Today’s post is by Carole Crumley (originally published in Shalem News, Fall 2004)
We were 25 women standing in a large circle, arms outstretched, only touching one another by our fingertips. In the center of the circle stood Flirt, a 1200 pound horse. It was our job to keep Flirt inside the circle. It was Flirt’s job to get out.
Guess who won.
Flirt gave one little flick of her eye, glanced around the circle and simply walked out underneath one pair of outstretched arms.
This was part of an exercise that uses horses to give feedback on leadership qualities. The setting was a large exercise barn at a horse farm in the Pennsylvania countryside. The horses were teaching us which behaviors encouraged their trust and what led them to bolt and run, which actions engendered confidence and what confused them. In other words, how to lead.
Horses are the perfect animal for this kind of experiment. Since they are herd animals, they will follow a leader. They also express their feelings directly, giving immediate feedback through their actions. They run when threatened. They go their own way if a direction is not clear. They can kick, bite or shove if one hasn’t established a trusting relationship with them. They are big, powerful, beautiful and sometimes scary in their unpredictability.
We tried again. We were still in a circle, only touching by fingertips, but this time we strategized that if Flirt moved towards any one of us, those on either side would lean closer. We imagined we could close any gap quickly enough to keep Flirt in.
Flirt was out of there even more quickly than before.
We regrouped. What had just happened? Why did Flirt choose a particular point in our circle to make her escape and not some other place? We learned that horses are exquisitely attuned to the dynamics of a group and the emotions of individuals. They easily recognize messages of doubt and unease. How had we been appearing to Flirt and to one another? Anxious or centered? Threatening or reassuring? Focused or unfocused? After considering these questions, we decided on yet another approach.
Once more Flirt came back into the center of the circle. This time we each concentrated on staying grounded, breathing deeply, being clear about our intent, non-anxious, soft-eyed. Our arms were still outstretched, fingertips still touching, and…. Flirt didn’t move. We looked around, secretly not trusting, waiting for her to bolt.
No movement. We waited some more. No movement. We slowly lowered our arms. Still no movement.
We stood there, with wide open gaps between each of us, and still no movement. Flirt was as steady and immov-able as a candle in the center of one of our prayer groups.
Eventually we realized that we could have stood just like that from the very beginning, relaxed, open, no outstretched arms, no touching of fingertips, no strategy, no anxiety. Just grounded, centered, present, soft-eyed and Flirt would have stayed inside our circle forever. As long as we were communicating that all was well, that there was no threat, no need to go somewhere else, Flirt was content. Evidently horses also recognize messages of peace and well-being.
Now, months later, there seem to be endless occasions to remember Flirt. When confronted with situations where there is hurt or anger, when fear, disappointment or anxiety fill the circle of life, there is an invitation to gaze softly at the situation and to remember that, in God, all is well and all shall be well. Having others in the circle, a spiritual director or other soul friends, who share a similar prayerful intent helps. Together we can remind one another of God’s faithfulness, collectively soften our gaze and turn to the larger Love that animates all of living.
When I am offering leadership and tempted to try to figure things out or make things happen, then just relaxing my stance can open my awareness in a new way. Being centered can shift my attention from my own agenda and willful striving to a prayer of surrender and a willingness for God to lead.
It is this kind of surrender that the 13th century mystical poet Rumi said gives grace a chance to “gather us up” and gives “miraculous beings” an opportunity to come “running to help.” It is also this total surrender to the beauty of God’s leadership, Rumi, says, that guides us towards becoming “a mighty compassion.” (“A Zero Circle” translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks)
I yearn for that kind of compassionate leadership in the world and pray for its realization in my life. Then perhaps one day all humanity, along with Flirt and all creation, can stand together in a circle of friendship, at peace and unafraid.
Carole Crumley is Director of Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership, Class of 2016, an Episcopal priest, a widely respected leader of ecumenical retreats, groups, and conferences, and a seasoned pilgrimage guide to sacred sites throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Interested in expanding your leadership with compassion and contemplation? This May Shalem is offering With Hearts Wide Open: an online Contemplative Leadership Seminar with Leah Rampy. The seminar is available May 4-25 and can be accessed according to your schedule. Sign up today!