About five years ago, I needed a dog. We’d just lost our beloved golden retriever, Abby, to cancer and I was lonely. My wife was out of town, so I stopped by the local pet rescue place to check out any puppies they might have. As karma would have it, they only had one puppy left, a seriously shy black pup who was hiding at the back of the puppy pen, trying very hard to avoid any eye contact with humans. I asked the woman at the front desk what the story was with this guy, and she said that he and two litter mates had been rescued from a “kill shelter” downstate a couple of days earlier (they’d been 12 hrs. from the gas chamber at the time.) His brother and sister had already been adopted and this little guy was left behind, mainly, she thought, because he was so shy.
I got down on the floor and picked him up. He wasn’t crazy about the idea and looked away from me the whole time as I tried to give him a scratch. Not exactly the golden retriever “lean” I’d come to expect from a dog after 30 yrs. of goldens. I was bothered by this, but like I said, I needed a dog, so I told the woman at the counter that I’d take him. He wasn’t a golden, I’d never had a black dog, and I hadn’t had a male dog since high school. What could go wrong?
They thought he was about eight weeks old, a Labrador-border collie mix (wrong- he’s lab for sure, but also pitbull and pointer and…) Like I said, my wife was out of town, so it was just the two of us for several days. He was scared and I was sleepless, having forgotten how often a puppy needs to go “out.” Many was the time we looked at each other and asked- who’s bright idea was this?
I could have returned him- the rescue folks would take him back anytime up to three days post-adoption. But for some reason, I decided we’d hang on and see what we might work out. Picking up on his readiness to play and hike anytime night or day, I named him Jackson after the cartoon character from my childhood- “Action Jackson.”
Well, as I said, we’ve been together for over five years now. I can say without reservation that he’s the finest dog I’ve ever known. He’s smart, gentle, athletic and, in his own individual way, very affectionate. In the days, weeks and months after he came to live with us, Jack set about training us in how he wants to be loved. He still isn’t big on “cuddling,” or on direct eye contact, and please don’t reach toward his face to scratch his head. But if you’ll let him hold a ball while you’re petting him, he loves the “carwash” (scratching both sides as he slides between your legs), loves a belly rub on a sunny afternoon, and would absolutely accept an invitation onto the bed at night, though he always jumps off when its time to sleep.
In short, we couldn’t make him something he isn’t. He’ll never be a golden retriever. But he’s been patient with us, and over time, we’ve come to understand who he is and how to respect that. I was thinking about this history over Christmas this year as my kids, friends and family gathered in our home to celebrate the holiday. Inevitably, a human behavior laboratory like this can create frictions and irritations. No one, it seems, behaves as we’d like them to. Especially for family members and children, if they’d just listen and maybe take a hint, things would go so much better, no?No
Why can’t I treat my sons, for example, as I’ve come to treat Jack? Why can’t I tune into how they want to be loved and do my best to give them that? Why, in other words, can’t I just treat my kids as well as my dog? I remember stories of students meeting with the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala. They say that CTR always spoke directly the basic goodness in everyone, not to their superficial neuroses. Maybe this “like a dog” thing is similar. My projections for Jack didn’t fit, and he shook them off, well, like a dog shakes off water. So I dropped the projection and began to see the real black dog in front of me. Suffering was reduced; love grew.
So that’s my New Year’s resolution – I’m going to try to treat everyone close to me like a dog. Try genuinely to see them as they are in themselves. Try to slap down my projections for them when they arise. Let them show me how they want to be loved, and try my best to give them that. My wife is always telling me that I give Jack too many treats — I tell her that one day, Jack is going to die (as dogs do,) and when that happens, she’s going to wish she’d given him more treats. So that’s on the New Years list too- more treats, fewer “corrections.”
We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I have a dog. A beautiful one who I love to distraction, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. By the way, Jack and I have talked at some length about this business of dogs dying. He’s promised me that he’ll never die, that he’ll stay with me forever.
What is this vehicle we call the self? Certainly, the infamous ego is a part of it, but is that all of it? What does that even mean?
From the perspective of our 21st century consumer economy, the self has become the repository for all that we try, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate — think of the shopping cart icon on any of your favorite e-commerce sites.
There’s a famous Zen cartoon of a little man who is born into this world and proceeds to ingest the full contents of a massively rich cornucopia, to pass the residue, and then, in due course, to die, leaving behind nothing more than a sizeable pile of, well, you get it…
My friend and noted Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, often says that what we call the self isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (sorry Ken if I misquote a bit here – see Ken’s excellent website, Ken Mcleod- Unfettered Mind ) Like a child’s flipbook, these experiences pass so fast that we mistake them for a continuous film, an entity with some sort of permanence.
And then of course we die.
As anyone who has ever had the duty of cleaning out the cherished possessions of a dead loved-one can attest, even the most closely held keepsakes are simple junk once we’re gone.
So, using this life, this self, as a cosmic shopping cart probably won’t work out.
But neither can we function without a self, an identity- we’re creatures of a relative world. The IRS insists that we maintain a self, and our significant others probably do as well. So how do we work with this self?
How best to drive this rusty vehicle?
One classic Buddhist image of ‘self’ is of waves in the ocean, each somehow distinct but each still entirely of the water, inseparable from it. I like to think of each of us as a local concentration of sentience, of mind, of life force. Why the universe has chosen to organize itself this way I have no idea; but I think it does — moreover, I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.
If I’m right about this, then our mortal selves remain essential, but in a rather different way — what if the point isn’t to see how much we can accumulate for our selves, but instead to see how much we can express of our selves?
This shift changes everything — instead of contracting and gathering, our life experience might take on the quality of a gift to be offered rather than a treasure to be hoarded.
This expression of self, of life, can take almost any form – an art, a skill, parenting, a job. The blood of the difference is in whether or not we’re subtly trying to bargain for a specific outcome from offering. Again, Ken McLeod talks often of the insidious nature of the exchange mentality, the bargain of the marketplace co-opting all of our human actions. For artists who need to sell their work to pay the rent, this is a perpetual quandary. Even in the spiritual realm, we’re so deeply conditioned to the exchange that we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) looking for a payoff. But that’s just another form of shopping, of using our precious time on this earth as some sort of coin.
No, I’m suggesting here that the only “payoff” worth the race is the freedom to stop gathering, to stop hoarding.
By “expressing the self fully,” I mean taking this life-stream as a gift to be given completely, as an offering of all of one’s talent
and all of one’s difficulties –
as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, no privacy.
Whatever our gift, we manifest it fully, without reservation,
We live completely into our lives through the full offering of them
to this sacred world.
We come to recognize our own basic goodness and that of the world
as being one in the same.
We manifest sacredness and we offer that back to the source.