Recently two visitors came to visit me: my husband, Robert, and Kin, our year-and-a-half old, 18-pound dog. Kin's playfulness and easy way of loving became a central joy in our daily interactions.
We began each day in our small, candlelit meditation room. Settling into the darkness, we chanted and sat in silence as the day broke. We invite Kin to sit with us, and he usually settles down for a snooze in someone's lap.
One morning, however, Kin was excited about something outside, and when he came into the meditation room, he saw a large, dark, unfamiliar shape which resembled the large, black trash bags he is afraid of. This set him into a frenzy of barking.
It was just one of our friends who, sitting on the floor and feeling a chill, put her hood up over her head. But Kin didn't seem to recognize her, and even as she reached her hand out to be smelled, he continued his frantic barking. When Robert tried to gather him up, he backed away and began barking at him too.
I finally picked Kin up and settled him in my lap, but I could feel the tenseness in his body and noticed his self-soothing licking. I hoped that my friend was not hurt or offended by Kin's reaction to her (she wasn't).
Then I remembered that I, too, had been barked at that week. Not by Kin, but from a sharp, accusing email I had received which was a total surprise. I had yet to unpack the bundle of feelings around it, so this seemed a good time to reflect on the experience.
My initial reaction on reading the email was the shock of a punch. Then, because the accusations hadn't been generated by any interaction or even contact, I didn't get pulled into the story but I still felt hurt at being wrongly accused and at not being seen for who I am. And under all that was a sadness, as this attack seemed to deny and reject years of good times and deep friendship we had enjoyed together. So it was important for me to take good care of myself, to allow the shock, hurt and sadness time to breathe.
Next, I thought about Kin's behavior — his looking at this large, dark shape with fear and aggression, when in fact it was a playmate he had delighted in earlier. I saw how his barking took him over, how he became more and more isolated until he couldn't even see Robert as safe.
The truth is that, in life, I have also been a barker. Watching Kin, I came face to face with how painful and isolating it is to be barked at and also how painful it is to be the barker. The experience fuelled a deep desire in me to never again bark at anyone.
The questions I continue to ponder are: how can I help myself and others when we are barked at? How can I learn to no longer bark at others? How can I see clearly, no longer mistaking beloved fellow beings for unknown potential enemies? How can I make friends with all of life, both familiar and unfamiliar?
Barbara Casey was ordained as a teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh, the guiding teacher for the Peaceful Refuge Sangha, she offers classes, consultations and leads special events for all those interested in mindfulness meditation. For information on local activities, go to peacefulrefugesangha.org.
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