I had a kind of revelation the other day, after posting this little piece on my Alchemical Horse blog. Here’s what I originally wrote:
I got to the barn today a few minutes after sundown. The light was fading but the sky was still bright when I reached the pasture. The herd was moving slowly, heads down, toward the east end of the pasture, each horse in his own space but obviously connected. It was so peaceful.
I didn’t have a plan for my time with Galahad, though I had thought about taking him out and feeding him some dinner at the car. We rarely do anything after dark these days, so I figured it would be something different and interesting for him.
He saw me halfway across the pasture; he lifted his head in acknowledgement but went back to grazing. When I got close enough to touch him, he sniffed my outstretched hand, gave a deep “blow,” and dropped his head again. He didn’t even check me for carrots or cookies—he just continued to graze. I heard, “This is what we do at sunset.” It felt important.
Thank goodness I have grown to know him well enough to understand what he tells me, and to read his mood. Tonight, he wanted nothing more than to share this nightly “ritual” with me. So I spent half an hour or more just being there with him. I scratched his rump once or twice, touched him on the withers and shoulder a couple of times, and he leaned into me as he grazed. Nothing was said; nothing was needed. It was certainly a privilege for me to share, and I think he appreciated my presence, too.
“This is what we do at sunset.”
I love this short post—it’s a real feel-good essay, and an almost-accurate reflection of my experience. But even as I posted it, something was nagging at me.
A couple of days later, an email newsletter provided me with the insight I needed.
Here’s the newsletter, from Anna Breytenbach’s AnimalSpirit. The article is “Projection vs Perception,” which describes a group of whale watchers encountering a pod of whales off the shore of South Africa a while back, and singing to them. One of the whales lifted her pectoral fin out of the water and stayed that way for quite a while. The people interpreted the action as the whale “waving to them.” Anna, realizing that this was probably a projection of a very human activity onto an animal, checked in intuitively with the whale, who reported that she was using her fin to feel the sound waves coming from the humans.
That was the key I needed to understand my nagging discomfort with my blog post.
In my mind, I went back to that magical evening in the pasture. What I had actually heard from Galahad was, “This is what we are doing now, and it is important to us.”
That’s quite a different thing, isn’t it? My interpretation is romanticized, satisfying in human terms. But it’s not accurate. The actual message was more about the herd engaging in a mutual activity that strengthened their bond. It was more about doing something together in the moment, focused both on the environment and on the other members of the group.
When talking about working with the imaginal world and its inhabitants, I always tell my students and clients to be careful not to impose our meanings on those Others. It’s so important! And in my personal experience, when I’m wrong about a “message” from one of my imaginal contacts, it’s almost always because I’ve misinterpreted it—it’s not that I haven’t perceived it. I’ve just projected my own wishes and needs and expectations and values onto the other being.
It’s the same when we interact with other humans, actually. We need to be so careful to actually listen to the other person and hear what they are trying to say, without interpreting their words from our own viewpoint. Each one of us has our own perspective, and it’s a gift to be able to really listen and try to see the world from that other person’s point of view. If we would all try to do that more often, the world would be a different place.
So again, the horses have taught me a valuable lesson. I’ve added a couple of parenthetical words to Anna’s beautiful summary of what happened with the whales:
When we are privileged enough to encounter a wild animal [or another human being] in their own environment, behaving in a way that is natural for them, we humans have the opportunity for conscious choice: we can project our own humanness [or our own personal values and assumptions] onto what we’re observing and thereby completely misinterpret their behaviour and intentions, or we can tune into the perspective of that non-human and directly perceive their truths…beyond the constraints of human perspectives. Direct perception is the wise choice.
My thanks to the whales…and the horses….
[Cross-posted on The Alchemical Horse]