Meditation, horses, and being 10% happier

Horseriding in Glenorchy, New Zealand — Lord of the Rings territory. So peaceful it’s surreal.

Some people meditate. I ride horses. Granted, it’s not quite the same thing. But it’s closer that you might think, and the beauty of it is that the reasons why might mean you’re meditating (or almost) and just don’t know it yet.

At its core and supported by the Merriam Webster definition, meditation is about engaging in either contemplation or reflection, or in mental exercise — such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra — for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness. Typically, this involves sitting still, focusing on your breathing, and trying to calm your mind.

If that works for you, great. And even if it doesn’t, it is a great goal to have. Meditation in this classic form comes and goes from my list of life goals, and here’s why: I am not very good at sitting still and doing nothing, but it turns out that is not necessarily a requirement for meditation or its benefits.

As an outsider to the field of meditation, it seems that the key principles can be summarized as follows (adapted from an Eoin Finn article):

  1. A relaxed body is a relaxed mind

2. It is healthy for your brain to take a break from analyzing everything

3. Focus on your breathing

4. Be present

When I am horse-riding, I check all those boxes. Any worries or concerns from my day evaporate into a backdrop of “not important right now” (being on an 800-pound animal will do that), and my brain stops overthinking as I focus on the horse I am on and the place I am riding in. My breathing becomes regular as I relax into the moment; I am fully present. It helps that the saddle is one of the places where I feel most at home.

In other words, everything becomes simple. My universe whittles down to me, the horse, and whatever we are trying to achieve together. We respond to each other, communicating through body language including the flickering of my horse’s ears. By the end of the session, I am often physically spent yet re-energized (typical hobbies leave you just tired), my mind clear and a smile on my face.

It feels like all is right in the world and I can take on anything life throws at me.

This also happens when I play squash and when I am in the garden weeding, though to a slightly lesser extent because horses are what make my soul sing.

Which means if you think about it, you might realize there is an activity in your life which essentially helps you meditate. Or get close and realize how easy it can be, which is a great way to stop making excuses if meditation is something you want to try.

The benefits of meditation are numerous. Better focus, less anxiety, more creativity and compassion, better memory, less stress, more gray matter which can lead to more positive emotions. Why wouldn’t you meditate? Especially when — as a first step at least — it can be as simple as doing activities you already enjoy?

It might take time to find the right kind of meditation, just like it may take a few attempts to find the running shoe that best fits you. But keep trying and you will without a doubt benefit from it, both physically and mentally.

In 10% Happier, Dan Harris says “Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall.”

Whether it’s horse-riding, playing squash or golf or a musical instrument, hiking, or weeding, here’s to making it to the space behind the waterfall.

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