My wonderful dressage trainer, Lisa Copeland, a Grand Prix rider, asked me to induce a canter, but without such big aids. “Turn on your horse ESP,” she suggested, her voice becoming a magical whisper on the final three letters, suggesting extremely delicate aids. I had already reduced my aids to what seemed like disappearing fineness, so on the next try, I knew I needed to transcend my whole approach. I had to somehow dissolve my conscious prompts entirely and allow the aids to originate somewhere from within, to become a mere swish within my dreamy unconscious mind. In a full trot, I softened my eyes and drifted into silence upon summoning my will, and, to my astonishment, Odin, a giant Danish warmblood, glided elegantly into a canter.
I do not know how I moved my body. My awareness melted, my sight de-focused into peripheral vision, and my skin boundaries seemed to deliquesce into an amorphous feeling that expanded into silence, allowing its center to move to a new place. I felt sensations of gathering and expanding around this moving center, but lost all sense of where I was in space. I was in motion with the horse, and this new balance point could have been anywhere within the horse and me.
“Good riding, Robert!” I heard Lisa shout, her voice drifting into my mind as if into an echo chamber. I came to, hearing Odin’s hooves pounding with new rhythmic energy. He clearly loved this shared intimacy.
Whether in riding, creating, performing, designing, excellence requires a balance between the conscious and unconscious. And nowhere is this truer than riding a horse, where your horse gives you immediate feedback for the whole of you, not just your conscious thoughts. With such feedback, riding allows you to practise tuning yourself, guiding yourself into special states where conscious and unconscious processes interact in new and different ways.
Over the last thirty years, researchers in neuroscience have opened an intriguing view of unconscious and conscious processes. They tell us that both serve different needs and have different capacities, and we do much better when we align the task to the proper capacity. David Brooks, a NY Times columnist, who in summarizing research in neuroscience, wrote about the conscious and unconscious processes in a well-documented book, The Social Animal:
In the first place, conscious processes are nestled upon the unconscious ones. It is nonsensical to talk about rational thought without unconscious thought because Level 2 [conscious mind] receives its input and its goals and its directional signals from Level 1 [unconscious mind]. The two systems have to intertwine if a person is going to thrive. Furthermore, the unconscious is just more powerful than the conscious mind. Level 1 has vast, implicit memory systems it can draw upon, whereas Level 2 relies heavily upon the working memory system, the bits of information that are consciously in mind at any given moment. The unconscious consists of many different modules, each with its own function, whereas the conscious mind is just one module. Level 1 has much higher processing capacity. Measured at its highest potential, the conscious mind still has a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker than the unconscious. [This measurement comes from studies described in The New Unconscious, Oxford University Press, 2005]
As these observations suggest, we need to allow the unconscious to respond freely, because excellence requires too many subtleties that simply cannot be handled by the conscious mind. But too often we force ourselves through the tiny sieve of our conscious minds, reducing our capacity for depth and subtlety—much like reducing my aids to verbal commands playing in my mind: Sit deep in the saddle; move the inside leg forward; move the outside leg backward; and so on. To ride well, we need far richer communication than is possible from this slender conscious flow, one that springs richly from the unconscious, a well with thousands of tributaries. In doing so, however, we cannot track our efforts consciously: We need to trust our unconscious and allow ourselves to disappear into the richness. Cultivating this ability in riding is a perfect metaphor for other endeavors.
Riding, however, offers another dimension: We not only have to balance our own conscious and unconscious, but also integrate our movements with our horse’s, sustaining a perceptual dance that is nearly imperceptible, yet powerful in influencing the outcome. In a complex feedback system, our own movements affect our unconscious, which further affects our movements, which further affects our horse, who sends complex signals back —all in continuous feeds from one to the other. To allow a smooth flow through these feedback loops, we have to make fine distinctions about how we stimulate our own attitudes with our own movements: Otherwise, they can interfere. Brooks again points out distinctions about how the body integrates with the unconscious:
If you want to get a sense of the difficult tasks the unconscious performs day to day, start with some of the most basic. The unconscious monitors where your body parts are at any moment through a sixth sense called proprioception. The physician Jonathan Cole documented the case of Ian Waterman, who suffered nerve damage and lost parts of this unconscious sense. Through a process of painstaking work over many years, Waterman was able to use conscious thinking to monitor his body. He laboriously taught himself to walk again, to get dressed, and even to drive a car. The problem came when he was standing in the kitchen one night and there was a power outage. He could not see where his limbs were and hence could not control them. He collapsed to the floor into a tangle of body parts.
