During the recent winter storm in New York City, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists, there was a downpour of several inches of snow with fifty mile an hour winds and sub-zero wind chills. Much of the city shut down, but I bundled up in ski pants and 2 pairs of socks and several shirts and jackets and headed to work–walking dogs. I noticed that the other people I saw fell into two camps. One group consisted of people like me, those of us who had to work, who did not have the option to call out for a snow day or work from home. Most of my fellow winter dare devils were not thrilled about the situation. Grimacing at the wind, they shuffled stiffly to their various train stations.
Then there were the kids and the kids at heart. These people were excited and went outside because they wanted to experience the snow. Many giggled at the ridiculous weather situation. Some were hurrying to Central Park with plastic sleds and ski goggles. I noticed myself oscillating between these two groups throughout the day. I moved from apprehension to wonder and excitement to cold and tired.
At one point during the day I walked near the Natural History Museum and was struck by the sight of a dog running joyously through the snow and across the street towards the park. It was freezing cold and all around me people bristled against the cold, but this dog was fired up like the fourth of July. It made me think about dukkha, the inescapable suffering in life that the Buddha talked about, explaining that the only thing we can control is our response to what is happening. Our reality is shaped by what we make of it.
“Spiritual friends (er, dogs?!) are all of the holy life, Ananda.”
I am reminded of so many lessons like this from dogs every day. I usually walk the same dogs and have gotten to know their personalities intimately. Most of my workdays start with Shirley, a three-year-old Golden Retriever. When I walk through the door her response is to jump off the couch and bowl me over with hugs and kisses. A social butterfly, she loves meeting new people on our walks. She shows her enthusiasm by flopping down on the ground and rolling around in ecstasy whenever we come across a mail carrier or any other semi-interested person. She reminds me to appreciate the good things in life and to cultivate gratitude. Shirley is the embodiment of mudita, or sympathetic joy. She demonstrates the importance of “sangha” and spiritual friendship.
My next client is usually Bentley. He is a chubby Chihuahua mix with a dash of Tabasco–fiery with a bite. I usually find him in his human’s bed, tail wagging, belly up. His definition of a good walk would be one that took place under the covers, belly rubs and all.
Not a fan of loud noises or other dogs, most of New York City is a scary place for him. His aversion to discomfort reminds me of my own distaste for pain. On many days, when my alarm clock goes off, I would much rather stay in bed than walk ten miles with dogs in the rain or snow. I see this with Bentley all the time. When it is time to put his harness on I have to coax him out of his hiding place and tenderly encourage him to face the day. Once out, he will often get activated and aggressive if another dog walks by or he hears a loud noise, a reminder of all the ways people, like Bentley, react from a place of fear. The Buddha talked about how all beings experience an underlying sense of fear or anxiety related to our own impermanence. Bentley reminds me to have compassion for my fear and that sometimes I need to tenderly encourage myself to carry on.
Metta, Mudita, and the ‘Manhattan Mix’
It may sound strange, but some of my most instructive Dharma Dogs are those who find extreme joy in life, like Hendricks or Tucker. Hendricks is a one year old French Bulldog who values play above all things. Tucker is a Bernese mountain dog who relishes the cold and strives to ‘climb every mountain,’ especially those near his house in Riverside Park. This desire to climb is bred into him, causes and conditions, much like Hendricks’ love of fun is bred into him. They remind me to be spontaneous, to break out of old patterns and ruts, to cultivate wonder, and of the inherent goodness with which we are all born.
Then there is Juno, the middle-aged Goldendoodle, the snuggler with a penchant for eating New York City’s leavings. With a one track mind, he will pull me through the park with his nose to the ground searching for garbage to eat. He has even gotten sick a few times from eating something he was not supposed to but he does not understand the consequences of his actions. In him I see so much craving that it is almost like watching an addict. Observing him, I reflect on all the complicated thoughts and emotions we humans have. We can so easily get trapped in believing we can avoid dukkha with our cravings and addictions. With Juno I see the need for equanimity as we navigate the field of samsara.
That Doggone ‘Impermanence’ Thing
We all must face sickness, old age and death, and dogs, of course, must face these realities as well. Two of my clients are themselves getting up there in age: Milo and Jazz. Milo is an adorable beagle ‘of a certain age,’ and Jazz? Well, let’s just say the ol’ guy’s got some serious life experience. Milo doesn’t mind. With her soulful eyes, she has the attitude that ‘age is just a number.’ She loves to run up and down the trails in Central Park, sniffing along and playing chase. I have an inexplicable fondness for her. Meanwhile, Jazz likes to stroll in Central Park near the lake and through Strawberry Fields. He reminds me to be easeful and to age with grace.
These are truly ‘Dharma Dogs,’ my teachers, my gurus. They speak to the inter-connectedness of living beings and the importance of cultivating loving-kindness toward all. Our needs are not so different from theirs: food, shelter, love and affiliation. Beyond that we tend to over-complicate things, establishing more and more attachments that keep us mired in Samsara.
I got a job walking dogs because I thought it would be an easy way to make money and get exercise while seeing New York City. It has actually turned out to be a daily dharma practice where I have learned so much about craving, aversion, patience and effort. Most importantly, walking dogs has deepened my practice as well as my love and compassion for all beings.