Dog drama: the dramas our dogs are assigned to act out for us, because we, in our human-suits, haven’t got one-eighth the harrumph of our beasts, in their lithe and sinewy dog-bodies. Elliot gets a particular, completely crazed look on his face, as soon as a prey-surrogate is around. He knows it's a stick, or a very manky tennis ball, and yet it is also IT – the fulfillment of his predator dreams. The ears go up, the eyes go wide, the fangy teeth sparkle. His front legs go straight – springs ready to release.
I am leaning down to pick up a stick Chloe has selected, and Elliot runs into my face, full-force. Ouch! Holy hell! My nose, my lips, my teeth! Face full of dog-drama, I taste blood.
But then I remember how tolerant Elliot and Chloe are, on the innumerable, inadvertent occasions when we kick them under the table, walk on their tails, or trip over their inert bodies, right in front of the sink. I can’t be angry with a creature who’s never been angry with me. I throw the stick. STICK! Both dogs run for it. Back home, I see a slight bloody patch on my lower lip, and decide it’s fine.
A lot of Zen koans are dog-dramas. The one my Sunday group unpacked yesterday* goes like this:
One day when Master Zhaozhou Congshen was wandering outside the monastery, he saw an old woman hoeing a field. He asked her, "What would you do if you suddenly met a fierce tiger?" She replied, “Nothing in this world frightens me,” and turned back to her hoeing. Zhaozhou roared like a tiger. She roared back at him. Zhaozhou said, “There’s still this.”
The dogs leap and twist over one another, sparring without reservation and without harm. Or, mostly without harm. One of Chloe's ears is now like a puffy hot beignet, swollen with blood from a vessel ruptured in the throes of Elliot-wrestling. She doesn't seem to care all that much about it, except maybe that it flops a little harder against her head when she runs full-tilt. There’s still this: we can still spar and play. We are still vulnerable to injury, and that shouldn’t stop play in its tracks.
Actually, there is an important distinction to be made between sudden, unexpected, intense actions, and the responses that make them into drama. Back a couple of paragraphs ago, I chose not to make drama out of the fact that Elliot ran into my face. I didn't go into he's a bad dog, or, nobody not even my dog cares about me, or even my face is ruined and my drawing students tonight will be convinced that I am living a sordid life of booze-addled violence. So, no drama. I stayed in the mainstream, where present-moment experience unfolds, and didn’t let the physical sensations go anywhere besides, ouch.
For a lot of my life, this mainstream did not feel like home. No home in the mainstream means no incentive to stay there, and so drama becomes seductive, unavoidable. I would go on excursions to the Himalayas, or to blissful samadhi states, and not want at all to come back, because I didn’t have much trust or interest in any “back” there might have been to come to.
With the help of someone far more experienced in Gabrielle Roth’s five rhythms than I, I've been listening into how an old bias for the extraordinary and the dramatic has played into how I’ve composed playlists for the dances I offer. I have an acute intuitive sense for music that opens doors into powerfully pleasant movement-states for me. That’s wonderful, and the shadow of that capacity is that I have often felt real resistance to music I felt was too ordinary, too staid. I’ve made junkie-playlists – playlists that go from high to higher, leaving no room for integration back into just being here, being human. Last night was different. Using feeling and language I’m learning from trauma-work, I titrated back and forth between intense songs and songs that felt a bit more steady. I built in dog-dramas AND periods of laying contentedly on the couch, navigating back and forth comfortably. My playlist came home from the high pass in Tibet, and opened the fridge, without resistance. Without pining for drama, there’s the ability to appreciate the overall feeling of presence, just as it is.
The name of a young activist who recently pissed me off has been, off and on this morning, in my mind like a mantra. But I can tell this is the drama-drive trying to wind itself up. Why bother? I put my attention in my butt instead. I put my attention in my feet. If a conversation with this person is to happen at some point, then it will, and letting the drama-drive shape it ahead of time won't have been a good investment of my time and energy. I can let the incident bounce off me like an over-excited puppy-dog. I can come back to where I am – startled, a bit off-balance, but basically fine. This is the practice of being able to move from wandering or hoeing, to roaring like a tiger, and back, without sticking anywhere.
“There’s still this.” I can still get stuck into drama, and I can refrain in ways that weren’t accessible to me, earlier. Observing, stuck, or not, “there’s still this” seems like a fine response.
It's colder and there's a fine new dusting of snow on the old icy crust. Elliot takes a tremendous wet dump right in the middle of the trail. Right here, one stick, one wide curl of birch bark. I nudge the poop onto the bark and hurl the whole mass towards the stone wall to my right. Whoosh! Splat. There still this, and the next thing, and the next, unfurling without end and without resistance, if we let it.
* "The Old Woman, Zhaozhou, and the Tiger," p. 135 in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, Eds. Boston: Wisdom, 2013.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.