Your comments to the post all in the waiting touched on this marvellous phenomenon of self and other. Barry’s inquiry into the relationship we have with our pets asked if our feelings for them are selfish. He recounted an exchange between a teacher and practitioner who was crying for the loss of his pet. The teacher said, “You’re not crying for your cat, you’re crying for yourself.” My reaction to the statement might initially have been to question my motives in owning my cats/dogs/elephants and to wonder if somehow I’d missed the Dharma Train of Enlightenment. Interestingly, my thought actually was to ask the teacher, “Then who is the cat?”
Interbeing is not a concept I can work with easily – and that may have to do with its overuse both in my root community and in the Buddhistic media. So I am surprised that I felt Barry’s story as a moment of Interbeing; the cat and I are interconnected (I really resist “Inter-are”!). Because I experience my relationship with my pets – horses, dogs, cats – as Authentic Presence, I often feel the dissolving of boundaries. I think that’s the nature of any relationship that is authentic in its expression of compassion and kindness. When I have been open to such a way of being with another, I am totally vulnerable and have the strength to be with them in their joy, their pain, their suffering. This is what I understand to be the interplay of compassion and empathy – the willingness to be with the other and, because of that, to understand and feel as they do.
When I had to end the life of my horse, I knew it was a decision that ended his suffering (compassion) but I was unprepared for the shock that ran through my body as he died (empathy). Suddenly, our decade of connecting was stilled and I believe I died too in that moment. In no lesser ways, I felt my own death with each of the dogs and cats we had to euthanize. Oliva, our matriarch cat, is now 20 years old. I keep my mind steadfastly in the present – she is curled up beside me now as I write this, her breath rasping and her fur drifting up and onto my keyboard with each out breath! Whether she dies in her own time-appointed fashion or not, soon enough, I will die again it seems.
Do I cry for the cat/dog/horse or for myself? Neither. The tears, the grief are for the third thing; they are the third thing – what has developed and manifested because we have lived with honest compassion and kindness for each other. And we do not truly live without compassion and kindness.
From Compassionate Mind by psychologist Paul Gilbert:
…(F)rom the day we are born, our brains are biologically designed to respond to the care and kindness of others…. When we are distressed, kindness helps; if we’re facing tragedies such as the loss of loved ones, the kindness of others helps; if we’re having to face out own death, then feeling loved and wanted is important to our ability to face it. We now know that close friendships and affectionate relationships play a huge role in our mental health and well-being and influence how our bodies work. For example, people in affectionate relationships show lower levels of stress hormones and higher ones of “happy” hormones than those in relationships characterized by conflict. Research also has shown that the way we relate or ourselves – whether we regard ourselves kindly or critically, in a friendly and affectionate way or hostilely – can have a major influence on our ability to get through life’s difficulties and create within ourselves a sense of well-being.
I am not surprised then that a loving relationship can evoke from me powerful emotions when it has shifted out of my human and limited perception. Our thinking brain can rail on about non-attachment and self-centeredness but the body thankfully is deaf to reason.
There is a story told (and very loosely recounted here) of Master Lin Chi who cried at his teacher’s death (or perhaps it was at his favourite student’s death). His students were shocked by this emotional display from a Zen Master who taught non-attachment so aggressively. They confronted him about his tears and Lin Chi replied: I am not attached but my poor eyes don’t know better!
Thank you for practicing,