The beginning of a new decade is a wonderful opportunity to consider guiding stars, the points by which we navigate through our lives. We all have them, but we may not be aware of them. Unlike humans, horses have a clear set of guiding stars; they don’t agonize over decisions. If they did, a herd wouldn’t survive an attack from a predator. Horses’ primary guiding stars include:
Survival: As prey animals, horses continually scan the environment to detect threats to their survival. If a horse becomes concerned, it will turn its full attention to the prospective threat and assess it. The rest of the herd will do the same. If the threat is determined to be real, then the herd will take the necessary action, such as moving to safety. A horse that is concerned for its survival cannot be bribed by treats because they always will choose survival over delight.
Responsibility: Horses also have a great sense of responsibility to their herd. It is important for them to fill their roles in the herd and to rely on other horses to do the same. Although some horses are able to adapt to life alone, horses are generally more comfortable with other horses because they know they can count on their herd and don’t have to do everything themselves.
Joy: If there is no current threat and no immediate role to be played in the herd, such as watching over other sleeping horses, horses will choose to do what brings them joy. Given the freedom to do so, they enjoy the moment by grazing, rolling, running, grooming each other or just napping in the sun. They choose delight.
Discover Your Guiding Stars
Survival, responsibility and joy also may be human guiding stars, but the way we interpret them can become distorted and create limiting beliefs. For example, a strong work ethic is generally positive but may lead to a guiding star of continuous productivity that leaves no time for “frivolous” play. People with a strong productivity guiding star unconsciously may avoid joy and delight because the guiding star has become so ingrained in who they are, they have lost sight of their ability to find the time to relax.
As this year and new decade unfold, consider what beliefs or priorities guide you in making major life decisions. What do you consider when making smaller decisions, such as how you spend your day? Do your guiding stars for big decisions match the ones you use for daily decisions? Often, we give more thought to major decisions and may not be aware that how we spend our days isn’t consistent with how we truly want to live our lives. What adjustments could you make to align your days with your guiding stars?
Choose to Thrive Instead of Just Survive
While horses are prey animals hardwired to scan for predators or other dangers, in the absence of an immediate threat, they will spend their days peacefully grazing. When faced with danger, they know how to respond in the moment, then release stress and immediately return to peace. Humans tend to struggle with this transition and place too much emphasis on survival and responsibility while completely devaluing delight. Of course, survival and responsibility are important, but in order to thrive, joy is essential. As Gabrielle Roth notes, “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?” Loss of these essential joys is believed to be the root of the problem.
Consider whether joy is even on your list of guiding stars. If not, watch the animals in your life to see how easy it is for them to incorporate joy. Dogs romp or chew a bone, cats stretch and nap, birds fly and sing, foxes leap and roll—animals naturally choose play and enjoyment on a regular basis. Humans can too, it may just take some practice at first.
Adjust the Course in Transitions
As humans go through transitions in their lives, it can be disconcerting when they don’t recognize the need to set new guiding stars. For example, some parents may feel lost when their children go to college. Although the children will always be an important part of their lives, the guiding star has changed, creating opportunities to set a new direction and open up new options.
Another common reason for a course correction is when imaginary fear has become a guiding star. Consider the things that set off your alarm bells and cause you to become concerned for your survival. Are you actually facing direct threats today, such as a serious illness, or are you giving real weight to imaginary fears? Fear can be useful in helping us make good decisions in certain circumstances, such as not engaging in dangerous behaviors, but fear also can become overwhelming and all-consuming, encouraging us to anxiously base all decisions on avoiding danger, even when the dangers aren’t real. Learning to approach threats like a horse does—remaining aware but only responding when directly faced with a real problem—helps us avoid using imaginary fear as a guiding star.
Spend some time watching animals to determine what their guiding stars are and then compare them to your own. Whether we have pets or watch wildlife, the animals always have something to teach us.