Three years ago we adopted a Jack Russell terrier we named Tig. He’s a handsome guy, solid and well built, with a beautifully defined head and large expressive eyes. But poor Tig is a damaged soul. Whenever there’s any friction in the house, (usually caused by my quarreling kids), Tig freaks out, and beelines it to the crate in the corner of the kitchen where he sits against the back wall, panting with anxiety. Sneezes are also an issue—a sneeze from any one of us sends him hightailing it up the stairs to my daughter’s bedroom, the most remote room in the house. And gum? God forbid anyone should chew it in his presence—he starts to hyperventilate.
We don’t know much about Tig’s handling by his previous owner, but when he first arrived he looked to us for approval on everything, from going out to do his business, to eating, to getting in the car. Everything was an ordeal, a drawn out process of assuring him he was a good boy, he was okay, that we weren’t displeased with him. He couldn’t take any action without worrying what we thought about it, what we thought about him. I don’t know about the sneezing and gum chewing thing (I suspect someone he found frightening often sneezed and chewed gum), but the approval thing pointed to having his every move regulated and controlled and commented on and criticized. “Good boy” “Bad boy” “No, don’t do that” “No, that’s bad” “That’s good”—he’d look at us with a worried anticipation, waiting to be told which of those he was in that moment.
During the three years we’ve had him he’s made huge improvements, but the damage still remains. But here’s the interesting thing: sometimes for a few moments he forgets he’s damaged, and he becomes a normal dog.
It’s most apparent on walks. We have a conservation area in our neighborhood, a large wooded space with miles of trails that all my dogs, both past and present, have always loved. All except Tig, that is. Oh, Tig loves the idea of walks, and always hops into the car, excited for the adventure, and happily jumps out with my two other dogs when we reach our destination. But once we start out on the trail something changes. He begins to look worried, and starts hanging back. Sometimes he stops completely and refuses to go on, while other times he follows but stays so far back he’s barely visible.
But when another dog comes along, or a horseback rider, or mountain bikers or other walkers, he changes. He surges past me down the trail, eager to greet whoever is approaching. It’s such a complete shift in behavior that I marvel each time, even though I understand the cause. I know the demons in his head have been hushed, that he leaves behind those thoughts he grew up hearing, the voices of his past, the ones that tell him he’s bad or good, or that he shouldn’t do something, or that he should do something else, the voices that regulate and control and criticize his every move, and pass judgment on who he is and what he’s done. And in those moments Tig becomes a normal dog, happy to be out on the trail with everyone else, and sniff the butts of other dogs, or watch a rider atop a horse, or observe a biker as they pedal past, or raise his nose to the wind and catch the scent of a hiker as they walk by. The unexpectedness of the situation yanks him out of his past, and lands him squarely in the present where there are no voices to haunt him. Unburdened by his past he becomes perfectly himself: dynamic, confident, and fully engaged.
It doesn’t last. We pass by and move along, and I can tell by the way he drops behind and resumes his fretful and inward posture that once again the voices from his past have returned, and taken up the cause of tormenting him with their endless edicts and judgments.
But in those few moments he’s liberated, and that’s what encourages me. Especially given how it happens. It’s inadvertent; he doesn’t read books on how to do it, or attend seminars, or participate in weekend workshops. He doesn’t meditate, or have a spiritual practice. It just happens; he stumbles out of his thoughts from the past and into the present Now without needing to gain insights or understanding of any kind. Which means it’s available to us all. We, too, can experience liberation from those voices, from the guilt and shame and fear that dog us. Tig happens upon it whenever something new jolts him from the well-worn track of his mental patterns, but we have the benefit of teachings, and of self-examination and intention. We can learn how we cling to our past, and resolve to let it go, and experience those moments of being fully present. And with awareness and commitment those moments can become series of moments, until we let go completely, and become perfectly ourselves: dynamic, confident, and fully engaged.