Tapping into the wisdom of “prey” species.
Long before I became a brain surgeon, I fell in love with horses—one of the ultimate “prey” species. Nowadays, I spend a large part of my time not so much training horses but teaching people through horses. I think we have powerful lessons in spiritual leadership to learn from prey species like horses. Before I can explain that, however, it is important to understand how human beings became such highly specialized and successful predators. Here’s the short version.
Two and a half million years ago, our primate ancestors were forced to abandon their arboreal existence and take to the savannas because of global warming (the old-fashioned kind, produced by a change in the tilt of the planet). When our ancestors stepped out of the trees, they had to compete in the new environment, so they learned to coordinate their groups to make packs. The mark of a predator that hunts in packs—whether a wolf, a killer whale, or a human—is language, and we became the world’s most articulate beings. Along the way we also became the world’s best makers of weapons.
Language ability and dexterity for making weapons became the hallmarks of our species; literally, our “killer apps.” And as language became so important, the left side of the brain, where speech is housed, became the overwhelmingly dominant influence over our thinking. In fact, as you read these words and weigh these ideas, there’s a little voice generated in the left side of your brain reading them inside your head. Experiencing our thought processes translated into words likely created our sense of internal identity, what neurologist Antonio Damasio has called the “autobiographical self.” That self-identity in turn created the predator dichotomy; namely, the hunter and the prey. The subject and the object; the inside—the me—versus everything else that is outside. Language in many ways gave birth both to me and to my sense of separation.
The Alternate Language of Prey
Prey animals, especially herd animals like the horse, for example, do not experience an autobiographical self in the same ways that we do. Horses also do not rely on vocalization to communicate, because using sound would give away their position to predators. Instead, they rely on a very eloquent but silent method of communication developed millions of years before humans arrived on the scene. Using their body language, stance, and position, they convey a huge lexicon, named Equus by horseman Monty Roberts. This language is built upon sensing energy, or chi, and conveying meaningful, energetic messages. A mere twitch of the ears, a change in the slope of the shoulders, or a shift in the hips is enough to send ripples of energy throughout all members of the herd.
To best conceptualize this, look at film footage of zebras nervously sipping at the edge of a watering hole. Some zebras dip while others rise. Ears perk up, swinging back and forth. Eyes widen. Heads swivel. Nostrils test the wind. And then they sense the predator. They feel the lioness crouching low in the grass. They experience the intensity of her hungry stare, the tension encircling her whole body. Even the nervous twitch of her tail is palpable to the zebras. A livezebra feels all that. The dead zebra is the one that waited to be sure.
With such profound connection, there is also an enormous difference in identity. Since their survival is tied to being a herd member, a prey animal has a strong communion with its group. As predators, it is hard for us to grasp what it means to belong to, to be a herd. A horse is only half a horse without its herd. Its identity is a “we.” In normal states of consciousness, we can only envy animals their sense of immersion, being of and in the world.