Coloured portrait

Coloured portrait

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dogs and the Animal Nature of the Body

I grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Bucharest with my mother and father, two full-time professionals who hired a nanny to take care of me. We decorated our home as everyone else did, the kitchen table in the center of the living room, right underneath the lamp. A sofa, that doubled as bed at night for my parents, since I occupied the bedroom; four chairs around the kitchen table, and two bookcases brimming with books alongside the walls. 

We were poor, like everyone else was around us. But education and culture was subsidized, so books were cheaper than bread - and my mother loved books. She gathered them and sorted them by collections, the classics, the modern, the folklore. Where did my mother’s love for books came from, I do not know, as she was the first generation academically educated in her family - her mother, my grandmother, was illiterate, and learned how to write late in her life, when one of her grandchildren, my cousin, taught her the printed alphabet. I still remember her apricot preserve jars labeled in large, clumsy capital letters: CAISE - apricots.

Mother taught me how to read when I was still in kindergarten. Then she supplied me with a steady flow of storybooks, and I was out of her hair for many long hours, swept in the stories of knights and princesses, exotic romance in faraway lands and touching adventures and friendship between men and beast. The books I read transported me to places which came alive in my young and fertile imagination, places that I was always happy to leave behind and return to the reality of my tiny apartment and dinner, homework and bath.

With one exception.

When I read Jack London’s stories of dogs and wolves and man’s friendship with them, my heart remained captured in the imagination of such kind of friendship. One night, as I finished reading White Fang (or was it Call of the Wild?) I cried and asked my parents for a dog. I did get a dog, and lived with dogs for most of my life ever since. The friendship with my dogs transported me to a place much different than the literary realm of vivid imagination: a reality of shared affection, touch, movement, playfulness, laughter, sorrow, loss and bonding that was life at its most vibrant and full. The books were the restaurant’s menu, while caring for the dogs was the real food.

Not every individual or culture shares my love for dogs. I’ve seen men kicking stray dogs for amusement; dogs kept outdoors, on short chains, in all kinds of weather, day after day after day for a lifetime; I’ve seen dogs abandoned, dogs punished and beaten and yelled at, and plenty of well-behaved dogs feared and avoided on the street by people with faces grimaced with the terror of their own projected prejudice.

I came to notice a correlation between a culture’s character and the behaviour of dogs. Where people are kind, dogs are trusting; where people are mean, dogs are shy or aggressive. I am fortunate to live in a place that has zero stray dogs, and animals are protected by laws and for most part they are cared by kind people and charitable organizations.

Living with pets connects us with our own animal nature - that part of us that is all instinct but carefully tamed and dressed into socially acceptable personas where we behave in order to belong. We study, then graduate and hold respectable jobs, hold ourselves to a posture and demeanours dignified and worthy of our leadership roles. And inside those tailored suits and such other uniforms of parochial belonging, there’s a hidden wild beast who wants to play-fight and dance and move and cuddle and purr, an inner wild beast which comes out to play on the couch with our cats, and in parks or on the hiking trails with our dogs. It’s in your tee and shorts, when you growl and purr and make silly sounds and roll on the floor with your fur friend and play, that a part of you comes alive, and makes you incredibly happy: your animal self.

Life is about movement and touch - we begin as animals, eating and sleeping and learning through embodied direct experience long before our learning is entirely delegated to our heads and we learn to live from the neck up. There’s a great deal of shadow around our animal nature, in some cultures and subcultures more than others, where human virtue is seen in the transcendence and exclusion of our instincts, where we insult each other by calling each other animals of sorts, where houses are sterile and devoid of animals or plants, boasting to be “pet-free” homes. And we develop depression, as a result of disowning and denying a fundamental aspect of our nature, and try to mask it with drugs and alcohol, at no avail. 

Mental illnesses that do not respond well to medication often respond remarkably to interactions with animals. There are successful projects bringing together autistic children and dolphins or horses, with great results. I remember watching an Israeli television documentary about an animal petting farm where children and adults from violent backgrounds would come and learn how to give and receive caring touch. There were people whose parents had never hugged, kissed or caressed them, and they didn’t hug, kiss or caress their own children. I remember watching a hardened woman with sharp, angular facial features and hoarse, harsh-sounding voice being moved to tears as she was holding a little goat in her arms: this woman softened a bit as she experienced caring feelings that she hadn’t experienced before. 

I’ll make a wild guess to say that people who move, touch, play and cuddle with each other and with animals are happier than those who don’t. Sterile, sedentary, isolated, artificial living is far more threatening to our health than the germs on our hands from a puppy’s saliva. 

