Addressing Stress in Equine-Guided Activities

By Pat Rothchild

Stress is ubiquitous in the human population these days. In the west, a little more than half of us are currently reeling from elections in which hard-right conservatives prevailed in a big way on two continents. Pressing environmental, social and economic concerns arise with this shift that will likely impact our equine co-facilitators, our clients and ourselves. Life will apparently be taking a backseat to concerns around Dominion issues on the policy front. This is likely to spill into other sectors.

Why these changes are relevant to our work is that change causes stress. When change impacts our perception of our survival chances, our stress levels tend to escalate exponentially. Lots of people in the States are processing these changes as potentially life-threatening in the not-to-distant future. This shifts up the context of our work.

Recently, whole herds of horses have been showing up in my dreamscapes. The sense I get is that they’re asking us to help them tend to the stress levels of the clients we bring them, or perhaps they’re preparing for what may be to come. They’re not shying away from the work, in fact they seem eager to step into it. They’re asking, it seems, for more help with the stress humans are dumping now. At least that’s how I interpret the action in their nightly visits recently.

One of the big changes I made when I traded in my office-based practice for a critter-nature-based one was to shift my relationships with the animals, who had been my pets. The dogs became, in my mind and I believe theirs, my teachers and co-facilitators. They functioned as partners rather than as tools. It took a minute, but I made the same shift with horses when I finally migrated back to them. I got to behold the power, efficiency and exquisite gentleness of their healing teachings as they were applied to me, and those I presented for healing and learning.

Horses, dogs and cats have studied us at least as much as we’ve studied them, in their own ways. They’ve learned a lot. One of the skills that all these species appear to have developed is consciousness links with us and each other. We have too, but most of us seem to have forgotten. Our bodies remember when we line ourselves up correctly to experience it. It feels great.

Mindfulness is a door through which these links manifest. When we’re in the state of Mindfulness, our brains are firing on all cylinders. The whole brain lights up. In our default settings, only those portions that are currently on task are lit. Being lit connotes that electrical current is moving through the brain, which is how mammalian nervous systems relay information and energy.

When our whole brain is engaged, we’re faster and more efficient in how we process information. This promotes neurogenesis. New crops of neurons move into compromised neuronal neighborhoods to make work-arounds for glitches. Chronic and episodic stress is a magnificent glitch generator for our neuronal nets – and those of our critter friends. Our stressed-out clients need to jump-start their neurogenesis. When our critters get stressed by working with people or Life, they need that too, as do we. Working with stress is stressful.

Mindfulness play

Before and after we and our horses work with clients, we can take optimal care of the resultant stress by engaging in mindfulness play together. This serves several functions. First, it links us to the horses we’re working with in a way that they know how to work with. It’s far easier for us to pick up our co-facilitators’ signals accurately when we’re in a Mindful neurological pattern. It’s an energetic boost to just hang out with horses in that frame of mind without an agenda for us and them. They seem to be able to feel us getting it, which empowers them. They love it when we manage to line ourselves up to receive their communications. We do too, but these skills have laid dormant in most humans for generations, because culturally, they’re not reinforced. We often need a bit of structured help to remember how it’s done.

It’s simple and complex simultaneously. There are a lot of ways to send one’s neuronal net into a Mindfulness pattern. What works best for me and those I work with when we’re engaging critters, is to simply focus on whatever catches our attention in the here and now. I’m partial to focusing on the miraculous facility horses’ muzzles have in locating delicacies in chaff. Intently watching horses browse and graze gets me there in about 5 seconds these days. A nano-second of purring cat will do it too. Everyone finds her or his own things to ride to Mindfulness on. The trick is that it needs to be happening right now where you are. This isn’t an experience that lends itself to digital replication, at least for now.

You don’t want to be staring at the horses, but rather, just softly holding them in your peripheral vision. Shifting one’s mind around helps too. Say I start out focusing on muzzle action, but some stray thought threatens my mindfulness, so I shift my attention to the scent on the breeze, how it feels on my cheeks, the depth of my breath…

Within moments, usually, energetic information packets begin to arrive. Sometimes they’re encrypted, as dreams often are. Other times, they shine through true and clear. Sometimes their effect is humbling, other times, empowering. It’s always enlivening. Unless we hit a glitch.

