I was commuting down to Palos Verdes for Shinzen Young’s mindfulness retreat (where I was recording, offering posture classes, private sessions and yes, meditating.) I missed the first two and a half days of the retreat because my sweet, funny, 15-year-old, ultra-fluffy dog, Chester, had suffered a mild stroke two days before the retreat began, and I knew that my being with him for these critical days would determine his quality of life for the remainder of his time here. This dog’s physical health has always seemed to respond so dramatically to love and attention – more than any other animal I’ve known. So there was no question, I’m staying with my dog. The retreat can wait.
Chester improved rapidly. He recovered motor skills and appetite. He was regaining physical and mental abilities I hadn’t necessarily expected to see again. I was, of course, delighted and then felt I could begin commuting down to the retreat each day.
One morning, just as I was leaving for the retreat, I realized I needed to pick up another SD card for my video camera that morning’s session. (Yes, I record Shinzen’s teachings on video to share with the world on YouTube. Hundreds of people have discovered him from these videos, so I feel I’m serving a purpose there.)
I stopped at a Staples to pick up the card, but this ended up putting me behind schedule and I was now barely going to arrive as the workshop was starting – plus I had a 5-minute set-up. I kept an eye on the clock – and my GPS arrival time estimate – as I drove down the freeway. The commute was about 50 minutes.
When I was about 12 minutes away from the retreat, driving on the 110 freeway, I saw up ahead of me along the right side of the road a large black dog. It was big – at least 100 pounds – and had fur like a St. Barnard except it was black with white patches. This dog was galloping along the right side of the freeway as fast and as hard as any big dog I’ve ever seen. He was like a stallion gone wild except he knew where he was going. His fur was flying as this focused canine missile galloped down his lane.
Of course, it was stunning to see this huge animal where it didn’t belong – also that he wasn’t cowering to the side, but powerfully running. And, of course, my first thought was that the dog was in danger, and I needed to save that dog!
Yes, I’m that person. The one who always finds a dog in the street and rescues it. It’s not like I seek it out – I’m not a crusader or anything. It’s just that if I see a dog wandering, I know what needs to be done and I find myself doing it. I mean, I know I can (usually) get a dog to come to me – so it simply seems like I’m the man for the job in that moment. And this moment definitely needed something to be done.
Oh, but if I do, I will then miss the morning teaching that I was to record. Hmmm, what’s more important? – Possibly recording something that hundreds of people on youtube could use as a deep teaching? Or save this one dog? Yep, you guessed it – save the dog.
But this dog was running along the side of one of the busiest freeways – this is perilous territory. We could both get killed if this doesn’t work out perfectly.
Okay, now everything I’m about to describe happened in about 4 seconds:
I saw the dog. I realized how fast he was running – and with determined direction. I saw just ahead was the next exit. The ramp was coming up. Would the dog take the exit? If he doesn’t, there is a high probability he will be killed by someone coming on from the entrance ramp beyond this exit, as, let’s face it, nobody is going to expect a 110 pound animal galloping on their left as they enter the freeway.
I have to stop him from getting there. But if I somehow get in front of him and stop – also given the speed he is going – there’s a chance he will go around me and into traffic and get killed. So my attempt to save him could kill him. What to do. … That dog needs to be saved. Am I the one to do it? Am I in the best position for that?
And just then I drive up beside him, as by now I’ve gotten into the right lane, and I look over at him (expecting to see a panicked dog running for his life), and I see that he … is having the time of his life! He is “King of the World!” He is racing the cars on the freeway! (And as many cars slow down when they see him – he’s not far behind their speed.) No dog running for a ball could have more fun than him in this moment.
The joy and graceful power of this animal causes a burst of joy and love in my heart. Oh, what a wonderful animal! He can’t get killed. No! But then I suddenly realize that I’ve got to decide right now if I’m taking that exit – and I decide not to. I don’t know if he is going to take that exit, and I’m thinking his biggest danger is from the entrance ramp up further if he doesn’t take the exit. I don’t want to leave him, though. This dog must be saved. Did I make the right choice?
And I now look in my side mirror to see him behind me – to see what he does. Again, I am struck by the happiness on his face. And when he gets to the exit, he doesn’t even notice it – this dog is like a missile – nothing is going to pull him away from this commitment to this race. He is ignoring the exit ramp and continuing along the freeway. And as soon as I see that, I decide that I’ve got do something now – there’s only one thing to do – I’ve got to slow down all traffic on the 110 freeway that I can to save the dog before that ramp…in the next few seconds.
And the INSTANT that thought occurs to me, this dog suddenly veers sharply to the right – barely slowing to cross the exit lane to the get to the right side. He cuts in right behind a small white truck and in front of 2 cars. All traffic responds … almost as if expecting this – as if they are thinking, “Of course something like this could happen.” The dog is acting like this is normal – and so is traffic. Then I see a glimpse of a driver and realized what their experience is – it’s like a horse runs across the street – it’s just simply hard to miss.
