Recently, I am noticing a lot of podcasts, blogs, articles, videos, and emails about loneliness. Many say it is a result of the pandemic’s forced isolation. Some are even referring to it as the ‘loneliness pandemic.’ Yes, studies have shown a decrease in mental health over the past year or more. However, in a culture that is absorbed with the go-go-go lifestyle, we weren’t necessarily healthy before the pandemic. Over 70 percent of the population is overweight and of that 70 percent over 40 percent are considered obese. And we all know the increased health risks of being overweight. The CDC statistics indicate being overweight is related to type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and even death.
On the flip side, I cannot argue that we as humans are social animals. And as a social species, we are neurobiologically wired to be with each other. When we are not allowed to be with each other, it disrupts our nervous system—just like a horse freaks out when he or she is isolated from the herd. As a result of our forced isolation, many are experiencing increased anxiety and depression. When we are not allowed to be a part of something, we feel lack and deprivation. But even though we are experiencing this pandemic of loneliness, many feel they don’t belong anywhere. In the absence of belonging there is always suffering. I know for me, I have experienced some suffering around belonging in my life but never around loneliness. I wonder if people take the time to contemplate the difference between being alone and being lonely. I also wonder, “If people don’t feel they belong then where do they go to not feel lonely anymore?”
Research professor, Brene Brown, spent a year examining what people who have a strong sense of true belonging have in common. Brown’s research showed that the idea of belonging turned out to be an ideological bunker. Her research found that we aren't really, deeply connected to each other, we just hate the same people! This commonality doesn’t mean squat when it comes to belonging because it doesn’t mean that you can count on those people when you really, truly need something.
This commonality does not mean that you will show up for me when my horse is colicing and I need someone to be there for me and help me in a time of need. It’s not a real connection. It is not a super meaningful, deep connection. And that is why we continue to feel lonely—and loneliness is serious stuff. Professor John Cacioppo studied the effects and causes of loneliness for over 20 years and he discovered just how primal loneliness is for a social species. When we are hungry, our body says we are in danger if we don’t eat. Thirst means you are in actual physical danger if you don’t hydrate. Pain says there is tissue damage somewhere and that you need to heal. And loneliness says you need a social connection or you are in trouble. His research suggested that ‘not lonely’ is like ‘not thirsty’ or ‘not in pain’ and part of a “normal” state. Health and well-being require us to be satisfied and secure in our bonds with other people. The condition of not being lonely is called social connection. Research shows that when we can’t fill this void with human connection animals are the next best thing!
Science considers loneliness a social pain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows us that the emotional region of the brain that is activated when we experience rejection or social isolation is the same region of the brain that registers emotional responses to physical pain. That’s fascinating, right? Also, loneliness is a greater predictor of early death than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Therefore, loneliness kills. It is a huge predictor of mental health, physical health, and early death issues. And yet, we are more disconnected than we have ever been, and not just because of the pandemic. We are lonely in a technologically connected world. And as a result, I believe we are depressed and we choose to numb out on things like social media, Netflix, pharmaceuticals, and junk food, instead of doing the inner work that allows us to walk through the pain of isolation and come out the other side so that we can have even better connections and relationships.
But here is the deal … loneliness is a subjective experience. When I reached out to several of my horsey friends over the past year, most of them told me not much changed in their lives because they continued to ride and had their life with horses—none of that changed. Us horse lovers could still be outside and ride together. Not only were we able to continue our social connections at the barn, we still had a connection with our horses. I would venture to say that people who are suffering from loneliness do not have a horse.
Spiritual teacher and author, Eckhart Tolle, taught that learning to be with yourself and at ease with yourself along with loneliness can be a great thing when it is transformed into acceptance. The acceptance of solitude arises when you accept aloneness and become completely present. On the deepest soul level, Tolle teaches that we don’t need others because our true selves are complete and whole all by ourselves. And even though the human part of us craves socialization, it is the essence of our inner being that accepts aloneness. We have to be okay with being alone with ourselves before we can be okay with someone else. He teaches that it all comes back to being in the present moment. The only place we can find what we are seeking is within ourselves in the present moment. And in that present moment, it doesn’t matter where you are or who you are with.
So what does this have to do with horses? Well, we know that horses bring us into the present moment and I believe horses save us on so many levels. Horses have the power to make sorrow beautiful and make loneliness a shared, lived experience. Horses have the ability to transform despair into hope. They help give our pain and most gut-wrenching emotions validity and acceptance that is recognized and shared on our soul level. The magic of horses is the ability to absorb our pain and deliver us from it. I never feel alone when I am with my horses because being with horses is where I belong. Talking about loneliness has brought us full circle back to the subject of belonging. And belonging is not something I have ever had to negotiate with my horses. But, it is something I have to earn to belong to my herd. And as a result, it is something I cherish and carry in my heart. I find the highest level of belonging in the herd as sacred and something bigger than myself—this is the true essence of being with horses.
Of course, the human part of me longs to be a part of a like-minded, hearted, and spirited community of horse enthusiasts like me. But I still have to stand alone. The choice of trying to fit in over the choice of belonging to myself is far more painful than being alone with my horses. It seems like every poet, theologian and writer talks about navigating the wilderness as the lone journey. But I don’t have to navigate the horse, I become the horse. I am the horse. The horse gives me the strength to stand on my own. I find joy, inner peace, and the truth of what’s between us—the interconnectedness of our unspoken souls and exchange of energy. As a social species, I need horses, nature, and as a crazy cat lady too, I also need my cats. They allow me to find the humanity in myself and others. That is a relationship. That is connection. And that is the horse as teacher. I am never lonely with my animals. Maybe I am alone but I feel alive and accepted when I am with my horses.
I believe this is because I embody my practice with horses. I revere their time and space when I am in their presence. When you truly embody something that is at the core of your inner being, that is when real acceptance can begin. When we have a daily practice of embodiment that we show up to every day, there exists a stage of growth where we are confronted by unprocessed grief, unresolved pain, lingering judgments, orbiting desperation, and insatiable hunger that has kept our conditioning active and in-tact. This stage is referred to as loneliness. We experience the deep inner cry of existential separation from Source that begs us to know its true nature as the One eternal light of all. While it can be daunting to feel and overwhelming to process, loneliness acts as an unsuspecting opportunity to step across the threshold of our most self-defeating patterns, as we enter a new domain of rebirth, inspiration, clarity, strength, and joy. And horses can help carry us through this process!
From the space of embodiment, we are fueled by our light and able to engage in the intimacy of heart-centered relationships. We can do this without giving away our power or needing life to always be one way versus another. This is the heart and soul of true liberation from loneliness. And, liberation from loneliness is a work in progress and it is challenging. It takes courage just like it takes courage for me to stand alone in my truth and share my message when I know I will be judged and criticized—even by my close horse friends. But, the reason why horses are so important to my health and journey to wholeness and my life with horses is that they give me the confidence to stand alone and find the beauty and value in the message I am called to share with the world. So, I challenge you to stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong and that you’re lonely and start looking towards your horse’s wisdom that tells you “you are enough and you are not alone.” And until next time, embrace the truth of your inner horse crazy and more importantly enjoy your horse!
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