Lessons from My Dogs



                   A cracked and fluent heaven, and a brown earth. I had these, and my  food and my sleep--enough. 

                                                                               --Louise Bogan

  Contentment I think gets a bad rap in contemporary society, with many people equating it with boredom, seeking outright bliss or enlightenment instead—which I’m all for, but sometimes when we search too hard for something we miss the very moment of it. Our joy just might be right above in the gently drifting cloud or the swaying tree…disguised in quiet contentment.

 Recently I emailed a friend describing the feelings I have when I step outside into the first light of dawn and breathe in the tender air of a new day or when I behold the last glow of light as that same day fades. The feeling is that this is what matters. And that this is . . . enough. When my friend responded that she felt a tinge of sadness and resignation in my words, I was surprised, for in my “enough” I felt not the renunciation of life, but its opposite: appreciation for the smallest moments which, strung together, make up life; a love of what is and a profound, if very quiet “joy in being.”

My “enough” does not take away our obligation to try to make the world better, but is simply an appreciation for all that is. It is in fact what allows me to feel deep peace in spite of conscious knowledge that animals and humans suffer daily. And it is from this place that I feel urged to act with compassion to all.

 Mark Nepo writes, “One key to knowing joy is being easily pleased.” Nietzsche said, “How little suffices for happiness! The least thing, the most gentle thing.” But isn’t it often only when we stop and become still that we’re able to detect the least and gentlest thing?

 Animals live this way unconsciously—they just are. And in so being, they’re also just perfect. My dogs have for years urged me to live in a state of contentment, encompassing both peace and joy, to let go of the To-Do lists of mind and follow their lead. Siding with my dogs are the birds and the flowers, the bees and the grass, the stones and the trees, the snakes and the clouds…all of the things in life I love.

One cold morning at the end of winter I was feeding the birds in my morning ritual when I stopped, why I don’t know because it was freezing, and stood still. The clouds above me were patchy mackerel scales. I stared up to them and only then, in my stillness, could I see that they were drifting ever so slowly across the sky. For a while I stood in the icy air gazing up, watching the soft, soundless movement of their random shapes changing—all undetectable without the stillness as contrast. In that one moment I knew and understood everything. Then I turned to go back inside and knew nothing.

 Moments like that now fill my life, and I find this is enough. The ordinary day, which becomes, under mindful awareness, extraordinary.

 One hundred years ago, Virginia Wolf was describing this same phenomenon as writers have tried to do over the centuries:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; […] In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar, the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Perhaps the content matters little, but instead whether we’re aware of it or not. There’s a mish-mash of dark branches tangled with vines against the western sky and as the sun sinks, their backdrop becomes golden then pink. That to me is beautiful. In the cool air of morning, the spring songbirds sing—the best music of all. The viburnum is blooming, so is the Russian olive. Their sea of scent combines and settles over the yard—the best perfume of all. Every time I pass, I stop, close my eyes and breathe in spring’s sweet spice—all the more sweet because its florescence, like our own, is here for a brief season then gone.  

 At night I stand outside amidst the sparking stars. I tilt my head and regard their vastness, which I can’t really understand except to feel at times the shining lights are close, a blanket covering me and sewn from a million years of wisdom. Sometimes of certain bright pinpricks against the dark night, I ask for wisdom and perhaps just a few answers to the meaning of it all. The stars twinkle down at me winking back their answers and what they tell me is that perhaps there is no meaning. Only what we make of life. For life just is. On some level the animals understand this simple wisdom, living their gentle harmony with earth.

 My dogs embody contentment; they live so purely in the present and accept what is. All animals, when in their natural environment do. I marvel at birds hoping about in the midst of the snowstorm then relishing the first pure days of spring, or the dog in the small yard content with a bone. While I know domesticated animals become bored and farm and laboratory animals suffer extremes, I find the animals of nature lead lives of purpose.

 Maybe our lives are at best made not from always knowing but from wonder and delight—which hold a deeper wisdom than empirical knowledge or proof. We’re alive and, when at our best, we’re awake. And when we can listen to what the stars tell us, to what the earth and the animals tell us, we can be alert to every single moment and present in it. We can then step into each day with genuine love for all that is. There is nothing sad about this, as my friend thought, for somehow, it’s enough. Enough just to be alive.

 And there is something that tempers the suffering in life. There is love. Here at home, love lies in little balls with tails tucked ’round bodies, and crescent eyes shut, breathing in contentment in slow, dream-filled rhythms. I stand and watch them wordlessly. Then say to myself, “Wow. I’m alive and I get to be in all of this. I get to feel and love and wake up in the morning and drink coffee too!” I watch as one black tail flaps on the floor in quiet understanding.

 Contentment is that place I find myself so often these days, floating on a small swelling wave in the ocean of life, somewhere between peace and joy.