Like all of our relationships, our relationship with our dogs can be a powerful tool for self reflection.
Yes, we love our pets unconditionally, but did you ever feel the eruption of annoyance, impatience or anger when dealing with them? You’re not alone. And it’s ok, it doesn’t mean you love them any less, it just means you’re human.
If we pay close attention to these emotions, how they manifest, how they feel in our bodies, and if we are taking them out on or directing them towards those around us, including pets, we can learn important lessons.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates this point with an analogy:
“A monk decides to meditate alone. Away from his monastery, he takes a boat and goes to the middle of the lake, closes his eyes and begins to meditate. After a few hours of unperturbed silence, he suddenly feels the blow of another boat hitting his. With his eyes still closed, he feels his anger rising and, when he opens his eyes, he is ready to shout at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation.
But when he opened his eyes, saw that it was an empty boat, not tied up, floating in the middle of the lake … At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it. After that, whenever he meets someone who irritates or provokes his anger, he remembers; the other person is just an empty boat. Anger is inside me.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh
I swear my desi dog Charlie was a zen monk in a former life, and in fact people have actually commented on how ‘zen’ she is. Here are some emotions she’s helped me to confront.
It’s hard to admit that sometimes I get angry with my dog because I love her so much, but I do. The other day she went down a rabbit hole, and she went so deep that her harness came off as she backed out of the hole. I was angry and shouted at her, not for digging down for rabbits, but out of fear. Where I live there are many sheep farms, and if she escapes her harness, she chases sheep, and the farmer then has the right to shoot her.
Anger often comes from fear. When I think back on the times I’ve been angry with her, much of it has come from fear. I’ve been scared when she has escaped — of her getting knocked down by a car, or something equally terrible happening.
Like in the analogy, I’ve also gotten angry with her when I’ve perceived her as a disturbance — by not doing what I want her to do, by destroying things around the house, or simply by being her wild self. But I realise, she’s just the empty boat, provoking my anger.
Similar to anger, I feel impatience bubbling up a lot when out walking with Charlie. This has been a very important reflection for me. We live very fast-paced lives, and so often I have somewhere to be, something to do. I don’t manage my time well enough, and as a result I’m frequently trying to rush her on her walk. This takes away all the joy — she needs to sniff, she needs to feel a bit of freedom, and be in nature.
It’s also part of the realisation that I don’t live in the present (I’m sure some of you can relate). I’m always projecting into the future — what do I need to get done this afternoon? Always thinking ‘I need to get back to do A, B, and C.’ Sometimes I find myself getting annoyed that she doesn’t understand the pressures of human life, but instead, I should follow her lead and be in the moment we are in.
Wow, this is a tough one. There is a lot of guilt embedded in our culture. We’ve been conditioned to feel guilt about the smallest of things. Being a dog owner has brought me face to face with my issues with guilt. I feel guilty that I adopted Charlie, took her from her native place (maybe she was happy there), that she doesn’t get outside enough, doesn’t socialise enough, that she’s lonely. You name it, I’ve felt guilty about it. And I needn’t.
I’ve started to realise recently how much we can project onto our animals, and to be aware of it is an important part of self awareness. She’s helping me immeasurably to work with these feelings, and I consider her a teacher because of it.
Let’s return to that idea of projecting. I tend to do this a lot, but with loneliness I feel it may be a genuine concern for my furry pal. I do believe that our pets come into our lives for many reasons — to guard and protect, to teach, to act as a mirror, but to empathise also. I believe dogs are capable of empathy. Charlie came to me at a very pertinent time in my life and has helped me walk quite a lonely path the last few years. I often feel she herself is lonely because she lights up around other dogs and people. Is she trying to show me what I need? More community, more human contact, a strong network.
I believe she’s looking for what makes her happy, but she’s also looking after me. She innately understands me in a way human perception only falls short. Aside from saving me from loneliness, she’s actively encouraging me to put myself into a more connected way of being.
I sometimes doubt if Charlie actually loves me. She’s a very independent soul, born free, and can be so stubborn! She reminds me of…myself. This is the ultimate evidence that we project and that our animals (and those around us) mirror us.
Do I need to do a better job of loving myself? Yes. And perhaps what I will see back from her is pure, unconditional love. I’ll hopefully get there one day, but until that day arrives, I’ll just keep loving her unconditionally as she so deserves.
Photos: Vaila Bhaumick