Max and the Shadow
I was walking my dog, Max, down a creek side path on the outskirts of town. Not many people walk on this path and dogs are allowed, but they are supposed to be on a leash. Off leash places where I can walk with my extra large, scent sniffing, blissfully galloping and exploring dog, are extremely rare. Although this creek side path is not technically sanctioned as an off leash area, it is one of the few safe places where some of us can let our dogs run free. Not many people walk here, and I am careful to put Max back on the leash when approaching another person or dog that might feel threatened. We have a pretty good call and response relationship, Max is not at all aggressive and most people love to stop and enjoy him.
As Max was off on a sniff by a tree, a woman came power walking by us hissing, “Read the sign.” The sign she was referring to was, Dogs allowed on leash. Pick up after your dog. Since I was holding a bag of dog poop, she was clearly pointing out that Max was off leash. We were the only ones on the path. The rest of the walk, I obsessed over possible retorts- you know the deal, I should have said… yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, I got an opportunity to do just that as she came walking back towards me on her return path. Once again she blurted out while quickly passing, “You’re not allowed to have your dog off leash” and I responded, “He’s not disturbing you or anyone else, it’s your own mind that’s disturbing you.” She seemed shocked, maybe because, unlike New Yorkers, Californians are more likely to apologize than confront. In her shock, all she could come up with was, “It’s the rule.” Her words were gasoline on a smoldering pile of fuel. My shadow really kicked in. Before I could stop myself I said, “You’re being a rule Nazi.” Cringe. Name calling, really? This sort of reaction was so unlike me. I felt shocked and shaken.
This little encounter brought to mind all the times and places my mind becomes tight and petty. People driving, what I deem, too slow, people not moving along in line, people cutting in front of me. Alas, it seems that I too have my own personal rule Nazi residing within my mind. Since this encounter I’ve been looking at the dark thoughts I wish I didn’t harbor- the quick criticisms, the flash of anger, the immature responses to taunts.
Wanting to make other’s comply with our sense of what is right, even when the others are doing no harm, is an expression of pain at our inability to control our environment. Instead of enjoying the sunshine and trees along the path, we become stuck inside a mind that is a fuming caldron of toxic thoughts. I felt compassion for this power walking woman’s suffering.
It’s much more self-flattering to identify as a victim of another’s anger than to identify with the one who lashes out in anger or takes more then their share. But if we truly, truly wish to awaken, we need to look closely at all our thoughts, not just the ones that make us out to be the hero of our story. If we can let go of projecting our shadow on to others, no matter how wronged we may feel, we have the opportunity to see our own shadow. Then true compassion, rather than “thoughts and prayers” style faux compassion, has a place to take root. Awakening is, after all, more about releasing than gaining.
A symbol for Buddhism is the lotus flower emerging out of murky water. When I was in Thailand I learned that without the muck, the lotus does not grow well. It needs the muck for its nourishment, and out of those slimy, mucky waters emerge pink, purple and white visions of loveliness. When people think of spiritual work, what often comes to mind is sitting in a peaceful place enjoying a gentle, loving state of mind. When we look within we do see the love and oneness with all life, the kindness and warm heartedness. But we also see the snarky, angry, greedy, selfish smallness of our mind. It takes courage to draw the veil open on our shadow, but is well worth the effort. The real jewels of insight can be found in these dark corners of our mind.
Awakening lies in the opportunities provided by the unpleasantness every life offers up so generously. The people we deem disturbing allow us a rare glimpse into the dark, hidden corners of our mind. Once we really look at the parts of ourselves that make us cringe, we have the choice to let go of that which is getting in the way of our freedom and happiness. Rather than blame others for our discomfort we can feel gratitude for their teaching.
The woman on the path reminded me of my own rigidity, my own tight mind. Once I saw the tightness in my mind I was able to let go of the small things I didn’t even realize were there. The niggling thoughts had kept me from enjoying a stranger who smiles at me in passing, the child who is digging a hole to China in the sandbox, the simple sun reflected in a puddle. A lightness emerges out of the discomfort of a troubled mind. The murky water fertilizes the lotus flower.