When we move into this mindful state, horses and other animals – including people – actively link, block, or move out of range. Horses have always opted to link, thus far when I’ve worked with them, though they do wait for me to fully prepare the client. Occasionally, I think we’re ready before the horses do, but I have learned that they’re better at gauging timing than me. There have also been times when they’ve come up and just taken over before I thought we were good to go. They were right then too.

Once we’ve practiced this frame-of-mind, our neuronal nets send in a construction crew to clear a path between the ordinary ways we use our minds and Mindfulness. It gets easier and faster to achieve each time we do it. It doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling, in part because it feels so good. Horses, dogs and cats all appear to respond immediately to humans when we’re in that mind frame.

They relax. That will look different, depending on the critter and the relationship we’ve established and what the client may be presenting. We don’t need to have worked for years establishing our relationships when we use this method. It appears to be a universal critter language. Like any new skill set, this benefits from practice.

When we look for them, the signs of a horse releasing tension are clear. It can manifest as a yawn, a roll and shake, a gallop, a tiny quiver, or a sigh. It’s there. Our human bodies also release angst as we connect like this. That can be trickier, especially when there’s a patina of anxiety occluding the receptor sites. This is frequently the case when stress has been allowed to build. Many people who are stressed will get anxious around playing with their consciousness this way. Their systems are already on high alert from stress, then we ask them to change their minds?! What??? NO!

These NOs can shapeshift fast, if there’s a stress-generated tangle in the neuronal net. This is becoming more common in “normal” populations.

Then there’s post-trauma stress…

However, a human in the midst of a PTSD triggering event doesn’t appear to have much in common with that very same person when they are not in the midst of a meltdown. I have frequently wondered if what I was seeing was a dissociative reaction, PTSD decompensation or a floridly psychotic episode when I have been called into emergent situations. They’re all scary to behold. Apparently, they’re equally, or more frightening, to their owners! Happily, in emergent moments, regardless of its etiology, Mindfulness is often enough to derail the crisis. When it’s not enough to resolve the situation entirely (and if there’s deeply seated psychopathology, it won’t be) it will at least get you and the client out of the pasture where you can engage other strategies.

When things go sideways on the psychological front, it can be disorienting for those who behold the situation unfolding. It seems like the observers get almost as whacked by this energy as the person who carries it. It’s powerfully disruptive for everyone involved, including any critters who may be in proximity. Keep in mind though, that as tough as this energy is to behold, it’s a lot harder to endure as its holder than its observer. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve borne witness to breakdowns, or their immediate aftermaths. It’s never easy.

There are ways to mitigate the damage this chaotic energy can wreak on its holder and those close to him or her. Mindfulness is what I‘ve gotten the most miles out of. I have a deeply engrained Mindfulness strategy that I have practiced since I was a child. It’s evolved over the decades. I can shift things up easily when the needs of the moment call for it. I think that I would probably have dissolved into a puddle of vicarious PTSD by now, if I hadn’t trained myself to do this. And, I doubt that my patients and clients would have progressed as quickly, or maintained the gains they made, had they not learned this skill too. This is a critical component.

PTSD mindfulness training

I start clients with mindfulness training. My clients don’t get to share space with critters until I’m satisfied that they’ve practiced enough to shift their consciousness at will in a variety of situations. This usually only takes a session or two; if the clients are motivated enough to practice between sessions. Mine generally are because they don’t get to play with the critters until they can. Until my clients get comfy with their Mindfulness linkage, we work on the far side of the horses’ gates. I also show clients how to share their breath with horses before they pass through the gate into the horses’ world.

Healing is a lot like painting walls and trim. When we do a great job prepping the walls and space, painting is a breeze. When we skimp on prep, the job can turn into a messy, ugly nightmare fast. Once clients get a feel for how to get themselves in and out of the Mindfulness zone, which I refer to as ‘the zone,’ and share greeting breaths with the horses, I’m almost ready to bring clients through the gate.

