Mundane & Sacred Psychotherapy by Linda Shannon
When asked, what is the greatest achievement possible, the mythologist Joseph Campbell answered “Follow your bliss”. Thus begins the hero’s journey. Following your bliss should be easy enough, but there’s a catch: first you have to descend into Hades (your own personal hell) where, if you slay the demons of the unconscious mind found there, you can begin the journey into the Heaven of clear consciousness and blissful awakening.
Each one of us has the ability, deep down inside, to follow our bliss, even though the path includes that difficult descent into Hades. It’s scary to encounter the broken places within yourself and to recover all the lost aspects of your soul. Far more attractive is the attainment of your life’s greatest dreams—but you can’t have one without the other.
I’ve experienced this in my own life. Beginning the journey toward fulfilling my life’s great dream forced me to enter (with great fear) a “dark night” of my own soul. Every part of me was challenged and I had no compass to guide me. What sustained me was a consuming desire to live my life as if I were being asked to fulfill my dreams for the God that lives within me.
I want to believe that my dream is God’s dream. I want to believe that I can manifest my personal destiny, acting as an authentic and empowered co-creator with God. I thought, if this is true, then the hero’s willing descent into Hades is well worth the effort. Part of that painful descent for me was the terrible aloneness I felt. But, as I reflect back, I realize I wasn’t alone. All along I had guidance and direction. I had the support of my partners. I had my horses.
The Journey I still remember the day when a thought came to me that grew into the desire to fulfill a dream. I was driving to work in the early fall of 1997. Leaves were beginning to fall from the trees and the air was cold and misty. The low-lying fog settled on the ground like a cool, cloudy blanket. I noticed the change in the weather for a brief moment and then I went into my thoughts. I remember thinking about my life and my relationships with other people. I thought about my new private practice and about different models of treatment. I thought about finding a way to use horses in mental health treatment. I thought about my work at the state hospital. I thought about some things I needed to do. Wait a minute, go back to the thought about horses in mental health treatment. What was that?
Hmmm, using horses in mental health! I flashed to thinking about my beloved mare, Bidder, and her new daughter, Sissy, born on my own birthday. I thought about adolescent at-risk girls, engaged in dangerous behaviors to “fit in”. I thought about developing a program in which young people could work together to learn pro-social values to be empowered in life. I thought about adults who feel lost and hopeless, and how animals restore a sense of connection. I thought about the nexus between my relationship with horses and my own spiritual values, and how a similar relationship might bring others into wholeness with themselves.
This thought sequence took place nearly six years ago, became my dream, and I have been working at it ever since. It is important for me to use horses in mental health work because it truly is my bliss. I love the animals. I stand amazed as I observe the wisdom of these wonderful creatures. And, since having the experience of doing the work, I marvel at the ways they engage clients. I experience joy and gratitude watching clients grow due to their relationship with the horse.
In all honesty though, I was driven to do this work long before the thought came to me that crisp fall day.
My Allies There have been three great and wonderful beings in my life that have helped me to heal from my own wounding and trauma as a survivor of childhood abuse. One of them is my grandfather, John Shannon.
Grandpa and I had a special bond based on a common admiration for horses. Growing up, grandpa and I connected as we trained my childhood horse together. We would talk and dream of one day having our own horse ranch devoted to the American Quarter Horse breed. This connection and dream stayed with me into adulthood.
Grandpa helped to purchase the other important ally in my life. He helped me to buy my beloved mare Bidder. When Bidder came into my life, I had been out of horses for about 16 years. There was a lot I’d forgotten and a lot more I’d never known about them in the first place.
Bidder certainly had my number. When I worked with her she would rear up and buck, act crazy and do all sorts of other maneuvers so that I would put her back in the stall where she could relax and eat. She knew that I didn’t know much, and she worked it. What she didn’t know was that I would not give up and that I would eventually learn all I needed to be able to have a relationship with her.
I would talk to grandpa over the phone and he’d give me advice and encouragement to stay with her. Then I’d go to the barn and practice his advice. As we worked together, my love for her grew.
I developed a true reverence for Bidder. Reverence is the total and complete appreciation for a life form. No strings attached, just pure and precious unconditional love. It was from this love that I developed the tenacity to learn as much as I could about training and how to know my horse for who she is, not who I want her to be. In eight years we developed a relationship based upon respect and love. Bidder and I knew each other so well that all I had to do was think what I wanted and she would do it, even before I offered the cue.
