To my left, three boisterous dogs are entertaining themselves with a ball, while a timid-looking pooch watches with envy at a distance. At times the little outcast ventures closer, but she never seems to fully gain the courage to join in on their fun. We exchange looks now and again, and in her big brown eyes I notice the same desire to belong and to be loved that I have. Autumn is making itself known, not so much in the flora—plants in Southern California are late to shed their leaves—but more so in the earthy smell that has recently started accompanying sundown. I close my eyes and enjoy the sounds of dog paws grazing against the pebbled ground, of exhilarated barks and yelps, and of pet parents calling their dearest ones back to them. Coming to the dog park is one of my favorite pastimes—not only does it offer relief from the hustle and bustle of city life, but it also provides some wonderful insights into what it means to be a social being.
In recent weeks, I have been feeling increasingly irritated toward others, as well as toward myself. Following months of “sheltering in place,” my social skills have been impacted to the point that I resemble a clumsy puppy in my attempts to connect with others. On the one hand, I feel exhilarated whenever I have a chance to socialize—an impromptu socially distanced lunch at the office, for example, left me buzzing for days. On the other hand, each and every interaction carries a heavy weight. As we exchange ideas on a myriad of pressing global events—from what constitutes the best infection control practices, to addressing environmental decay and racial tensions—the disparity and gaps between our views are evident. Just like a puppy navigating its first moments at the dog park, I have an unsettling feeling that at any moment the shared laughter could erupt into a messy fight.
It is one thing to come into contact with a single person or situation that we find challenging. But when every interaction is stressful, my Buddhist training tells me that it would be productive to turn inward to investigate what is at the heart of the problem. This can be difficult and, more often than not, I shy away from doing the work. After all, it is easier to tell myself that I am right and that everyone else is wrong, and that, in any case, I don’t need anyone else to get by. Romantic notions of shutting out the whole world and spending the coming winter cozying up on the sofa with an anthology of books fill my mind. What is the point of trying to connect with others if it just leads to wounded feelings?
At the same time, a part of me recognizes that I have a strong case of the “lone wolf phenomenon,” a term used by American Zen teacher Koshin Paley Ellison to describe our tendency to isolate ourselves. In his book Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up (Wisdom Publications 2019), Ellison describes an insightful moment in his life when, aboard a Greyhound bus, a fellow traveler provided him with the following nugget of wisdom:
“You know what’s interesting about lone wolves? They’re sick. Wolves are pack animals, and they often mate for life. So if you see a wolf by itself, there’s actually something wrong with it.” (Ellison 2019, 4).
Just like the wolf and its domesticated counterpart, humans are social beings that thrive as members of communities. True, it can be tempting to imagine that we would be at peace if it weren’t for the drawbacks of the people that surround us. But as Carl Jung pointed out, the things that irritate us in others can bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Instead of letting our flaws and strengths divide us, a shift in perspective can help us recognize that our attributes—the good and the bad—can in fact bring us together. This is wonderfully expressed by the late Theravada Buddhist teacher Ayya Khema:
The only thing that is real is that we have six roots within us. Three roots of good and three roots of evil. The latter are greed, hate and delusion, but we also have their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. Take an interest in this matter. If one investigates this and doesn’t get anxious about it, then one can easily accept these six roots in everybody. No difficulty at all, when one has seen them in oneself. They are the underlying roots of everyone’s behavior. Then we can look at ourselves a little more realistically, namely not blaming ourselves for the unwholesome roots, not patting ourselves on the back for the wholesome ones, but rather accepting their existence within us. We can also accept others more clear-sightedly and have a much easier time relating to them. (Access to Insight)
According to Sister Ayya Khema, practicing in this way allows us to experience the world beyond the parameters that we usually ascribe to it: instead of viewing it as black and white, and recognizing in others only the three roots of unwholesomeness or their opposites, we can move toward a more comprehensive and unifying view of reality. And this is what I find so captivating about the dog park: it is filled with a variety of pooches, of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, whose interactions can lead to the most delightful moments of joy, as well as to frightful clashes and sometimes just downright chaos. What keeps me coming back here time and time again, is the wonderful opportunity to practice embracing every moment—including each and every imperfect dog and every single chaotic interaction—just as it is in all its splendor.
Ellison, Koshin Paley. 2019. Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up. Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.
Khema, Sister Ayya. 2013. “All of Us: Beset by birth, decay, and death.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khema/allofus.html