First, I want the client(s) to notice how the horses relate to one another. This can take longer, because, depending on the setting, sometimes the horses opt to stay out of clients’ lines of sight. This hasn’t happened often, but I’ve always found that the horses were right when they demure. It turns out that there’s something that the client(s) and I need to settle before they get to the horses. I’ve also never had a client that horses haven’t eventually been up for engaging with. When they say ‘No,’ I translate it into a pointed declaration directed at me, “You make them safe first!” Okay, that’s fair.

Working with other people’s horses

Once the client(s) and I enter the pasture, anything can happen. I take responsibility for keeping everybody safe. If I’m working with other people’s horses – whom I haven’t developed a close, personal relationship with yet – I make sure that there’s someone on site who has, and is willing to introduce me. We work with them together for a session or two, before I bring in the client, unless it’s her own horse. I’ve tried several protocols for this. What seems to work best for me is just to put in some time with the horses in a Mindful state. I work with their releases until I get a feel for how they build and release their stress. I also talk with their humans at length about their take on their horses.

I want the horses to have had at least one Mindfulness release with me before I bring a client into their world. And, I need them to know that I have limits both to my skill level and my health. I want them to get that I respect their skills and want their help. I also want at least a beginning of a feel for their styles, personalities, vulnerabilities and strength, and to show them mine. The reason we can cover this much ground quickly is the Mindfulness, I think.

Critters love it when we turn ourselves on to Mindfulness. I haven’t found an animal yet that it hasn’t worked with, including random ravens, deer, and a sick coyote once. They just gravitate to the energetics of Mindfulness. I don’t know why, but I have some guesses. The one I’m most fond of is that since humans are just another critter who happens to have an outsized frontal cortex and opposable thumbs, we, like them, have been communicating this way since we climbed out of the ocean, and maybe before.

Left hemisphere dominance

About ten-thousand-years ago, we humans took up agriculture. This allowed us to stay in one place and accumulate stuff for the first time. Literacy arose then across the globe, according to the late Dr. Leonard Shlain (a neurosurgeon and author of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess), who theorized that the neurological result of literacy was to shift our neuro-dominance from our right hemispheres to the left. The right human hemisphere deals with matters of relationship, while the left makes hierarchies, rules and order. We need them both to function optimally. We’re now way skewed to the left, neurologically speaking.

Shlain’s theory answers the question of why we humans appear to be going around the mental health bend now. Our species’ neuro-plasticity adapted to our having come in from the wild to engage in agriculture and the word by shifting are neuro-dominance from the right to the left hemisphere. This decreased our sensitivity to the relationships that comprise our worlds and shifted that energy to the left hemisphere, where hierarchies are formed.

With the advent of agriculture, we became literate. According to Dr. Shlain, literacy demanded left-hemisphere engagement as never before. This shift took so much energy that our capacity to comprehend and engage with our environments went into a downhill spiral. Instead of cooperation, our newly literate minds concentrated on control issues. The more we thought like this, the stronger our left hemispheres became and the less engaged our cooperative right hemispheres became.

All the while, our genomes were undergoing another shift. It turns out that stress appears to be epigenetic (thoughts, feelings, environment and belief can alter genes). So, when a person encounters more stress than they can metabolize, their stress responses are strengthened and their genes likely shift so that their progeny have heightened stress reactions too. When we were living as hunter-gatherers, this was functional. If I lived on a savanna populated by lions and tigers, I would be delighted to find that my children had an edge on reacting to their presence. That would give them a survival edge. What parent isn’t looking for that?

This system worked beautifully, until we evolved beyond threats we could save ourselves from by running or fighting. Now, we face a whole new set of threats that we have yet to develop effective coping strategies for. Stressors that we would have compensated for by running or fighting, have been replaced by stressors that we have to maneuver our way out of differently. This has some good results, but so far, we haven’t compensated for our physical need to clear stress metabolites out of our systems by getting moving at a good clip for at least twenty minutes with warm-up and cool down tagged on. That’s actually what our bodies need to re-establish balance after a stressful event.

