The Thousand Invisible Layers

When I was first learning to ski the slalom course, I sat in the boat watching people who could run the course thinking “How hard could that be?”

I learned to get up on a slalom ski at age 15. Just doing that felt like a huge accomplishment. I would get up, celebrate that I was actually skiing, and then drift from side to side over the wake, feeling very competent.

Then I saw the ski course. These skiers weren’t drifting over the wake. They were rocketing through the wake and throwing up a big spray, making a big turn around the buoy and rocketing to the other side. It looked so elegant – and easy.

My first time to try the course, and with my attitude of “how hard could that be?”, the first of the thousand invisible layers hit me in the face. Or more accurately, went down my throat.

With almost no coaching, I got behind the boat, said “hit it” and got up, celebrating as I always do. Before I knew it, we were in the course and it was time for me to make a move. I leaned to the left, thinking I was doing it just like the skiers I had just been watching. I took such an ugly fall it hurt. Water went up my nose, down my throat and into places water should not be. Ouch.

What I had seen them do and what I was able to do myself was worlds apart.

I completely missed the thousand invisible layers of body and mind awareness required to water ski at that level.

Today, having run the course thousands of times, I’m more aware than ever that I’ve barely scratched the surface of those invisible layers. Funny how that works.

Every endeavor – and human experience – involves thousands of invisible layers. We simply cannot see from the outside the subtly, nuance, and combinations that make up the whole of what is really happening.

In the last two years, I’ve taken up two new endeavors, both of which reinforced this notion.

When I was a kid watching westerns, and oh, did I watch every western on TV, I dreamed of being a cowgirl running on my horse over the fields and through the woods. We would go to the rodeo and when the barrel racing started, it took my breath away. A barrel racer is all I wanted to be when I grew up.

I dipped my toe into the whole horse experience by talking my Dad into buying us a horse. Quickly, we discovered this was over our head, and my parents sold the horse in short order. When I took up riding much later in life, I got thrown and badly injured on my second ride.

It was what I’ve learned – and am continuing to learn – after getting back on the horse that is relevant to this conversation. Nothing I saw from watching movies, going on trail rides or attending rodeos and observing show jumping informed what was really going on.

When I was at the World Equestrian Games, I saw horses in every discipline. In my mind, I thought “How hard can it be to get a horse to run in a circle?”

Those riders were making moves and thinking thoughts and moving energy in ways that I simply could not see.

My training kept unfolding layer after layer of ignorance that I could only unravel by going deeply into the conversation with different trainers with different philosophies and even different horses. Yes, every horse is different. Who knew? My little kid brain thought a horse is a horse is a horse.

I got to spend hours and hours in one of the training barns that had sent many horses to the World Equestrian Games. I even was fortunate to speak with one of the competitors on a recent podcast. Warwick Schiller, who knows a thousand times more than I do about working with horses, shared his story of how horses are still teaching him to think and be different. Here’s an expert admitting he’s still peeling through the thousand invisible layers.

Just today, I was bridling a horse with a system I had never seen. The number of variables is staggering. And I’m only about three layers into the thousands there are to learn.

Thanks to working with my trainers Lynn Brown and Bruce Anderson, I’m learning to reach for my tools instead of my rules. My rules keep me on the surface, using lessons from the past that “should” work. Sometimes they do, but most of the time, they don’t really fit the situation at hand.

The alternative is to tune in and use my tools, like listening, elevating, problem solving, patience, timing, allowing and so much more.

When I tune into the messages the horse is sending from moment to moment, a whole new world opens up for me. I begin to see the world as he sees it and from that foundation and awareness, we can build trust and connection. It’s so much safer than using dominance and fear to force him to comply.

Learning to row a sculling boat reinforced my awareness of those thousands of invisible layers. These are the moves, thoughts and ongoing balancing acts that you don’t see from the shoreline. Even though I’ve watched rowers on our lake, studied the training videos on the web and practiced on my rowing machine at home, nothing prepared me for the three dimensions of balance required to stay upright on a skinny boat. I’m about one layer into the thousands there are to learn.

Every move you make in the three dimensional balance of a rowing shell must be slow, coordinated and rhythmic. Force and domination are the quick way to get wet. Trust and connection comes from within as I read the water and the placement of my weight along with the oars. It’s almost impossible to complete a stroke without being in flow.

When I started, I thought “how hard can it be to pull the oars?”

As with everything and everyone, there is so much more than meets the eye.

We are living in a fast changing world with people doing inexplicable things in the midst of unprecedented fear and uncertainty. I find myself often shaking my head and wondering “why can’t they just get it? How hard can it be?”

That should be my first clue that I’m looking at something that has a thousand layers I know nothing about.

After I get past my initial, judgmental reaction, the questions I’m most asking myself when faced with a person whose viewpoint is different than mine or a business problem that seems impossible to solve are these: What are the invisible layers I can’t see? How can I begin to tune in to what they are saying without saying it? What informs their experience that I cannot possibly know?

What are their thousand invisible layers that make up their life and experiences? How might reaching for my tools keep me in the conversation?

It’s time for me to turn in and tune in. Beliefs and assumptions and conclusions can be changed. Listening can make a difference.

We need to move towards each other. We need for “we the people” to mean everyone – even people we don’t understand.