If you live with pets, I know, I’m preaching to the choir. I’m “in-between dogs” right now, and stay in touch with the “dogosphere” by walking with shelter dogs on every Tuesday afternoon. It’s my antidepressant medicine and my nourishment for the soul. 

This article is dedicated to the precious friendship with our animal friends, and the part of us that comes alive in this friendship.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Maps and Territory for Consciousness and Meaning

That which is being observed, changes.

What if that which is being observed and mapped changes?

Wondering about the accuracy and value of maps for consciousness and meaning: is a good map one which represents accurately the territory, or one which changes the territory effectively?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Wisdom in folklore language

In awe of perennial wisdom captured in folklore sayings. Romanian language mentions "Prezenta de spirit" - Presence of Spirit as a desirable and necessary strength. 
A common insult in Romania is "nesimtit" - one who doesn't feel, the socially clumsy oblivious person whose absent-mindedness hurts others.
Embodied awareness is recognized as a strength even in cultures who don't have a tradition of teaching it.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Spiritual Strategy for Adversity

Twenty years ago I read my first awakening book, a Seth book, which proposed to me a view I had never considered. "You are a painter and all the people and events in it are your canvas. You are also a player on the canvas of others". 

Sometimes when I have an intense emotional response to a particular behaviour or event I expand my peripheral view and send my attention far away to all the directions, and pretend that everything in my now expanded awareness is a canvas that I painted, including the things that bother me, or that I admire or envy.

I tell myself: "That thing or person or event is there because I put it there. Now what?" I pretend that all I have to do is paint over, and start by gaining as much clarity as I can on what I want to see happen. I don't always know what I want in specific terms, so I chunk it up to a generality, which could be love, or harmony, or elegant flow. I look at the essence of the bothersome event and turn it around to find the essence of that which I'd rather replace it with. 

Then I use a technique from my repertoire to connect to the realm of possibility. The right action that I am to take comes to me as an insight, and sometimes that action is counterintuitive and even scary, but the right one, as if prescribed by an old, wise friend from within my mind. 

When the right action becomes clear to me, and I carry it on, it is kind towards me, and also kind towards the other players on my canvas. There are no enemies to fight, no battles to win, there is just some clumsy painting here and there, and my job as a painter is to make the right amends (Tikkun).
This, I find, is a much more elegant way to respond to adversity than the locked identification with a separate self. Sometimes to love yourself requires going beyond the self, and love much more.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Ways to Tell a Life Story

Happiness has, in part, to do with how we tell the stories of our lives. The ultimate happy ending is how we die, whether we die well or not. The rest of the story, is how we live.

Life is suffering. Buddhist thought tells you so. Once you get that right, you make it your purpose to remedy that suffering for yourself, your loved ones, and the world. 

The stories you read and you watch depict some kind of suffering. We focus on what’s wrong, and it sells - it is a known fact among fiction writers and journalists that good news doesn’t sell, but bad news, and stories of pain, suffering, tense plots, unmet expectations, frustrations and losses make good articles, books and movies. Tragedies, stories of war, of injustice, and of every kind of suffering receive the highest ratings. 

How does listening and watching these stories impact your psyche? 

You already had, and maybe still have, your share of suffering. And you have also been having your share of joys, fulfillment, and triumph. But what makes a happy ending story of your life? Clearly, a good death - death is the end of this life’s journey. Everything in between your birth and your death are mere episodes, and they end where you choose to end each one of them, and that peak of the most intense suffering, or at the culminating joy. 

Happy ending stories, from fairy tales to Hollywood movies, are so uplifting because each story takes a wrong turn through some kind of suffering (threat, loss or conflict) but it ends on a high note life episode - the wedding, the game winning, the end of the war, the return home, the slaying of the monster, finding the lost love or finding a new and more suited loving partner. When the movie stops on a high note, we are left uplifted; when the movie ends on a low note, we are left depressed. Watch enough depressing movies and you’ll unconsciously mimic the pattern, and tell your own life stories as little episodes of horror. Watch enough happy endings and you will find it easier to end each of your life episode’s story on a high note, thus adding to your own sense of strength, good fortune, well-being, and overall happiness. 