In August of 2001 tragedy struck like a tornado, taking away my life and my love. Bidder died at Oregon State University Veterinary School due to the prolonged effects of colic. Her death brought up all the unresolved grief and loss from my childhood. When I lost Bidder, I lost myself. Nothing made sense or had meaning. Nothing mattered. I did not care about the program, my work, or my dream. I wanted to give up and I wanted to die. And I did, a part of me did die.
For awhile, I lived life from a place of disconnection, lost and alone. Then one day something changed. It seems now like it happened out of nowhere, for I cannot recall the moment when the mythical black horse of the god Hades sojourned down into the depths of my despair to bring me back up into the light. It was my very own black beauty, the daughter of my love who chose to descend into darkness to save my soul. I looked upon her face and knew that Bidder continued to live through her. Sissy’s very own wisdom and love for me brought me back to life.
Mundane and Sacred Psychotherapy I work at the State Hospital with the “severe and persistent” mentally ill, and have done so for 11 years now. This decision of mine to pursue a career working with the mentally ill flows directly from personal experience living with a mentally ill caretaker while growing up. I figured, if I could understand mental illness by working in the field, I might come to understand the abuse and dysfunction of my own family history. I might even be able to help others going through the same things that I once endured.
In the course of this work, I came to recognize that “treatment” in traditional settings can be limiting, even though it has a proven value. Traditional models operate from a reductionist paradigm in which illness is viewed as a mechanical dysfunction of our body. In this system, the “cure” is found by removing the dysfunction—through medications or surgery. In other words, the current medical model of treatment seeks to separate out the dysfunction without looking at other important parts of the whole.
My problem with this approach is that I do not view human beings as a simple collection of separate parts, like a machine. We are whole people and true healing requires a “holistic” approach. There are biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual aspects of our being, and each part functions in relationship with all the other parts. I believe that, where pathology is present, true healing can only take place when all these elements are addressed.
As I became confirmed in these views of psychotherapy, I decided to begin my own private practice, seeking to combine the proven benefits of the traditional model with creative application of this holistic understanding of our human predicament. I wanted to draw upon each as needed, to truly assist in the healing process. It was in the fall of that same year that the thought of using horses as tools in treatment came to me.
For the next two years, I researched the use of horses in mental health, finding very little. Finally, in 1999, I began to use horses with several private practice clients as I developed my own program. It was then that I found out about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning through an organization called Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). I became a member immediately, and a Level 1 EAP certified practitioner. Most of my current program is based upon the interventions developed by EAGALA.
For me, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning combines the best of both worlds of mundane and sacred psychotherapy. It is not about learning horsemanship skills or how to ride. It is about transforming limiting behaviors and beliefs into expanding awareness, with opportunities to make different choices in life.
Each session is successive as you gain skills and knowledge about yourself and how to develop a relationship. Over the course of two or three months you move from fear and uncertainty to a place of self-confidence and self-assertion. You are able to recognize that setting boundaries does not mean losing the love of the other. Quite the opposite. By setting boundaries and being assertive you immediately experience how the horse has more respect for you.
Work with horses is what I call “insight driven”—you are able to see your limiting behaviors, in the present moment, and choose to change them for better results. Because the horse is present and intuitive, she helps you by mirroring the deep unconscious feeling states that you’d really rather not look at. And for the same reason, once you are willing to look deep inside and change the negativity found there, the horse immediately becomes a more willing and loving partner.
The work is also “sensory-based” in that you can identify those thoughts and feelings that produce fear and anxiety, and locate them in the body. When the feeling is located and identified, you can choose to learn a new feeling—for example, confidence—which enhances the experience of empowerment, giving a sense of peace and accomplishment. When such a change occurs and you become more focused, the energy of the relationship is enhanced and a unity of being emerges. Horse and human communicate with mind and body. The outcome is a dynamic ability to move to a new level of wholeness, in which intuition is present.
When intuition is present the work becomes a sacred dance—a dance between human and horse in tune with the rhythm of nature. There is no separation. What is present is a partnership developed through respect, dignity, communication and a willingness to be present with another sentient being. In this place the experience of what I can only describe as “magic” in the relationship occurs. And gratefully, the dynamics of the healing relationship that develops between horse and human are directly transferrable to other relationships within the client’s life.
This has been and continues to be an amazing journey. What began as a thought became a dream and then a reality. The barn and the arena are my office, the trees and creek my decor. The horse is my co-therapist. Working together as a team, horse and therapist assist the client to draw upon their innate wholeness, and in this journey I find the most important values: of hope, of peace and most certainly of love—not only for the horse, but for those who come seeking a connection back to themselves.
Linda L. Shannon LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker with 18 years experience in agency and private practice settings. For more information on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning (EAPL) she can be reached at (503) 373-4908.