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  • Sharon Cabana, MA, LMFT

Learning to Let Go: What Horses Can Teach Us About Radical Acceptance

“On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.” ~ Tara Brach

As a trauma specialist, I know that when I talk to clients or patients about radical acceptance, the responses are mixed. Sometimes, the very idea of radical acceptance feels as if it invalidates the pain of the past. “I don’t want to accept it,” my clients say, “Because it was wrong.” And they’re right. The suffering they have endured, the suffering we endure, is never right or excused. So why, then, do I talk about radical acceptance?

There are many stories that teach us about letting go and its connection to suffering. One, The Boy and the Filberts, tells the story of a boy who found a jar of hazelnuts. Sticking in his hand in the jar, he grabbed up as many of the delicious nuts as he could hold. When he tried to remove his hand from the jar, it got stuck. The boy tried and tried to free his hand, but without luck. Distraught over the situation, the boy began to cry. Finally, a passerby saw him weeping and advised him to let go, taking only half of what he had grabbed up. By letting go, he would free his hand, enjoy his treat, and dry his tears. Although this one has been credited to both Aesop (I had a book of fables as a child that included this one.) and Epictetus, there are variations of the same story from all over the world. It would seem that this story has an important lesson for us all to learn.

The lesson, perhaps, of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean liking the things that have happened to us, or the things that are happening now. Radical acceptance is about accepting the way that things are so that we are free to live without thoughts of what should be. When we fight what is, we create suffering. Just as the boy held onto the filberts, we tend to hold on to the things that bother us. We hold onto the things that bring us pain like grief, anger, sadness, spite, hurt, resentment, loss, regret, and shame. We also hold on to the things that bring us a different kind of pain such as love, the “good ol’ days”, grandiose visions of winning the lottery, escapism, and the what-if’s. To be clear, none of these things are bad things, but, if held on too tightly, we can get trapped in them. If I dream of being a bestselling author but never write, then I have created my own suffering in the belief that I will “never make it” or that I am not “good enough” to achieve my dream. Like the story tells us, sometimes we need to let go of what we’re holding onto in order to enjoy the sweetness of life.

Horseback riding can teach us a lot about letting go. When I work with my students on learning to ride, there are some horses that always need longer reins. I coach my students not to hold too tightly because, if they do, the horse can become claustrophobic and learn to associate reins and hands with negative emotions. Instead, I show the students how in letting go, the horse can relax and becomes naturally more supple and responsive to other aids. By letting go, the student and the horse can communicate with each other and the horse is better able to meet the needs of my student.

Even as a rider with more experience, I don’t always get away from tension when I ride. The natural tendency of beginning riders to find balance through their hands sometimes comes back to me, especially when I am on a new horse. Anke, my teacher, always calls out “hands!” to let me know when I am tense in my shoulders. Because all of our muscles are connected, and I am connected to my horse, my horse will feel the tension in me and respond with tension of his or her own. In order for us to sync up together and ride freely, I must also free myself from the fear of falling and the fear of going off balance. The reality of horseback riding is that sometimes you don’t know where your growing edge is until you’ve gone over it. If I hold onto the fear and nervousness that comes with knowing this, then I am bound to suffering. This could be either emotionally for me and in my relationship with my horse partners, or physically when I become the resident “dirt inspector” after a fall. When I accept this reality and the inherent risks of my chosen work, I am better connected to myself and my horse. I become an overall better rider and a better me. Ironically, in letting go, I decrease the risk of going over my growing edge and growing into it instead.

Radical acceptance is not easy. It takes time, effort, and some resiliency to accept the reality of our chaotic world. The rewards of radical acceptance, however, far outweigh the struggles on the journey to get there. By letting go of what should be, we inherently become more connected to what is. And when we are connected to what is, we can become more of who we can be. With that growth in spirit, we can not only find true peace with the world around us, but also in ourselves.

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