The unconscious ability to converse with the sensations of the body is not trivial. The body delivers messages that are an integral part of thinking, in all sorts of strange ways. If you read people an argument while you ask them to move their arms in a “pushing away” direction, they will be more hostile to the argument than if you read it to them while they are making a “pulling in” movement. A brain could not work if it was just sitting in a jar somewhere, cut off from motor functions.
The unconscious is also capable of performing incredibly complex tasks without any conscious assistance. It takes conscious attention to learn to drive, but once the task is mastered, the knowledge gets sent down to the unconscious, and it becomes possible to drive for miles and miles while listening to the radio and talking to a passenger and sipping coffee without consciously attending to the road.
Milton Erickson, a noted psychiatrist, observed that the unconscious protects the conscious. This would mean that, when the conscious mind takes on learning a task, the unconscious will protect that investment, allowing learning to occur at the beginning, a learning that will eventually pass into the unconscious—an observation that makes sense in terms of evolution. But perhaps because of this distinction, the conscious can interfere with excellence. As Brooks comments:
The unconscious is responsible for peak performance. When a beginner learns a task, there is a vast sprawl of brain activity. When an expert does it unconsciously, there is just a little pulse. The expert is performing better by thinking less. When she’s at the top of her game, the automatic centers of her brain are controlling her movements. The sportscasters would say she’s “unconscious.” If she were to think more about how to swing her golf club or sing her aria, she would do worse. She would, as Jonah Lehrer observes, be “choking on thought.”
With freer responses of the unconscious, released from protecting the conscious, it is also possible to take in many more distinctions—for instance, tiny distinctions about a horse’s movements, mood, attention, balance—all outside of awareness. With many more distinctions about the external world, more precise responses become possible. Brooks further illustrates this kind of unconscious perception and how subtle it can be:
Then there is perception. As it absorbs data, the unconscious simultaneously interprets, organizes, and creates a preliminary understanding. It puts every discrete piece of information in context. Blindsight is one of the most dramatic illustrations of unconscious perceptions. People who have suffered damage to the visual areas of the brain, usually as the result of strokes, cannot consciously see. But Beatrice de Gelder of Tilburg University asked a man with this damage to walk down a cluttered hallway. He deftly zigzagged down the hall, navigating around the obstacles to get to the other end. When scientists flash cards with shapes on them to other sufferers of this “blindness,” they guess the shapes on the card with impressive accuracy. The unconscious proceeds when conscious sight is gone.
These perceptual skills can be astonishingly subtle. Many chicken farms employ professional chicken sexers. They look at newly hatched chicks and tell whether the chicks are male or female, even though, to the untrained eye, the chicks all look the same. Experienced sexers can look at eight hundred to one thousand chicks an hour and determine their gender with 99 percent accuracy. How do they figure it out? They couldn’t tell you. There is just something different about the males and females, and they know it when they see it.
Studies of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, meanwhile, suggest that some soldiers are much better than others at scanning a scene and detecting tiny clues—an out-of-place rock, an odd-looking pile of garbage—where there might be a roadside bomb in the area. Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney does not understand how he knew that a certain car contained a bomb and decided to take evasive action that saved his life. “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling,” he told Benedict Cary of The New York Times.
Each time I mount Odin or Luxy Boy, I wonder where I will put my attention, the conscious stream. I wonder how I will allow the larger me, the unconscious streams, to respond freely, bringing required subtleties into play. I wonder what new states of mind I might discover and cultivate with Odin or Luxy Boy. I wonder how our relationships will deepen, how their responses will mark new distinctions in my own mind. And during it all, I feel the privilege of exploring excellence, allowing new learnings to spill over into other endeavors.