28 Jun How adopting a dog changed my life
The “Wagging” Buddha:
When I was a teenager in India, there was an amazing advertisement made by a mobile phone networking company about how their network would always be available wherever you went. The network was symbolically represented by an adorable pug that would follow a kid around in a variety of idyllic settings, set to a hauntingly beautiful tune – it somehow always reminds me of the special relationship between man and dog.
There are enough platitudes, myths, legends, movies, poems, songs and stories about that relationship to suggest the timelessness and significance of it. Indeed, science tells us that humans and dogs share a 10,000-year-old camaraderie. Thus, they have been playing an intimate role in our survival and well-being from the very beginning. To anyone who has ever been privileged enough to experience such a bond, no science or story is necessary – the experience itself is ample evidence as is its transformative nature: true love has a way of changing us intimately and always for the better.
My own experience with my German Shepherd is one such tale. I would like to share it with you, with the hopes that it will persuade you to adopting and sharing your life with these beautiful and wise beings. (If you are unable to commit because of logistics, do try volunteering at your nearest animal shelter or even fostering.)
The beginning of my tale is not a pleasant one. I was in graduate school in a very difficult set of circumstances involving both challenges in school as well as personal ones. There were days when I felt so emotionally, physically and mentally drained by everything that I had no energy left to even understand how to make changes for the better. It was then that by some stroke of genius – possibly a last-minute attempt by my inner-self at self-preservation – that I decided to bring my adorable (then) three-month-old puppy home. I named him Zero. The physicist in me always enjoyed the nuanced relationship 0 has with infinity. The other connection was with one of my favorite movies: Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas – remember Jack Skellington’s dog’s name?
The next bit might be surprising. While puppies are incredibly cute and cuddly, they are also quite demanding. Given my depleted resources, the first few days were truly excruciating. Zero would sleep a few hours only to yelp awake at night and needed to be taken out often as he still hadn’t been potty-trained. I will never forget one particular morning as long as I am alive. It was the turning point of my sorry tale.
The night before I had finished my work at 4 am and only had a few hours to sleep before an important exam the next day. Much to my dismay I had barely slept a couple of hours when Zero started yelping to be taken outdoors. I was at my breaking point, and the combination of all of life’s frustrations bore down on me. I recall picking Zero up and for a shameful second all I wanted to do was shake him. It was then looking into his innocent face that I heard a whisper from somewhere deep within me: “choose”. I was either going to shake him and channel my frustrations into this utterly helpless innocent babe or I was going to be more than the pitiful husk that I was becoming. I remember hugging him and crying. That would mark the beginning of the end of a series of bad decisions I had made in the past. Life just became better then onward. (I serendipitously learned later that Zero would sleep peacefully through the night if I put my hand next to his face in his crate.)
Zero has been teaching me many things ever since. The first was to shift the center of my being outside of just me. When you truly love someone else you start thinking in “us” terms – it’s no longer just about you. This is a crucial concept that I had never really emotionally understood. I had also never learned to be truly vulnerable, not just to others but also to myself. Somehow, this four-legged angel was able to draw out and give voice to my deeply buried emotions and to see parts of myself truly out in the open. It has been exhilarating and liberating. As I have been coming closer to understanding myself, the very knots that have been holding me back from realizing my potential have finally started untangling. This in turn would mean that my insecurities would also evaporate as I had now started to understand them and address them directly.
I think a crucial component of this journey of self-discovery was the ease with which Zero displayed his confidence and affection for me. No matter what the situation, this speechless being could express a level of emotional support that no one has been able to convey. I can assure you, that when you are supported in this non-judgmental manner your basic sense of belief in yourself changes. In the face of challenges, you no longer doubt yourself, you simply become curious. The absence of fear is a wonderful experience, as your choices are no long short-circuited by the primitive responses of the brain. Thus, you make fewer mistakes and even those that you do make become simply a reflective and learning experience. You are freed from the burden of having to internalize them out of shame or guilt. How wonderful a dog can be – your own personal karmic purifier!
There is another way Zero transformed the way I approached life. In Buddhism, there is this idea of “Buddha Nature,” the idea that everything in creation (both living and non-living things) has a true nature, one of Ananda or true happiness (this is not to be confused with the emotion of happiness), and is striving to be in tune with it. Paradoxically, the more sentient you become the more is your ability to be out of tune with yourself (which of-course means that you can also be in tune). However, it is the very nature of Maya (the illusory power that confounds our perceptions to believing in distinctions and absolutes) that pervades Samsara (loosely, the interconnected mesh of reality) to bring about this disjunction. This is the kind of thing that leads to taking life too seriously and losing the ability to laugh at yourself. I have frequently noticed that whenever I get stressed and frustrated with situations, Zero immediately starts some kind of “monkey business” to lighten up my mood. Try staying mad at the world when your hundred-pound German Shepherd is running around the house like a mountain goat inviting you to play with him – it is just impossible!
The magic of all of these types of realizations and experiences is that hardly anything affects you negatively anymore and you can see the humor in almost every situation. For instance, I recall how I was dealing with a rather difficult situation at work but somehow I was able to maintain a more or less cheerful disposition through it all. Since I was able to see and appreciate the provenance and the interplay of the dynamics without too much undue hindrance of primitive responses, the idiosyncratic and irrational behavior of the people involved were just observations rather than emotionally charged judgments. An honest disclaimer here is that I can see and I know that I still have miles to go, but I can also honestly attest to the psychological ease and openness with which I have dealt many troublesome situations.
Having lived now a decade with my steadfast guardian, these days I have come believe that Zero’s entry into my life was not so much my choice but rather my karma. In the 4000-year-old epic tale the Mahabharata, when the warrior-king Yudhishthira was required to make a pilgrimage to the land of the dead, Death himself incarnated as a dog – a symbol of dharma and purity in Hinduism – to accompany the warrior as his guardian on his perilous journey. I do not fancy myself a warrior-king, but I do like to muse that it was some version of “more than mere coincidence” that brought such a positive force for good in my life.
by Ray Ushnish
Ray is a life enthusiast. He was a Fellow at Caltech and Princeton University, specializing in the quantum phenomenology of materials, nonequilibrium statistical mechanics and disordered systems. He is now pursuing entrepreneurial activities in technology. In his free time, Ray avidly pursues the epicurean lifestyle. Socializing with people from all walks of life and exploration also feature prominently in his narrative.