When stress levels build, our cortisol levels stay abnormally high, which further increases our reactivity. This turns into a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The results appear to include an ever-growing proportion of the human population that is abnormally self-involved, frightened and reactive, sometimes to stuff that only that one person experiences.

Narcissism or borderline personality disorder

These are the signs of unresolved Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When people don’t heal the damage that arises from PTSD-triggering events, they tend to develop symptoms that are consistent with character disorders; most frequently, borderline personality disorder, or narcissism. Self-involvement and the powerful need to control the perception of others are the cornerstones of these two manifestations of imbalance.

When we think of these symptoms as responses to persistent threats, they make sense. Sadly, these responses are functional for folks whose survival is enhanced by their ability to fight or flee their threats, but that’s just not how life works anymore. Now, the skills that once made our survival more likely, are having the opposite effect.

The narcissism and boundary confusions that have been allowed to build since we began our literary adventures ten-thousand-years ago, have gradually evolved into our greatest survival threat. This appears to have happened because we got so good at left-brain processing, we forgot to tend our connections with our life-support system; which are functions of the right hemisphere. Instead, we became proficient at micromanaging our environment by disengaging from it. We got that way because, over time, left-hemisphere-dominant thinking became a better survival strategy for our newly human-dominated environment.

Our theologies shifted too. We went from worshipping pantheons of deities with the guidance of herbalists and shamans to monotheistic religious institutions that controlled access to a single deity. We overdid it to the point of generating the sixth great extinction spasm. The current dominant theocracy in the West calls for the destruction of our planetary life-support system. This appears to be the course we’re on.

Horses balance our sickness

That’s precisely what horses treat so well. Their size, archetypal magnetism and emotional reactivity form a perfect conduit through which we humans are invited to reclaim our connections within our own nervous systems first, and then with those with whom we share our worlds. The horses appear well equipped and eager to hold the space for this work. Horses outweigh us, often by ten times or more. They’re powerful, fast and highly reactive. This gets peoples’ attention focused right here, right now. That’s Mindfulness. It’s a state in which we are lit clear up. Our minds are in hyper-drive; making and linking new neurons to absorb and make sense of unfamiliar and potentially dangerous input.

We need that now. We need it to stabilize our ever-growing anxiety levels, so that humanity – working in respectful collaboration with all those who comprise our life-support system – can heal. We’re the sick ones in the equation. Horses, dogs and cats are portals to healing these imbalances. We appear to be among those called to facilitate it. We’ll each do it in our own ways. We’ll draw different types of people and critters. We’ll work on different issues using a range of techniques. We’ll all be called to help our critter partners, our clients, and ourselves manage the increasing stress levels.

Being around horses reduces cortisol blood levels. When youth spent eleven weeks hanging out with horses with the support of a holistic human co-facilitator team, two measures of their cortisol levels dropped. The lowered cortisol levels held through a re-check conducted three-months later. This is a significant finding from a public health perspective. Lowering cortisol levels are consistent with better health.(1)

That study provided a nifty hunk of data that backs up what we see in the field, or round pen, or wherever we’re teaming up with horses to heal, enlighten and educate. People look like they’re waking up. They become more alive, aware, flexible and resilient fast – when we’re providing a good, wholesome, safe setting for the horses to do their thing. Likewise, the horses also become more alive, aware, flexible and resilient. Once people play around with altering their consciousness at will – by practicing Mindfulness on the far side of the gate – they are beginning to lay the tracks that will connect them energetically with whatever horse chooses to take the direct contact.

I think this all happens in the context of mutual Mindfulness linking the horse and human energetically. When that link or bond forms, discombobulated energy gets expressed, often early on. Horses reflect that stuff. When the client can bring herself back to a Mindful state at will, horses appear to reflect back the tangled energy so that it appears to non-traumatically release the foci of disturbances. It looks like the neuronal net untangles. Energy transmission smooths and relaxes. People have more energy available.

