Like many little girls, I was bitten by the horse bug at a very young age. It was my neighbor’s fault. One Saturday morning, she decided to unload her horse off of her horse trailer and walk him down the sidewalk of our manicured suburban neighborhood, to our front lawn and ring our doorbell. Still in my Winnie-the-Pooh pyjamas, hair tangled wildly in a nest behind my head, I ran bare footed to where he stood, towering several stories above me.
I placed my foot in my neighbor’s laced hands and hoisted myself on to the warm soft back of this immense and mysterious creature. My tiny fingers clasped at the final tuft of mane, at the end of his long neck. I wrapped my short legs as tightly as possible around his broad frame, pointing my toes for added length. He continued grazing on clumps of green grass, each mouthful precipitated by a strong tug that I felt through his whole body. His giant ribcage expanded and contracted between my bare calves. His fur shone rainbows of golden browns and reds. And his smell, oh, his smell—a perfume of sweet sun-kissed hay and meadow flowers. I was intoxicated. I was love-crazed. I was rapturous.
Within weeks, my bedroom transformed into an equine shrine—posters of herds racing over my bed, Brayer models of all breeds, ages and colors on my shelves and cavorting on my carpet, a dog-eared copy of Billy and Blaze under my desk, books on-end creating makeshift stables and paddocks, and used copies of tack catalogs strewn under my bed. Even my poor dog Kim, a medium-ish poodle, was designated my steed, begrudgingly wearing a towel for a saddle pad and a belt for her bridle.
I remember the surge of endorphins that would pulse through my body as I galloped and pranced with my horse-cohort, Kay-Anne Williams, across the front yards of our block. I was the black stallion, and she was always the painted mare. We were, in those moments, all things—we were horse, we were rider, we were wind, and speed and freedom, and we were wildness itself. Sometimes we could coerce her younger brothers to chase us with whoops and hollers on their bikes—cowboys and Indians chasing ever-elusive mustangs through the canyons of the neatly contiguous houses.
You could call it love. But I would call it more than that; I was taken. And as much as I tried to escape it during various chapters of my adult life, I have discovered that equus has as much taken me, as I have taken them. What is this irrepressible passion? And why does it refuse to leave me alone? Only in recent years have I begun to understand the nature of its workings in my life, and the lives of others who have been taken too, be it by art, music, or the immensely creative pursuit of leading a business.
Debra Roberts is a master beekeeper, wise-woman, and a dear friend. As she remarks, she is ‘kept by her bees.’ These gregarious creatures were quietly but persistently in her life since a young age, but came rushing in all at once after a sudden illness forced her into Sabbatical. During this time, she made contact with the family of a deceased Hopi Elder who had made a strong impact on her years earlier, and felt compelled to make a several-days’ sojourn into the empty desert to deliver honey to their household. Upon opening the door, the Elder’s daughter-in-law exclaimed that they had just run out of honey and had been wanting more. From this moment on, bee-influenced meetings and circumstances continued to pollinate Debra’s life, until finally arriving at beekeeping school in Ashland.
An advocator of bee rights and natural bee colony regeneration, educator of beekeepers, and visionary behind what she calls ‘the women’s movement as expressed through women’s ways in the apiary’, Debra has become an unusual and dynamic voice in dialog about women’s spirituality, as well as the saving of our bee populations.
As ‘taken’ women, she and I often find ourselves in conversation about our beloveds—winged and four-legged—and share our insights and curiosities about a life, as she calls it, ‘in service to the sacred other’. Here lies the difference between something we love (a passion or hobby), and something we serve, which becomes an altogether different relationship.
Though I was mad-crazy about horses as a young girl, and throughout early adulthood, it was only in my late forties that my passions truly transformed and matured into what philosopher Martin Buber calls the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. Buber proposed that we address existence in two ways: The attitude of the “I” towards an “It” (I-It), towards an object that is separate from us, which we either use or experience. Or, the attitude of the “I” towards “Thou” (I-Thou), in a relationship in which the other is not separate from us. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality, service, generosity and reciprocity. While I-It is a relationship of separateness, use, and detachment.
Even though I did indeed ‘love’ horses, in all honesty, my love for them was all about what they could do for me. Sure, I would brush and feed them. I would pet them, whisper sweetly, and give them carrots. I wasn’t cruel or unkind in the conventional sense. But all of this was in service ultimately to what I wanted with them. Kindness is not the same as service.
But my daughter Sahaja began riding at age four, and this heralded a new chapter. When she turned eight, I ended up purchasing her a plump round bay Welsh pony named Pippa, who lived in a small field down the road from our house in rural Australia. Pippa decidedly took very good care of Sahaja most of the time, and when she didn’t, it was always a good lesson towards Sahaja’s blossoming character.
One day, Sahaja turned to me and announced that ‘she did not want to learn horsemanship in the traditional way’, and she ‘wanted to do it differently’. I was game. Years of training as a professional dressage rider in the US in my twenties had jaded my love of riding. In response, without any other options available to me, I just retreated to quiet trail rides in the fields and on the beaches. Though I missed the engagement with the horse that dressage offered me, I was not willing to force such ambition onto the backs of my horses any longer.
Enter, Louise, our first natural horsemanship instructor who skilfully taught Sahaja and I together how to work with horses in an authentically collaborative manner, without bribery, punishment, fear, force or manipulation. Like Debra’s fated honey delivery, my encounter with Louise and her methodology heralded a series of meetings and circumstances that delivered me to the alter of the sacred life through horses.
My husband, Wayne Muller, co-founder of the Institute of the Southwest, says, ‘If God is love, then what you love is the way in to God.’ In his usual way of keeping the sacred close and easily available, he is affirming what Debra and I—and many others who have been taken by art, music, a vision, a purpose—have come to know. Love is the way in, and service to that love, or that which is loved, is the way through.
So ancient is this pratice, the Aboriginal people of Australia, a 60,000 year-old culture, have a word for this particular kind of love—Kanyini. Kanyini means ‘unconditional love with responsibility’. A dear friend and mentor, listed custodial Elder of Uluru (the great red rock in Central Australia), Uncle Bob Randall says this:
If only people could just see this and show it by living right and living a life of service, not only to other people but to other living things. It is our responsibility—not just Aboriginals’, but everyone’s—to live by what my people call the Kanyini principle. There’s such a huge family you’re responsible for, and who you belong to, because they see you as belonging to them as well. And when I say family, I mean all beings, not just human beings.
If we were to step into our lives with such undeniable sacred regard for the ‘other’, how might we be different? How might we treat our children? Our colleagues? Our employees or employer? Our clients? How might our businesses operate, and what outcomes might they have? How might it change the legacy of our families? And perhaps more importantly, how might it shape the sense of meaning in our own lives?
I watched recently as a client excitedly shared a story about a shift that occurred in one of her routine staff meetings. After months of working hard to change her own approach towards work and her employees, she was beginning to witness a transformation at her firm. Radiant, she recounted. ‘People are beginning to listen to one another,’ she said. ‘They’ve begun creating a way that every person’s voice is heard!’ So significant was the change, that entrenched dynamics were melting before her eyes, liberating each staff member’s strengths and gifts. Now her firm was beginning to reflect her sense of meaning, rather than her fears or simply her dry ambitions.
Where to start? Simply look for where you are taken. Ask yourself what pursuits, people, places or things capture your passion or curiosity. And then serve it, or them, as a sacred other. Do it with a generous heart of reciprocity. Meaning will begin to pour into your days, and will transform how you work, learn and live.