Being alive comes from an intimate involvement with the present moment—exploring and experimenting with what’s happening, why it’s happening and to what effect. Mindfulness and meditation can be ways of cultivating and nurturing this awareness.
Serious horse riding is another way, which is to say, living as a cowboy—a real cowboy—or as close as it gets in 2017!
Perhaps this illustrates that in earlier times, we human beings lived in greater contact with nature than we do now. This indirectly made us pay attention to our world and its various signs much more than we do in today’s culture of social media communication that invites shallowness.
A week at a cattle ranch
For a week, I stayed at the family-owned TX Ranch, in the borderlands of Montana and Wyoming, in the Western United States. It’s a commercial cattle ranch without Internet or phone access, which gives it a rather authentic touch. It’s quite a blast!
Being a cowboy means slowing down mentally—even when you speed up physically—and becoming immersed in the natural environment. It’s a way of attuning your senses to smells, textures, tastes and signs of the prairie. Is that a rattlesnake? Is this cow trying to escape? How can this bull be moved? Should I trust my horse galloping down into a dusty area where I can no longer use my eyes but only my sense of connection with the horse?
It was here that I experienced the “double side” of what it really means to be aware.
Internal and external awareness
Meditation is, on the one hand, having the capacity to witness what you feel, think or experience, while on the other hand, being aware of what you witness. You can feel yourself being felt, think yourself being thought and so on.
I experienced not thinking or feeling much about my family or writing projects. Both things took up a lot of my time while I travelled to Montana and normally take up most of my time. Yet, I was also aware of what I was experiencing—the kind of indistinguishable mutual body developing between the horse and me, gradually finding a rhythm. Of course, there was also the growing physical pain from sitting in a saddle for up to 10 hours a day.
Now, seeing this from a week’s distance, I recognize that it was healthy being so in tune with my body. For me, riding required the perfect blend of body and mind, emphasizing how René Descartes’ old dualism doesn’t fit with real life. Riding also made me more aware of what was going on around me. The awareness I experienced as a kind of cowboy was both internal and external.
All you need is inside … and outside
In Buddhism, the claim is that all you need is inside. The truth arrives only through deep introspection, whereas in Western philosophy, the truth relates more to your relationship with what’s outside of you.
Of course, the reality is a mixture of both views. But in a very simple-minded and populist-guru kind of meditation, the focus seems to be solely on yourself; for instance, through concepts such as self-love and not self-care. Love is, after all, something external, and it’s something that makes me joyous.
People who say you need to love yourself before you can love someone else are trying to camouflage their obsession with themselves as something other than egoism, or they use this as an excuse for not showing enough care and compassion for others.
Luckily, no cowboy can be with just himself or herself. This may sound like a paradox, since most of us grew up with the idea of the lonely cowboy. And yes, although the cowboy may be alone on the prairie, he or she still needs to be cautious of the horse, weather and surroundings, such as the terrain. Does it go up or down? Is the surface slippery?
Life is bound together with everything. This is why interdependence both weakens and strengthens us. Even the trails that cowboys often follow aren’t the creation of one man or woman; they’re a communal structure.
Trails, as Robert Moor demonstrated in his 2017 book On Trails: An Exploration, are a “form of wisdom that exists between, as well as inside, living things.” They’re a mixture of at least one smart cowboy, some horses, some cows and most likely, a bunch of other riders. Trails “refer to marks left behind by an animal in its passing.” Humans, horses and cows all lead one another, confirming the connectivity of life.
To ride is to meditate
In the past five or six years, I’ve done several shorter silent retreats, all spanning three to seven days. These have led me to realize that serious horse riding (also known as “the cowboy experience,” encompassing between six to ten hours of riding per day) is a kind of meditation. To ride is to meditate.
The idea that spending time in nature is healing isn’t new. We humans are part of nature. One of the greatest mistakes endorsed today is the idea of nature as something “out there.” We don’t go out in nature to recreate. On the contrary, nature—or even the wilderness—is a part of us.
One of the greatest mistakes endorsed today is the idea of nature as something “out there.”
A simple example: My own children are some of the biggest strangers in my life, and even to myself, I’m a stranger. In other words, I’m still “wilderness” and unknown to myself, even after more than 20 years of philosophizing and meditating. This shows why connecting with nature more often can help us recapture the capacity to be surprised, open and curious in regard to ourselves and everything else.
So if traditional meditation doesn’t suit you, then hike, bathe in the forest, read an entire novel (not just a Tweet) or become a cowboy for a while. There are no excuses! There are awareness-building activities for all—some are free and some are not. What they all share is that they’ll reduce your blood pressure and lower your stress hormones while also making you smile.
I guess the main thing that John Wayne and Client Eastwood didn’t show us about the cowboy lifestyle is that it actually does make you smile! It’s a joyous encounter with life.