The equine connection reinforces energetic connections with others. People get an embodied experience of an authentic energetic connection with another species that makes its living reading minds and negotiating peace with others. This reminds us – in a way that sets deeply into our nervous system – that part of our function on earth is to be in relationship with everybody who sustains us, and whom we sustain. Once we get a few hits, we’re strongly motivated to have more. Hopefully, we build-in ways for people to access horses regularly, so they can continually reinforce this practice, at least to the point necessary to rebalance our settings to a functional pattern.

We humans have a lot of work ahead if we are to achieve this. My take is that we’re at an “All hands on deck!” moment in history. We have an amazingly functional skill set to contribute. To the extent that we apply it Mindfully, we have the potential of making a huge contribution to not only healing the dysfunction that has gotten us all on the precipice of extinction, but also to rebalance our relationships among our fellow life-support-system members so that we can help to create a sustainable framework within which to greet the future.

Footnote:

(1) Patricia Pendry, Ph D., Annelise N. Smith, and Stephanie M. Roeter Department of Human Development, Washington State University, Randomized Trial Examines Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Adolescents’ Basal Cortisol Levels, Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin 2014, Vol. 2, No. 1, 80-95

AUTHOR BIO: Pat Rothchild is a psychotherapist with 36 years of practice under her belt. Shifting her perspective from trainer to student in relation to her horses, cats, dogs and chickens was a hugely productive step, as was the journey from western medicine to holistic healing. She feels plants and animals are stepping up to offer us paths toward healing our Dominion Delusion – which has led to the destruction of our planet. And we should make ourselves available to learn and practice their teachings.

Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners

Addressing Stress in Equine-Guided Activities

11 thoughts on “Addressing Stress in Equine-Guided Activities

  • December 25, 2016 at 9:29 pm
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    Wow Pat! A lot to digest here in one reading. So I will revisit again and share with my EFL clinicians here in CA. I love the care, time and Mindfulness practice you teach your clients before they are introduced to the horses. I wish more EFL type practitioners did this first. I also teach Mindfulness to my Coaching clients. In fact it is mandatory if they want to work with me. I am so thrilled that you and Jini found each other in this synchronistic web of divine magic that is being woven around horses and healing.

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    • December 26, 2016 at 9:51 am
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      Shivam, your words made me so happy that my eyes leaked. I’m ecstatic that you too use Mindfulness in your practice. No wonder we agree on so much on Facebook!

      I didn’t realize that you’re in California. Where? I’m about 60-miles north of San Francisco on the coast. Maybe Life will provide us with an opportunity to break bread and laugh together someday. Now that I’m no longer a parasite magnet, I can do that again! I admire and respect the mojo you send into the meme-o-sphere.

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  • December 28, 2016 at 8:24 pm
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    Rich and delicious writing and thoughts as usual, Pat! Your phrase “puddle of vicarious PTSD” made me laugh, out of recognition as well as apt description. And your descriptions of “getting the client safe”, teaching them to get into the zone BEFORE they get in with the horses – now that, I think, is key.

    When I used to teach body-based riding to total beginners, I always taught the client on the ground first so their bodies could have an idea of the shapes they needed to make when everything changed (stress!!!) and they were on the back of a horse and the horse was breathing and moving! As much for the horses’ sake as the clients’… In Aikido training, we work on the same basic principles again and again, and the test is if we can do them under stress (with an attacker, or in a grading scenario), without freezing up, tensing up, or otherwise screwing up. Mindfulness, presence, or “one-point” as we call it is a muscle as much as it is a practice. I love breaking things down and teaching people the core piece, so that they can keep their stress/overload levels low enough to actually learn. Meanwhile, the horses don’t have to get overloaded and confused with the conflicting signals we humans tend to send when we’re stressin’.

    Loads to think about here. Thanks Pat!!

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    • December 30, 2016 at 12:03 pm
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      Dear Kesia:

      You are a balm for my weary soul, woman. Thank you! It looks to me like we’re on the same path. Yea, we found it by different routes, but we’ve tied into the same energetics that are crying out for healing. And yes, healing is a bumpy business, in part because we humans always seem to be called to heal what is broken in ourselves. Sometimes, we have to work really fast just to stay a quarter-inch ahead of our clients on the healing continuum.

      The phenomena is well known. That pressure, well utilized is a tremendously powerful force. Critters seem to ride it easily. They’re great at teaching us too.

