On the islands of Hawaii, in their indigenous kahuna tradition, it is said that when a village member succumbs to a serious illness or a string of bad luck, the family is called to gather and confess their thoughts about that person. Such thoughts, it is believed, literally influence not only that person’s health, but shape the events in his life as well. The thoughts and beliefs are called out, one by one, and dispelled through the witnessing of the entire community, thereby assisting the person’s healing. 

The kahuna were indigenous practitioners (a Hawaiian word meaning priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession) and often were healers, navigators, builders, prophets/temple workers, and philosophers.

The revered kahuna Kūpaʻiulu of Maui in 1867 described this counter-sorcery ritual to heal someone ill due to hoʻopiʻopiʻo—another’s evil thoughts. 

I’ve seen this principle at work in my own life. A few summers ago I was engaging with a horse, named Pete, whom I sometimes used for the equine-assisted process I do with clients. Not a member of my usual herd of horses, Pete usually spent his days taking tourists up and down the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Only sometimes would he work with my clients, helping to facilitate their self-discovery.  

This particular hot July afternoon, Pete had endured a long day of trail rides, only to find himself at the end of the day, in the arena with me asking him to respond to a request. He looked at me sheepishly. I thought, ‘Damn, this poor guy, he’s spent the whole day lugging punters up the mountain. Who am I to ask him for more?’ He seemed to agree. His head hung low. His coat looked dull and his eyes glazed over. We stood there listlessly for a while, and then I put him away feeling dejected. 

That night I called my horsemanship mentor in Australia, ‘I don’t think I can work with that horse,’ I said. ‘He’s got too much else to do, and it’s not fair to him.’

She thought for a moment, ‘Let me ask you something,’ she said. ‘Can you tell me….what were you thinking about him?’

I told her how miserable I thought it must be for him to drag people up desert hillsides in the hot sun. How abused he must feel. How he was too old. How sad it is that people treat horses so badly in general, and how victimized he must feel.

I pitied him.

‘And….,’ she paused carefully, ‘…how do you think it felt to be pitied by you?’ 

I had been called out. ‘Horrible,’ I said.

‘And…,’ again she paused, ‘…how do you think he might respond to such pity?’ she asked. 

I got it. I thanked her and got off the phone.

The next day after the end of another long hot day of trail rides, I pulled Pete out of his paddock and walked him to the roundpen. The only thing that was different was me. I suspended my thoughts, judgments, assumptions and ideas about Pete, looked at him and kissed the air in an invitation that he trot out energetically in a circle around me. 

A sparkle twinkled in his eye and he lunged ahead, bucking a little in delight. For 20 minutes he played and danced at the end of my line, alert, joyful and fully present. 

I was humbled. And a bit saddened. The only thing that had stood between Pete and his joy were my limiting thoughts about him. 

Compassion’s dark underbelly is pity. Sometimes in our need to care for others (or our insecurity to really show up authentically in front of them) we inadvertently make them small. We make them small when we think they can’t handle something, or when we imagine they don’t have what it takes.

‘I’m not ever going to tell my sister that I’m gay,’ remarked a friend to me the other day. ‘She won’t be able to get her head around it. I’ll just end up taking care of her feelings.’

I saw myself in his comment. How easy it can be to inadvertently hold someone else small because of our own projected fears that we are the ones in fact feeling small, fragile and vulnerable? What opportunities for growth, expansion and self-discovery are we unilaterally denying others through assuming they can’t handle something?

And more importantly, how do we limit ourselves and our own expression when we deny that authentic exchange?

My older son has decided to take a gap year from college. As a new yet content ‘empty-nester’ this  development confronted me. How was I going to share my home, where I both worked and retreated from the world, with an expansive 19 year old? I was tempted to hide and not show up for all of the gritty, authentic conversation about who pays for what, who cleans up what, and how much I need him to respect the sanctuary of my home. I thought he’d think I was petty. I was worried he would reject me. I was convinced I wouldn’t get what I needed. I was holding him small, and myself as well.

Love demanded another option. It demanded my vulnerability. And so I gathered my respect for my son in one hand, and my respect for myself in another and headed right into a conversation unfiltered by my fears and assumptions. And guess what. He showed up. 

When we hold someone small and keep them mentally contained in a defined box of assumed limitations, something sadly weird happens—they oblige. Like Pete, they stand there listlessly dull. They meet our expectations.

What if, like the kahuna, we called ourselves out on that? What if as a community, when we noticed someone flailing, someone crumbling under life’s pressure, we gathered around that person and confessed out loud our limited beliefs about them? 

What if, when we noticed ourselves flailing, we stopped and acknowledged our limiting beliefs about ourselves? Or if we felt unsupported, we stopped and acknowledged our limiting belief about another?

Imagine what we might be capable of in a world of ‘not small’.