The Still Surface of the Lake by Hans-Michael Schoebinger

The Still Surface of the Lake

by Hans-Michael Schoebinger


I hang up and continue to look grim. Then, exhaling reluctantly, put the phone back into the side pocket of my riding trousers, disturbing my horse in the process due to my involuntarily pulling on the reins. Only then, with another exhale of utter complaint, I relate the breaking news to my friends on horseback who had gathered round me: “Guess what he told me! He is not going to come with us!”

“What?! We are only going there because of him!”
“Yep. That really pisses me off.”

A couple more minutes of typical prolonging and broadening such communication on horseback then leave everybody emotionally detached from their horse, as a minimum. 

Yet even if we come up with a seemingly more positive example – “O what a wonderful vacation we had! You should have seen this! The colors of those wildflowers…” – we are still not with the horse, but with the wildflowers of our imagination. 

Then, among the worst of distractions, there is the lonesome chatter. After all these annoying meetings at the office, hating the boss and most of your co-workers accompanies you all the way from the workplace onto horseback, where you will intensely discuss with yourself what to do next and what not to do next and vividly recall all the horrors of your daily life in “a nonstop, chaotic jumble of emotions, memories, fantasies and worried anticipations” .

Rushing from one electrifying thought to the next, caught between wanting this and detesting that, it becomes very hard to listen. The sheer volume of your inner chatter drowns out the more subtle messages. What’s more, with no space between one thought and the next, one emotion and the other, there is simply no time for any of this fragile information to make it through to you, either.

This matters a lot with horses, because they usually send subtle messages. At least, at first they do. If nobody listens, they will then be more than willing to escalate matters. Thus, if you catch the subtle message and respond accordingly, there is no need to escalate.

So, ideally your horse friendly mind would catch the most delicate of messages and relay it to you without interference, as if reflected from the still surface of a lake. This picture, coming from Zen-Buddhism , points out that the tiniest of ripples on the lake will have the reflection of things get distorted, whereas a still surface would reflect things exactly as they are.

Seeing things as they are also comes in handy, when we want to appropriately respond to the behavior of our horse. Many times, we tend to emotionally judge her behavior and by doing so end up with wrong conclusions, about what is going on. “Every thought has a propellant, and that propellant is emotional”, Akincano Marc Weber cautions . And if we allow that fuel to propel the rocket of our minds, the usual stories develop unchecked: “She doesn’t want to move, because she is pissed at me, because I had to straighten her out last Sunday”.

In reality there is the fact that she doesn’t move. Because this fact annoys us, it is then emotionally ornamented as her being pissed, whereby the reasons for that are, again, propelled emotionally and portrayed as stemming from the horse’s being resentful due to us having her, and rightfully so – still more emotion – straightened out a week ago. Dammit.

As you can see, pretty soon we are facing a sheer impenetrable web of emotional and mental bad vibes, that is hard to escape, once we have allowed it to build up and encircle us. And before we know it, we will have to straighten her out again! Dammit.

So how to free ourselves from this entanglement? Of course by ridding ourselves of the deluded mind and cultivating one as still as the surface of that Zen lake.

As it turns out, that is much easier said than done, at least it has been for me. To this day I still cannot claim mastership in this discipline, actually nowhere near. Yet, over time my horses have let me know that they have noticed sizable progress.

I started out, after I had read about the advantages of a still mind for martial arts. All authors recommended mediation in this regard so here I went. It sounded pretty easy and straight forward: for beginners, you would just sit there, doing nothing but observing your breath. Yet despite my introducing and following a rigorous thirty-minute-early-morning-every-day schedule it did not work too well for the first few months, or so I thought.

It was frustrating to notice that as soon as I would sit and follow my breathing I would shift to another inner agenda and lose any focus on my breath within seconds or half a minute at best. Things changed when Pema Chödrön via her excellent book “How to Meditate” relayed to me that this is exactly the way things are supposed to be: “The path of meditation is not a linear process. One day there may only be these little blurps of thought that don’t distract you at all, and you think, ‘I’m really getting the hang of this! I feel so alive, so present.’ Then the next thing you know, you sit down and bam! — you’re completely gone in a fantasy until the gong rings, and you get so frustrated (…) Gentleness (with yourself), patience, and a sense of humor” is Chödrön’s recipe to fruitfully integrate these irritating moments into your practice.

And I have to admit, that the other moments feel just great! There is deep peace and relaxation as soon as your inner TV-screen stops flickering and makes place for nothing. Peace. Quiet. Being. Exhale.

These exercises translate very well onto horseback. One of our mares sometimes undergoes episodes of rather high energy. During one of these, two weeks ago, we had a marvelous ride. Afterwards my wife asked me, whether she had wanted to bolt. I said “Sure she did.” In fact, I remembered, that as we had ridden up that gentle slope, she had very subtly asked me, whether she should. Whereupon my mind, at this time at least calm enough to get her signal more subconsciously than knowingly, had simply answered “No, thanks.”

To progressively calm the surface of your lake:
Meditate. If you hate it, try again. If you still cannot make it, trick yourself into meditating without you noticing that you are: As soon as you are waiting for something, be it the red light at your favorite crossing turning green or that clerk way too slowly slicing up the executive chef turkey breast, observe your thoughts and feelings. As splendidly recommended by Tsoknyi Rinpoche , become the doorman of their luxury hotel: Welcome each thought and each feeling, open the door for them, appreciate their appearance, be it beautiful, forceful or demanding reverence. Get them a porter for their heavy luggage and let them go down the hallway, to the reception, then the elevator. Let the elevator door close graciously behind them. But never follow them into the bathroom.


Develop your own schedule of mediation but once developed, stick to it for a couple of weeks to see how it goes. Only then make adjustments. For instance, I found that half an hour is not really an absolute must for me. So, I enjoy half an hour or forty-five minutes only if I find time, usually on weekend mornings. During the week five or ten minutes might be just fine for you as well.

Identify whether it is really necessary to make that phone call, while sitting on your horse. Most of the time, it will neither provide you with important information nor lead to great insights, but rather leave you “feeling rattled and even a little motion sick” .

The following is a tough one, especially if you have your horses boarded in a barn, where lots of folks get together, but here it is: Avoid gossiping. Gossiping will only serve to nourish the worst in you. Every slander that you remember or, worse, cultivate, by re-telling it to your friends, will leave you more agitated by means of its foul smell inspiring mind-propelling emotions like envy, suspicion, anger or rage. Keep it with Mahatma Gandhi, when he declared: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

Watch out, for it is very easy to get caught up in the deluded mind. For instance, even the somewhat eye-catching way of my starting the last sentence – “Watch out” – turns out to be not only eye-catching, but mind-catching, too. For as soon as you hear “Watch out”, there is this inkling towards looking over your shoulder and fearfully going “Where? Where?”. At that point you are close to having been caught already. “But if you observe those feelings mindfully (…), you can in some measure escape (their) control” , Robert Wright advises for those situations and I can only agree.

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