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Standing on Sacred Ground: Needs, Requests, and True Belonging

Luka on his own sacred ground

Do you know what you truly need?

If you'd asked me that question twelve years ago, when my healing journey was just beginning, I wouldn't have known how to answer you. My relationship with my needs was fraught, to say the least: to have needs was to be “needy”, and for me it meant being too demanding, too much, or showing a level of vulnerability that I found deeply uncomfortable.

If you'd asked me five years ago, I might have answered by saying that I needed someone - my on-again, off-again never-quite-partner - to sort his life out and make a solid commitment.

Helpful as that would certainly have been (!), that kind of answer still doesn't have the power of the way I'd answer the question now. Today, I'd say that I need safety, belonging, contribution, support... and that I long for connection, inspiration, and community. And I'd ask myself if I have any requests that I might make - of myself or another, human or horse - that would contribute to meeting those needs.

Naming the need itself, rather than fixating on the strategy that I believe will allow the need to be met, is a powerful step towards healing. Internally, I relax, because I make a little more sense to myself; I am accompanied and understood - even if only by myself. And if I go one step further, and take the risk of identifying and then voicing something specific that another person, or I myself, could do to help meet that need - accepting that the other may say no - then I take another, courageous step towards growth and empowerment.

We work a lot with naming needs and making requests in our programmes here, because it's genuinely life-changing. The horses get it - feelings and needs are a language that they speak quite naturally, and they respond with compassion and creativity when we allow ourselves to really feel and express them. From the horses’ perspective, my old idea that in order to be accepted by another or to belong in the herd I need to stifle my own needs has to be turned on its head. True belonging and connection come from being vulnerable enough to let my needs be seen, and from taking responsibility for really listening to and voicing them.

Sometimes when the herd and I are working with a client, it’s as though the horses can’t really see the person – as though, for them, that person is only partially there. Some practitioners would say this happens when the person is “in their head”, but I find it more helpful to flip this around and say that the person is struggling to connect to their body sensations and therefore to their feelings and needs. The horses seem particularly to notice when we have a block that stops us really feeling and naming what we need: it’s as if we truly come into focus for them when our resistance to our need dissolves and we stand there in the purity and beauty of it. And when we go there, their responses to our requests can be surprisingly precise.

(Don’t think needs are beautiful? Have a look at the list of Feelings, Needs and Values on the resources page of the website and ask yourself whether any of the needs on the list are anything but beautiful, in their essence. What we and others do to try to get our needs met might not be so pretty, but the needs themselves are holy.)

One particularly powerful example comes to mind. A couple of years ago, Luka was working with a client who was burnt out from years in a very demanding job. As she stood allowing herself to feel how exhausted she was, he waited quietly on the other side of the corral, facing her. After a few minutes, she took a deep breath and said, with all her heart, “I really need support”. At that exact moment, he looked up, walked directly to her, and circled around to stand beside her, his left shoulder level with her body. Astonished, she asked me if she could lean her whole body on him, and as these words came out of her mouth – before I could answer – he adjusted his weight so that he was braced for her to lean on him, and waited. He felt her need because she was willing to feel it, and her request was met with a powerful, compassionate, “yes”.

As I write this, trying to distil what that moment taught me, Luka is standing just the other side of the fence, licking and chewing. (Bella has moved him away twice, but he keeps coming back.) He seems to be affirming that we make much more sense to him when we are in touch with our needs and take responsibility for them, and perhaps also that it costs horses when we don't do this, or can’t see that they might have needs that are separate from our own – which is why I've quoted Anna Blake, from her recent, widely-shared blog post to open this month's newsletter. “Loving” horses often means all kinds of unconscious projection; respecting them as sentient beings is indeed a whole other thing.

But really, we all suffer when we can’t connect with what we need and can’t make honest, open, vulnerable requests, because our relationships are thinner, and our lives are smaller. The bottom line is that naming and honouring our own needs allows others to really see us, and have a genuine choice about how to meet us. It also means that we are genuinely able to meet another person (or horse – horses are, of course, “persons”), not as a projection or a fantasy, but as an autonomous being with needs and longings of their own. And it means that we have a choice about whether we are going to take responsibility for our lives by moving towards what we need and value, or not. (As Thomas Hübl says in the conversation with Peter Levine that I discussed in my previous blog post, in modern society where almost no one can retreat to a mountaintop for a life of contemplation, “appropriate relation is the healing, and appropriate relation is one of the fundamental spiritual practices”.)

In being open and vulnerable to my own needs, responsible for my requests, and willing to hear the other's possible "no", I step onto sacred ground: the home of true connection and belonging. It’s risky, for sure, but the alternative is worse.

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