      My guess is that your horse band is reluctant to explore without their human members. They’ve learned to depend on your skills. That’s probably wise at this point. They’re probably feeling as gob-smacked by the change as you. And, horses are great at picking up danger. There must be some fairly impressive and hungry predators up there. You probably wouldn’t drag a bear bell along if there wasn’t the potential need for it. Horses, even domesticated ones, know where safety lies.

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      • December 30, 2016 at 8:16 pm
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        They took themselves out a few months ago, to the neighbours’ clover patch! But they are always SO keen to visit and if we do anything out of range from them they call and beg to come with. It’s such a big change from when they didn’t trust my lame human abilities in anything, no thank you!

        As for healing…the quarter-inch ahead in the continuum…wow, what a great image. And so true. I’m not officially a professional anything but I’ve found myself again and again in support, teaching, and guiding roles in which I’m usually just faking it…! Over time I’ve learned that everyone is secretly always faking it and that there’s a freedom in not knowing what to do…I’ve learned to follow my gut, shut up and listen, and not look for any particular outcome.

        I love using the least intervention for the best result. And that tends to usually end up being the act of being present with someone or something or some piece of something. I took a break from healing! Or at least my conscious mind thinks I did. I got tired of always looking for the “better”, I felt I was becoming judgmental of everything, especially myself and my symptoms. Like I was under constant scrutiny. What I actually think under that is that we must always remember to live, whether that is joyful, mundane, or downright sloggy. Within, between, and on either end of bouts of healing, journeying, experimenting, and hibernating. Whew.

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        • December 31, 2016 at 12:50 pm
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          That keeness to visit speaks volume of your place in the band. Yes, bands of horses, like us, need to balance their connectivity with autonomy. Horses seem to be better at this than humans, at least they’re a lot smoother at it. I’ve learned that when a band of horses that I’m a member of say they want/need connection, it’s real. There’s a reason, that sometimes takes me years to figure out. It’s there though.

          I’ve taken many breaks from healing over the decades. They’re important! That’s often when I consolidate what I’ve learned and explore new avenues. During one such break, I studied Perma-Culture, which was hugely productive. Another time, I took off and grew healing herbs. That morphed into a journey into the realms of healing with essential oils. Wowzers, that an eye-opener! Savor your healing rests. When we do, we come back super charged. Now is the time to super charge.

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          • January 3, 2017 at 9:07 am
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            Funny how your healing breaks pretty much consisted of learning new….healing…things!

            We are slowly learning to garden towards the permaculture end of the spectrum here, and my best friend just got into some beautiful essential oils that she keeps sharing, much to my delight. Sometimes I feel exhausted by the endless modalities and my short human existence and limited human consciousness! Other times (like right this moment) I feel incredibly fortunate to be alive and amazed by the endless opportunities for learning and growing.

            xoxo

            Reply
  • January 3, 2017 at 8:49 am
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    Thank you Pat, for keeping me on your mailing list. There’s a lot of wisdom in your words. They speak to me. I wish you well this new year.

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    • January 3, 2017 at 10:02 am
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      Thank you, Vincent. It’s great to hear from you. I enjoy your blog, The Serpent’s Box, too. You’re so great at getting to the point! Obviously, I still need to work on that! You’re great at writing your readers into your moments. One of the things that potentiate on people is Mindfulness. Wee, that makes you part of the Healing Team too.

      Reply
  • January 3, 2017 at 7:42 pm
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    Yippee for essential oils. Did you know that humans apparently got hip to distilling plants for their essential oils about five-thousand years ago? They were called the quintessence, which translates into “that which binds life into a seamless whole.” Yup, it’s true!

    I tend to take breaks from clinical practice when I begin to burnout. That’s when I strike out into new realms of healing, because I’m trying to save myself! It works. I inevitably return with a refreshed toolkit and in far better shape than when I left.

    Permaculture is as spectacular as essential oils. One of the truly miraculous things about permaculture is that when we set up our plants, critters and selves to support one another, they do fairly seamlessly, once they get established.

    Reply

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