Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

July 2, 2015—July 5, 2015

July 2, 2015
Emaho! Now I get it. First came sitting beside Oscy, Susan and Frances’ cat, while he was dying and in that hour feeling myself heal from the childhood helplessness and sadness Little Cynthia experienced as she sat beside a dying Colette, one of several cocker spaniels ignored—as Little Cynthia was—in her family home. After Oscy’s gift to me I set an intention to learn to relate to animals more, an intention similar to the one I set before I went to work in the hospital seven years ago: to relate to people very unlike myself. So of course the Universe has brought me, as she faithfully does, exactly the book I need at this moment, Linda Bender’s Animal Wisdom.

Bender affirms the connection between our experiences of meditation and mindful living and the way that animals experience life. Rather than emphasizing how animals have the same dukkha as humans, she emphasizes the difference between their consciousness and our selves when we are in our conventional state of being. The important similarity is not between our sufferings as fellow beings—it is between the consciousness of the animal and the consciousness of the meditator/practitioner.

Free of concepts, free of stories, free of attachment to fixed identities, animals can welcome each present moment fully and when in discomfort or pain, with surrender that is free of second arrows. Bender conveys beautifully that the simple joy of that state for non-human beings is the same as the simple joy experienced by the most practiced meditators, a joy of continuous unobstructed awareness.

I think I had learned the possibility of this way of being—and interbeing—with the wild animals and birds on the desert, and one of my earliest entries in dharma gleanings shows that understanding very clearly, as I saw a wasp while mediatating and recognized that she was in a state like my own:

March 30, 2004
Until this morning, I never quite understood the injunction not to kill any sentient being. Why would it be wrong to kill some being that did not know it was being killed, that simply stopped existing?
Today, meditating at my kitchen table with my eyes open, I was focussed on the green bush of golden shrub daisies outside my window. All morning, and into meditation, I was in a state of pure, simple experience, pure joy, free of ideas and notion. Mindfulness. A small wasp entered my view and began traveling from flower to flower, and I realized—though I could not know for certain—that she was probably in the same state as myself, that she lives her days in mindfulness. And that in some way I cannot understand, my mornings in that state and her lifetime in that state are something deeply good in the world. That my connection to her is the connection of our participation in the goodness of being.
I think I have understood “sentient being” as almost the opposite of this—that it was about her ability to feel pain. Instead, I think, it’s about her state of delicious presentness, her capacity to just Be, and how precious that state is. It’s the universe’s gift to us and our gift to the universe.

Nevertheless, it’s been difficult for me to feel this shared experience with companion animals, because of the conventional insistence that they are “just like us,” and because of my estrangement from the family “pets” of my childhood.

When I have remembered the cocker spaniels, the rabbit, the canaries, the goldfish of my childhood, I have felt not affection, but pain—my memory was always of how they were ignored or used for my father’s narcissistic purposes as he used his children. Because I identified with them, I projected my childhood dukkha onto them. The pain was magnified by my own helpless inability to relate to them, having no models for caring interbeing with either animals or humans. I could not—as a child or later as an adult remembering—joyfully enter their spirits as I entered the spirit of the wasp.

I think I have felt that “pets” were small bundles of dukkha—like Little Cynthia, trapped and vulnerable because totally dependent on a parental figure for food, shelter and amusement, and so highly motivated to please their “master,” which the master then interpreted as love.

Now, reading Animal Wisdom, I get it. Pandora and Colette were not Little Cynthias. They were not miserable because my father was a narcissist and had so little to give them besides the bacon he made them stand up and dance for as he ate breakfast in his bed. When Colette danced for the bacon, when Pandora lay patiently under his slippered foot as he wrote The Pathogenesis of Tuberculosis, they were content. They loved him not because he was lovable or good to them. They did not love him because he served them but because it gave them joy to serve him.

Bender makes that clear, and from her elucidation I can see that our feeding an animal companion can be experienced by the animal as an outward expression of our love while her serving us is the outward expression of her love for us. Love goes into italics because the feeling itself is spiritual, not transactional as so much conventional love can be—it is more like the love we might feel when we see the picture of a beloved guru or a dolphin leaping joyfully in the air.

July 3, 2015
So now I see that it is meditation and mindfulness practice that frees me to live from a place that is in harmony with animals and their natural spontaneous experience. It has been my assumption that I needed to connect with companion animals at the level of conventional empathic thought that caused my pain and helplessness. I think of the teacher—Ajahn Chah?—who spoke of allowing the mind to become like “a still pool in the forest that the animals come to.” Thanks to practice and these understandings, I can be that still pool not only figuratively but with real animals in my life. And I can visit the still pool of the animals.

July 5, 2015
Bender’s observation that animals have pure joy in service strengthens my belief (December 20, 2012) that a primary need for children is not simply to be given to but to give. When basic needs have been caringly met, there is for both animals and children a powerful instinctive desire to love, probably more powerful—as it is for the advanced practitioner—than the need to be loved. (Possibly this is why children who are brutally treated often continue to love the abusive parent.)

Writing this, I suddenly recall when I was an older child, perhaps twelve, sitting on a side porch beside my father who was lying down to soak up some sunlight. I was reading aloud to him from a book of short stories—the first and only time anything like this had happened. I can remember my profound equanimous happiness, and realize that the young girl was at last able to give him a gift, at the same time that—although I was reading from the book—we were sharing a wordless meditative space.

At the hospital I have been moved by patients who describe similar important moments of childhood spent in silence with an otherwise distant or abusive parent, fishing or simply sitting in nature. One of the ajahns describes a defining experience of exalted happiness as one hour when as a child he sat silently beside his mother on a hilltop.

Practitioners know that ultimate reality is wordless. Just as I am drawn to the shared energies of group meditation, both children and animals—their minds not weighted with conventional thoughts, feelings, expectations, mistrust of silence—can find some of their deepest joy and peace from spending times of wordless immeasurable being with their companions. That is the meaning of Pandora lying quietly under my father’s slipper or Jenny, Dale’s cat, who always comes to sit with us for hours when we meditate. Pandora could sense that while writing, my father, who was a peaceful writer, was at such times in a space that she was familiar with. Susan observes that when she was clicking away at her computer Oscy would want to climb onto her lap or beg for a treat, while whenever she was meditating he would come and sit quietly beside her. We guessed that he was aware that she was entering a world he knew how to share with her. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, they inter-were.