The Engine and the Caboose Part I

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steam engine

The Engine and the Caboose Part I

How to be NOT Helpable

In the context of healing and personal development, our experience is not necessarily a homogenous unity. It’s more useful to think of ourselves as being like a long train.

The Engine

engine in tunnel

Our engine is our leading edge—it’s us at our best. It’s our sanest, wholest, coolest self that we hope to be fully someday. Right now, though, it’s like a crescent moon of what we hope to become. It’s where we’re headed—but the engine of the train may emerge from a tunnel, or cross state lines, long before the rest of the train makes it to the territory that the engine has already passed through.

My engine self is what moves all of me forward. After all, a train can only go as fast as the engine. It’s not the whole train, though. There’s everything else, including the caboose. Even as my engine is saying “Yes! I’ve been waiting for this all my life,” meanwhile the caboose is saying:

“Wait a minute…”

“This is too scary.”


“My mother never blah blah blah…”

The Caboose

The caboose is the part of us that is hesitant or contracted, the obviously wounded parts of us, expressing all the hidden concerns and fears and possible objections to our movement forward.

industrial caboose

The caboose is the part of me that, on my worst days, I think might actually be who I really am—and I dread that thought, because that makes anything better that I’ve ever accomplished seem like it was all a lie. When I’m identified with my caboose, everything that I’ve done well, and everything that people on the outside world see and admire about me or my accomplishments feels like a hollow charade; it doesn’t really count because… I still have this caboose, and I know what I’m really like.

The train can only go as fast as the engine, it’s true—but it can also go only as fast as the caboose. Honoring the caboose, investigating these “caboose concerns” and addressing them satisfactorily, can free up our whole process tremendously. Often a great deal of wisdom comes through the caboose—and if left unattended, these fears and resistances become a silent ball and chain that do not let us ever really soar; or they become a point of splintering and divisiveness within us. It’s really much better to welcome the caboose, to honor and resolve these concerns, so that there is no silent ball and chain, no hidden conflict inside of us.

Often resolving a “caboose issue” can do more for the engine than even direct attention to the engine can do.

We Are the Whole Train

What I’ve come to understand is that we’re the whole train: We’re the engine, we’re the caboose, and we’re everything in between. There’s always going to be an engine, i.e. a part of me that’s so grateful and glad to be alive as me, and that I wish that everything else inside of me would catch up to. But by the time the rest catches up (and it will!), my leading edge is already going to be somewhere else. Like a train, you’ll always have a leading edge, and you’ll always have parts of you that haven’t caught up yet.

toy train

Understanding this about myself has been a really important part of working with myself with a rigor that is both realistic and compassionate. When I know that I am the whole train, I’m not continuously disqualifying my engine because of my caboose, nor trying to hide my caboose, nor justifying caboose-oriented behavior while ignoring my engine, nor becoming arrogant about the engine while ignoring the caboose, nor despairing of the caboose because I’ve forgotten the power and nobility of the engine, or any the weird machinations that could go on, if I think I really am one or the other, rather than including both, and everything in between.

Thinking of myself that way—and using the vocabulary of engine and caboose to be clear with myself as to whether I’m coming from my engine or my caboose at any given moment—has led to being far more realistic about myself, and to a lot less time wasted wallowing in engineless caboose land, or shaming myself into paralysis in engine-denying-caboose futility. These clear identifications allow me to walk the middle way between self-indulgence (focused only on the caboose) and self-neglect (focused only on the engine). They enable me to do the self-tending that I really need to do, and not be ashamed that I need to do it.

A train only goes as fast as the caboose. So tend the caboose. It’s a big deal!

The train only goes as fast as the engine—so stoke it. It’s a big deal.

How to Be Helpable

helping man with groceries

Being fully in touch with both our engine and our caboose brings us into a state of being maximally help-able. There is so much that we were designed not to be able to do by ourselves! Needing help some of the time is part of our design. So being help-able is really an important self-cultivation, whether it is about being help-able by other humans, or help-able by whatever you want to call The Big Thing that we’re part of—the Electromagnetic Hologram, the Field, the LovingTruth, etc.

It really takes something on our end, to be maximally helpable by The Big Thing. A lot of us would really like help from The Big Thing, but don’t know how to apply, and don’t know how to open to it. Many of us would also like to be more helpable by other humans. Somehow it doesn’t work out. Somehow we find ourselves refusing, even though we were asking for it; or somehow the help given to us doesn’t really hit the spot or really change our situation.

Being truly help-able requires first being able to say, “I know where my engine is; I can find it, I can feel it inside of me.” There’s a sovereignty to that state. No matter how desperate I am, if I go to somebody for help without being in touch with my engine, then I’m just a hapless caboose looking for help. It’s disempowering; there’s nobody there to empower. Somebody else has got to do everything to us or for us.

