Suzuki Roshi once said about questioning our life, our purpose, “It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse by itself is hard enough. Why add another horse? Then it’s impossible.”
While this quote is usually placed within the context of questioning oneself, I’ve found it useful when expanded out to anything that is already “hard enough” all on its own.
Being in a space where depression, grief, anger, even mania, is in control of my moments is “hard enough.” Depression is already like being a bubble, separated from everyone else. Grief feels like being buried alive, unable to breathe. Anger is being consumed by flames from the inside. Mania is a sharp knife that turns from carving stone to self-injury without notice.
Breaking through any one of those requires everything of us. And sometimes more.
So anything I add on top of those realities makes the thing that is already hard enough damn near impossible.
The cycle can look like this:
Something triggers the voice in my head that tells me I’m worthless. Maybe it’s a minor mistake I’ve made. Maybe it’s a major existential crisis. Maybe it’s a certain smell or sound… Triggers happen.
How I respond to that trigger will either start to corral horses and stage them for stacking — or it won’t.
I’m either going to let that trigger run the path of least resistance – the canyon it has spent decades carving through my psyche – or I’m going to disrupt that path. If I don’t disrupt it, it will often look like this:
You’re right, Voice. I am worthless.
Boom. I’m now on the horse of worthlessness. I agreed with the voice and, in so doing, I consented to go on the rest of this journey. I had zero choice when that voice was first implanted into my memory, nor could I stop it when it was a phrase actively used against me when I was a child. But now. Now the voice is entirely in my head. Which means I can decide exactly what to say back to it. And sometimes I forget all of that and end up thinking that the voice is the Truth.
For whatever reason (I’m tired, it’s easier, I’m really disappointed, some body in space is in retrograde… whatever), I’m now on that horse. The horse of worthlessness is a slow ride through the dark woods to the edge of the pit of despair. Riding that horse is difficult enough. But it doesn’t stop there.
The next thing that will happen is that I’ll decide to stay in bed. It won’t feel like a decision. It will feel like gravity has become thick and I cannot push against it. I’ll call off on work. Now there’s a new horse. The horse of failure. And in a blink, I’m worried about where I’m heading and what will happen with my job since I’m a worthless failure. Now I’m on the top of three stacked horses: feeling worthless, being a failure, fear of what comes next.
Whew. At some point, I’ll realize that I’m on way too many horses. No wonder I can’t get my feet solidly beneath me on the ground. It’s going to take some effort to get back down to earth again.
Over time, I’ve learned some of the ways that help me unstack the horses and find my footing. It helps to have an assortment of strategies to choose from. Stacked horses do not all respond to the same methods for unstacking. Having the list gives me a few options. Grouping the strategies makes it easier to pick something that fits where I am and what might be most useful. This isn’t a checklist to go through and complete each item. It’s a choose your own adventure.
I offer my list as an example only. It isn’t meant to be prescriptive. This tool has been an evolution of what has actually been helpful to me over the years. When something helps, I add it to the Unstack Horses list. When an action has been harmful, it goes on the DON’T list. When it’s proven crucial, it goes on the DO list. No judgment, no preaching, no guilt. Only an honest reflection on actions and results.
For when I want to go deeper into the experience to get through it (rather than around it). Particularly good when I’m not too many horses high.
- Write. 750 words. Doesn’t matter what. Just keep typing.
- Listen to music and be fully present. Either to go over, under, or around. Select wisely.
Do Something Physical
When I need out of my head. Really helpful for breaking vicious loops (of either thoughts or behavior).
- Grab the camera. Go outside.
- Clean something
- Organize something
- Go for a drive (remember to bring music)
- Get my hands in some soil
- Take a hike
Often used throughout the process of unstacking. Great as a starting point, touchpoint, and dismounting point.
- Burn incense
- Take a bath
- Make some tea
- Do an easy yoga routine
- Sound meditation/therapy
Similar to #2 but requires less effort. Good for when I’m not feeling well enough to be physically active or engaged yet. Important to make sure a diversion doesn’t fall into the non-negotiable DON’T list.
- Help someone else
- Read. Just take 20 minutes and read a book.
- Color. On paper, not via the computer.
- Listen to a podcast.
- Watch a video.
The next step beyond the non-negotiable DO list. Similar to Ground but perhaps a step removed from the spiritual and closer to the practical.
- Cook a good meal
- Eat cultured food
- Lie prone or 90/90
- Take a nap (careful with this one)
Next installment, we’ll look at Section Three: How are you, really?
In the meantime, take good care of yourself.
Disclaimer: If you are feeling suicidal, thinking about hurting yourself, or are concerned that someone you know may be in danger of hurting themself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by certified crisis response professionals.
My degree is in creative writing. I’m not a psychologist, therapist, guru, coach, or expert. These thoughts are thin filaments meant to share some things that help me through the hellish times. That’s it. Please make sure you have the support system you need to get you through wherever you are in your own journey.