. When I do, I am learning to feel for myself what I hope to show others with greater consistency: compassion and acceptance.
Catherine ended her essay with a farewell, “Namaste, Cadillac. Thank you for landing on my planet.” Well said. Namaste.