I messed up

When we’re just a messy caboose (or so we think), we feel like, “I don’t just have a problem; I am the problem. I’m this messed up thing.” In that state, anything anybody does for me is just working within the same mire. On some level I don’t like it, even if I’m grateful for it, because somehow it’s not empowering of real change. Beyond triage, which is certainly valid in some instances, “helping” someone else’s caboose with our engine is draining for us, and disempowering for the receiver.

Give It a Try

Give it a try and just notice, if you come in with no engine—just a caboose—and ask a human for help, what happens? And how do you feel about it? And where does it lead?

I can tell you from long experience that when you go to Source or The Big Thing or whatever you call it, and ask for help but you’re just a caboose, generally what happens… is nothing. Then you get pissed off, or feel rejected, or betrayed in your hour of need. Or you feel like, “Okay, I guess The Big Thing is not really there for me after all.” Then you make up theories about why that is, “because The Big Thing is a total asshole anyway”, or “because I’m a worthless piece of junk.” I haven’t noticed it working too well, to ask for help from The Big Field with just a caboose.

mom with baby partner distracted

If, on the other hand, I’m walking around just in touch with my engine but not in touch with my caboose, there’s no intake valve for help. When there’s only an engine in sight and no caboose in evidence, not only isn’t there a clear opening to receive help, but also no signal that help is sincerely needed. There’s no comprehensible cue to others on a simple body language level indicating a place where somebody could do something for us. How much help do you think people are going to be inspired to give me, if all they see is my engine? Especially if they’re in touch with their caboose, they’re probably thinking, “She’s fine. Why would I do something for her? I’ve got my own problems; I’ve got plenty of things to do. Helping her is not a priority. Hey, I’m setting the table right now.” There are a lot of people who are usually seen as strong and not needing help, usually because they are coming only from the engine and not acknowledging the caboose.

Both Engine and Caboose are Needed

helping hand

It’s healthy and possible and advantageous to be in touch with both engine and caboose. It’s a misunderstanding that it ever needs to be either/or, e.g. “If I’m not just an engine, I must be just a caboose… and that’s so pitiful and lowly that I could never go to you asking for help. It’s needy, it’s dependent; it’s all these things that I don’t want to be. There’s no dignity in it. So instead I’ll deny the caboose and just be the engine.” Then I don’t get any help because I don’t appear to need it! When we are in touch with both the engine and the caboose, we are strongly signaling the need for help, and can also receive the help with dignity and as an empowerment. The engine is the part of us that is most aligned with the Heart, making it the part of us that is most capable of making healing connections. The engine receives and passes the help on to the part of us that needs it. This is why so much of healing feels like helping people help themselves.

It’s the same story when we are seeking help from The Field. We are most able to connect with The Field from the engine, as the part of us that is most heart-connected. But just connecting from the engine makes for a relatively static relationship. I can connect from the engine, sure, and that’s wonderful; I wasn’t able to connect when I was feeling like just a caboose. But if I connect as if I’m just an engine, while I enjoy it and feel my engine strengthened, nevertheless in the places where there is pain or stuckness, nothing changes that much. I don’t actually heal. It just feels good, without actually transforming my depths. It’s very worthwhile to engage in practices that strengthen our engine, but if we want to progress and clean up our messy places, engine-only practices of connection won’t do it.


When I come to The Field or to humans asking for help while in touch with both the engine and the caboose, the engine gives me the ability to be in touch with what is strong and already healthy in me, so I know I’m not a loser. At the end of the train, the caboose allows me to acknowledge and accept also that there’s something in me that hurts, that’s unfinished business. Having both available in any interaction makes me honest and help-able whether I’m turning to a human or to The Field.

When we’re clear that our caboose is just a caboose, not the whole train, then it doesn’t get neglected, nor does it drag us down. Our engine can say, without any denial of what’s hurting, “I’m heading for the light, but I’m not leaving anything behind.”

Preparing for Self-Healing

hand over heart and pelvis

It’s a very good preparation for self-healing practices to take a few moments to acknowledge in ourselves both the engine and the caboose. Try putting one hand on the engine, in the heart area. Take the other hand and put it down just over the pubic bone area, down in the basement. A lot of caboose stuff tends to hide down there, especially if we’ve been ignoring it for a while. Practice being able to feel both, and just sit with both, opening the connection between them.

When with others, or in a group, it’s a very exciting practice to look around the room seeing everyone’s engine and caboose, on a me-first basis: “Ah, I see your engine and your caboose.” See both, and dignify both with clear acknowledgment. Then open to being seen by others in the same way: “I open to everyone seeing that I have an engine and a caboose, with neither one in any way diminishing the other.” Sit with that and take that in. It’s incredible when you feel yourself and another person both getting it about each other; the relationship feels so honest, strong, and accurate. It’s a basis for relationship that can be truly honoring and truly supportive at the same time.

I could go for a community based on this. Shall we?

To learn more, join Thea at her upcoming Whole Heart Connection Intro a live webinar held on Zoom on October 16-17, 2021. Find a list of all the upcoming live workshops here.

To join the discussion, find us on my Perennial Medicine discussion listserv (all are welcome).

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