I still worry for the dog. I mean, he’s not out of danger. He could simply keep that speed and run down right into traffic. In my heart, I felt he was charmed and would inspire people to save him, but my worry – or rather my sanskara of worrying – wouldn’t quite let up. I kept thinking that I should have stopped. I should have helped find a way to save that magnificent dog.
I exited the freeway and made my way up the hill to the retreat center but I couldn’t get the dog out of my mind – I just kept seeing that image of him running beside me as if running a race and so so happy – and another old habit of self-judgment/blame decided to visit, saying “You should have stopped. You should have saved the dog!” – repeating this over and over. I was starting to feel tight and icky – caught in that cycle of image, fear & self-judgment.
Then, after a few minutes, it occurred to me that I could send loving kindness – and protective loving energy to that dog! Of course. It was like a light switch – the instant this occurred to me, it happened and my whole body energy totally shifted. (And in the moment, I also marveled that it hadn’t been the first thing to occur to me – ah, but old habit patterns must be worked through and no matter how much purification you do, there’s always something there to percolate up or get triggered.)
And then I envisioned the dog enveloped in a white light bubble of protection from harm – which also invited love and care. My heart opened immediately and once again I replayed those images of that wildly thrilled, huge, graceful, powerful dog who was racing the cars on the freeway. Oh, I loved the spirit of that dog! He deserved to live – and live happily. I couldn’t not smile thinking of that dog. (That worry voice was now just rumbling in the background – working it’s way out – and I focused on what I could do.)
Then I shifted gears as I arrived and got to the chapel just as the morning workshop was to begin. I needed to set up – and as luck would have it, Shinzen hadn’t arrived yet. The place was full and everyone was sitting there silently waiting for the teacher. I came down the aisle to set up in the 2nd row, and a friend appeared magically at my left and said, “What can I do?” and I handed her the long green extension cord telling her where each end needed to be, calmly and clearly like a surgeon.
Another man quickly, fluidly got up and untangled and directed the cord so that the end was to me before I had the tripod set up. Yes, we were like a rehearsed surgical team – quietly and efficiently attending to what needed to be done. I slapped the camera onto the tripod, added the directional mic, and plugged it in just when Shinzen comes down the aisle. Whoa! That’s timing! I am JUST going to make it!
Then Shinzen stands in front of everyone and says he’s going to need 10 minutes as he’s dealing with something important. (This was unusual, but we all knew that Shinzen will often, during retreat, also be working on the phone with at least one person who is having life crisis. It’s just how he lives his life.) So now I have 10 more minutes. Wow. I’m now EARLY!! I have time to unpack, set up the extra stuff, and let myself settle. Wow.
I take a breath to stop and get settled. I’m expecting everything to just drop down as it usually does. Nope, there’s the dog. Can’t not see that dog – that face, that power & grace, that joy – and feel the simultaneous love and fear – as I also do see and feel that protective light. But it’s now that I’ve stopped that I can feel those contrasting events in my body, interested to see how the verbal, “I should have stopped” chant was still going – along with some corresponding body sensations. Okay, I obviously still had some processing to do.
Then Shinzen comes in again and sits down and without saying anything rings the bell three times to guide us in meditation. I turn on the camera, after all I’ve been through this morning, I’m going to record this one.
And what follows was one of the most deeply delicious expansion and contraction meditations that Shinzen has ever guided. It was subtle and effective. He began with “Note Everything” and then “Do Nothing” and then let the Expanding and Contracting begin – taking us on a journey of subtlety and depth that maybe could be best appreciated by experienced meditators – but it was divine.
As this meditation unfolded … the dog, me, my fears, my love, the room, Shinzen, were all just flavors of a bigger event that expanded to a light fullness and then folded in, dissolved – and then re-emerged in a slightly different form. It was like being kneaded like dough, and then rising …. and then disappearing – and then re-emerging with all the molecules arranged differently – lighter, fuller, richer. Ah, the ultimate digestion, purification, and grace.
After that, I felt I had gone far beyond merely processing old habits of self-blame, guilt, helplessness – using this mindfulness system (with a master teacher at the helm) – all “problems” became opportunities. Instead of the wave knocking you down – or making you seasick – you learn to ride the wave – and then become it.
Now when I think of that dog, and believe me, the images of him are as vivid as I write this as they were in my car right afterwards but now there is not one scintilla of fear, regret, or loss. I just delight in his joy. And trust that the world does, too.
Note to self: When in doubt – open heart, process with mindfulness, and love dogs.
This is a link to the meditation that Shinzen guided: https://youtu.be/pg6PTbZ9hDw