The morning air smelled of fresh rain, it was damp and chilly. I contemplated having a fire outside to sit by and write. This is spring-time in Oregon. After the long winter I am tempted by any opportunity to hear the sound of morning birds. So, I settle for frosty fingers to hold my morning tea. I stood wrapped in my Pendleton wool blanket breathing in the cold rain-soaked air and noticed my herd of horses cresting the hill. Something had alerted them. One by one they became acutely aware of an unidentified presence behind them. The bone-rattling sound of my dog’s territorial bark assured me it must be a coyote. This is a common morning ritual. The coyotes on their rounds innocently trigger the alarm. This heightened sensory perception can be viscerally felt. I too jolted as blood ran quickly through my veins, rapidly stirring my sleepy, contemplative morning mind.

I am guessing it wasn’t a specific thought running through the horses’ minds that turned them back from their habituated path. It was simply keen awareness that stopped them in their tracks. They stood erect – listening, sensing, smelling and waiting. They stood tall and ready, squarely and firmly present in the moment. For this moment, prior to reaction, they were perfectly still. I watched.

Defense is easy for me to identify physically in both horses and humans. Horses on high alert sound the warning call by trumpeting air through their nostrils and running full throttle for safety. With hooves pounding the ground, I sometimes feel them coming before I see them. Here by the house is their barn, their home base and the center of their universe. There is no individual when the herd runs for survival. The herd is one. They move like a flock of birds in the sky, all shifting direction, slowing or speeding together as if they had radio signals. Today’s alarm was benign. The heightened state of alert awareness soon diminished and they returned to peaceful morning grazing, and I to my writing.

We experience presence rising up from behind the barrier of thought in times of emotional intensity. Not only in responses for survival, but also in times of wonder and awe. The wonder in seeing the innocence of a newborn fawn or a beautiful sunrise peeking through the fog in the dense forest are times that momentarily stop us in our tracks. We, in a sense, forget to think. It is like hitting the pause button in our mind.

Heightened awareness can also be felt when circumstances take the mind by surprise. Such as when we hear shocking news of something unexpected or experience a frightening “close call.” We can recognize presence when the mind (or our thoughts) can’t quite catch up with what is happening in the moment. I felt this intensely when I received a phone call that my mother had suddenly passed away. It was shocking news. I couldn’t think, but there was an awareness that led me through those first hours. This feeling is sometimes called surreal. But actually it is much more real than thought because the presence I feel is changeless and timeless. It is unconditioned. I have experienced this alert awareness in the depth of grief, as well as in joyful exhilaration.

It’s easy for us humans to become immersed in thought. Too many thoughts of right and wrong, success and failure, and enough or not enough, create a constant dialogue in the mind – a dialogue of duality. This inner conflict can intercept the clear intention of the heart. I see the heart as an essential element for peaceful presence. While alert presence in the horses comes from a natural survival response I suggest that humans, too, hear the survival call asking us to return to presence. Ours is a different kind of survival however, ours is survival of the heart.

Excerpted from  Perfect Practice by Mary S. Corning Copyright © 2019 by Circle Around Publishing. Excerpted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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