“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” ~Milan Kundera
“If you can sit quietly after difficult news;
if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;
if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;
if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;
if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;
if you can always find contentment just where you are:
you are probably a dog.”
“There never yet has been a dog
Who learned to double cross,
Nor catered to you when you won
Then dropped you when you lost.”
Some days wouldn’t you rather be a dog? Life would be so simple. Dogs don’t worry much about what comes next, or how to be a better dog. There is no complex examination of morality or conflicted intention in action because clearly, if you are smaller than I am, you are to be chased and if you are larger than I am, you are to be chased. Not much scheduling or planning—car’s broken, oh well, let’s eat something and have a nap. Pretty much all unpleasantness in a dog’s life arises because of external conditions since dogs do not have a sense of self like you and I. It is this profound difference that creates so much trouble for us humans and can make us our most painful companions.
Last week a friend told me the teaching story of farmers looking out at their fields in April. If they think of everything that needs to happen between spring and harvest, their heads would pop off. I could really relate. Just trying to keep my life on schedule brings me dukkha of planning. Mixed into this adventure is the fear of making a mistake (FOMAM). The mistakes I am speaking of will not result in an oil spill, a train wreck, or a bridge collapsing, but they are painful and inconvenient for me and those who are waiting for me to show up.
I am looking into this unpleasantness through the lens of the system of causation the Buddha set forth, the twelve links of Dependent Origination. This is a complex and accurate map of how we get stuck in repeating behavior from the past in the present moment and creating our future. This simplest description of this web of cause and effect is from Thich Nhat Hanh, “this is because that is.” Looking into what “that is” can take us through past experiences, to see how we recreate our habits, our longings, and addictions and perpetuate the view of who we believe we are.
Last week, I was fifteen minutes late to a school meeting and forgot a phone meeting, both on the same day. These two missteps have stuck with me much more than all the things I did right on that same day, including arriving at two other meetings on time with traveling over an hour each way. This propensity to dwell on mistakes is part of our natural negativity bias. A useful trait for the continuation of the species, this innate evolutionary function emphasizes the unpleasant or painful in order to instill avoidance of events and situations that can bring us suffering. I see this bias in the view that glosses over all the ways I was organized and on-time that day.
Negativity bias pulls us into auto-pilot mode and adds fuel to the self-critical voice, and to our doubt and reactivity. Instead of focusing on our ability to meet the challenges in our lives, we hone in on the mistakes, the imperfections which may lead us to believe and cling to these roles as flawed or wrong. As we respond to these self-imposed labels, we either push against them (I don’t want to be the late one) or we embrace them (I am happy to be the responsible one). They can last for a few moments, or for a lifetime, bringing with them a tangle of views and behaviors to solidify or purge these traits.
In his astonishingly comprehensive book, The Foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin (1998) describes the mind which mistakes biological responses to life for a personality as “merely an underlying mass of ever-changing causes and conditions, arising and falling, but which none the less, as it flows on, maintains a certain pattern which gives it the appearance of relative identity” (p. 246). When we believe we are what we think we are, we repeatedly take birth in our self-view. Each time I am late, I can further reinforce my belief, I am flaky—or each time I am on time, I could reinforce the idea that I am punctual, but even a pleasant identity will also cause pain on the day I get stuck in traffic. And being late will go against the identity I want to present, to be seen as competent, mistake-proof, reliable, as someone who lives up to their promises. So, we can see that all of these labels will eventually cause us the pain of trying to live up to them, or the pain of trying to run away from them.
This week, you may like to try this exercise, to list all of our self-views, all the good and the bad: compassionate, cruel, aggressive, patient, intelligent, slow, generous, selfish, all the ways we limit and evaluate our behavior. We tend to reward and punish ourselves based on these views. Consider what would it be like to have the same amount of acceptance and caring for ourselves when we have disappointing labels as the good ones? Can we stretch our compassion to include all of our existence without exclusion and offer ourselves to ourselves even when we make a mistake? I wonder if this is the secret of dogs? To not be sad about what we did last week and to not know how to withhold our love.
May we all trust our light,
Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, New York: Oxford Press.