Perennial Wisdom traditions have always incorporated story telling as part of their healing protocols - stories of heroism and danger, of Darkness and Light, of good fighting the bad, which always end with a message of triumph, where the good prevails and the Light conquers the Darkness sending the listener’s mind to look for the high note in their own life’s episodes, past, present and future. The illness can cease at least in part because we tell it to do so. The despair can turn into hope through reframing your story even when in the midst of a difficult time. Stories have saved my soul in the darkest of times: Joseph Campbell’s Hero journey have helped me reframe my identity from viewing myself as a Victim of an external Perpetrator to seeing myself as the archetypal Hero, and the adversity or adversary as a Dragon to slay. No Hero complains about having a Dragon to slay; Heroes get wounded, but neither helpless, nor bitter and resentful. And when they’re done with the Dragon, and with healing those wounds, they return to their village with a story to tell - a story of triumph, of course.

Next time you binge on Netflix shows, notice how watching those back-to-back episodes leave you feeling. What is the quality of your dreams after watching at night? What does your narrative sound like in both your inner dialogue, and in the outer dialogue of your conversations with others? Do you feel inspired to act towards your purpose, or disheartened, discouraged and stuck? 

Which parts of your past are highlighted as you articulate what happened: the lows or the highs? And while you are telling your story, how do you breathe? What do you do with your muscles? How do sit or stand? 

If as you are reading these words you are going through hard times, I encourage you to nourish your soul with some stories of triumph, of sunshine after the rain, of reaching the end of the tunnel. And maybe one day you’ll tell the story of what you’ve been going through and inspire and uplift others.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Greatest Joy Ever

Day 71 Self-Love: Desire 
I have swam with dolphins in the Red Sea and swam amongst live corals and myriad colourful fishes. I strolled through the Keukenhof gardens during the April blooms to the sound of magical music. I gasped in awe watching the green iridescent dance of the Northern Lights above the Canadian Arctic. I trained my palate to incredible flavours mostly unknown to my culture of origin where I grew up and nourished this body and soul with textures and fragrance of heavenly foods. I abandoned myself in embraces of passion to pleasures which sent shivers up my spine. I have played, as an adult, in theme parks where I had more fun than in my entire childhood, and I have travelled to Belgium to let its chocolates melt on my tongue until I sang out loud with glorious pleasure, and travelled through France, walked up the Mont Saint Michel looking down at the tides; I’ve strolled through the Swiss Alps with two of my best friends and asked them to pinch me, to truly believe that what I was seeing was true, and not a dream. I breathed the air of beauty and awe surrounding the paintings and statues of classic Italian Masters, and burst out in tears of gratitude at the chance of being there, inside the St. Peter cathedral in Vatican, the Florence Uffizzi, and the tiny gems of art exhibitions in Venice. 
I have listened to music that made my heart vibrate with such beauty, and saw more beautiful sunrises and sunsets in gorgeous nature than I can count. I have breathed in the air fragrant with pine in the mountains, and air filled with salt by the sea. I have trotted alongside beloved paws on long hiking trails and the Mediterranean beach; and rubbed happy bellies, and kissed cold, wet noses that I loved. I played-fought with puppies till my hands turned pink and my heart melted down in a hot puddle of love.
All these pleasures that I have lived seem to pale to the absolute best joy I have known so far: the pleasure and joy to inspire, enrich and connect; to touch your life even a little bit, to give you hope, to give you strength, to add to your life a little bit so that you can flourish. 
Adding to someone else’s happiness is my greatest desire, my greatest joy, and my greatest reward and pleasure.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Encouragement and Self-Love

I heard my teacher talking about how much he enjoys supporting people in doing what they want to do. He had just worked with a professional singer and helped her through a personal breakthrough. He himself does what he wants to do, and has been doing it for fifty years or so.
Encouragement is transmitted and reflected back.
I heard a community leader talk about how success always eluded her. She also de-platforms anyone who disagrees with her views.
I heard a mother saying how her daughter wanted to be a dancer, but she, the mother, thought she wasn't talented enough, and discouraged her from pursuing dance. The mother has led a dull, mediocre life with no creative pursuits.
I heard a mother deny her daughter the cat she wanted. The mother's face spells chronic dissatisfaction, the corners of her mouth point downwards even when she smiles.
We pass on the encouragement or discouragement we ourselves received. 
A teacher once asked me what I wanted to do with my life. She specified: "Not what you think you may be able to do. What do you want to do? Later you'll focus on the 'how to'. This teacher lives her life as she is wanting to, her family supports her, and oh, her children are creative and she always boasts with their accomplishments. 
I'm walking in the footsteps of brilliant teachers - the voices of discouragement are fading away, and encouragement, bit by bit, wins.