Yesterday, when I took my dog Lila for walk, we encountered another dog, who was fenced in his own yard. We know where this dog lives in the neighborhood because we frequently walk on his street. The dog is a tall blonde handsome labradoodle, who, when we pass, stands up on his hind legs with his front paws on the fence, and barks at us ferociously. He acts really aggressive, threatens to jump over the fence. He’s loud and he’s scary.
Lila’s immediate response used to be to react with equal angry intensity. She’s a tall dog, too. She ‘d rear up on her hind legs like a black stallion so she stood about five feet tall, and she’d lunge at the male dog. Both of them snarling and curling their upper lips back, barking at each other, would then trigger me to start yelling, too. Now there were three of us making a scene, out of control. That felt awful in my body. It was also embarrassing. Why couldn’t I control my dog? Why couldn’t I control myself? What would the neighbors think? Was I a terrible dog guardian because my dog was acting so agro towards another dog, whose right it was to protect his own yard? I’d slink away, dragging Lila behind me, so ashamed.
I started meditating on this, first on my cushion, and then as we were walking and approaching the house where our nemesis lived. I practiced holding my energy in, and practiced surrounding that nonreactive energy globe around Lila, too. As we got close to the fence, I wondered, is that boy even in the yard because it’s so quiet? Then, at the very moment we reached the fence, he sprang up and threw down the vicious dog card. This time I was ready. The dog showed me two perfect rows of sharp white teeth that screamed BACK OFF!
“Hello, dog!” I said calmly. “How’s it going, dog?”
It barked even louder, its mouth so wide I could see into its throat. Lila’s tail stood erect and her ears went up, signalling to me that she was about to pull the black stallion card. Her body was shaking.
“We are not going to respond to that dog barking at us, are we Lila?” I reassured her. She looked at me, and her ears went down, her tail relaxed. “Let’s just admire how handsome he is, ok? Let’s practice being nonreactive for a moment, shall we?” The labradoodle kept barking and snarling, while Lila sat down, just feet from him, and waited patiently for him to finish his tirade.
“Good dog, Lila,” I praised her, stroking her ears. “That’s it! We are learning how to not be reactive, aren’t we?” Eventually the labradoodle was stunned into silence. He realized that no one was responding to him. He closed his mouth, and he and Lila just looked at each other quietly.
“Ok, release!” I said to Lila. She stood up, shook off the situation, and pranced on down the sidewalk towards the trailhead. She was clearly proud of herself. You could see it in the way she carried herself.
As we kept walking, I thought about what had just happened. We had met anger with calm, confronted aggressiveness with curiosity. I realize that this is but one example of how being present is a constant practice. We can let territorial dogs, people, events, whatever come at us. We can feel threatened, scared, unsafe. We can acknowledge those uncomfortable feelings and at the same time become aware that we have a choice. Option one is to get into it with bared teeth and inflated stature, ego, voice to try to intimidate the other. Or option two, we can press pause (or in Lila’s case, press paws) and sit and watch with quiet, nonreactive curiosity to see what happens.
A few minutes later, we encountered another dog on the trail. It’s another opportunity to practice. And then ten minutes later, we met another. Again, another opportunity to practice.
Every day, Lila and I practice together. We are getting our exercise, and it’s as much mental as it is physical. Some dogs we meet are big, others small, some are puppies, others in their golden years, some are leashed, others running free. If it’s a friendly dog, Lila will wag her tail and do a play bow. If it’s a not so friendly dog, Lila is learning to calmly keep her distance, and give that riled dog a wide berth. Sometimes dogs we pass get so irked, the fur on their back rises into a mohawk. In these cases, Lila promptly sits and waits for the agitated one to pass. Some might call it trustworthy. I would call it self-discipline. Of course, we’d prefer that every dog be friendly, but we know we have no control over any of the dogs we meet on the trail or in the neighborhood. Same with people, same with life, in general. We know that all we can control is our reactions to what and who we encounter. So we practice that. With every step on the path we are on, we practice.
Lila is the Sanskrit word for the interconnectedness of everything. It’s the divine at play, showing us that everything is a mirror for everything else. Lila teaches me and I teach her, and we support and encourage each other to remain curious and open to what’s new, to shake off bad feelings and keep going, and to appreciate every opportunity to practice observing the moment.