Lessons in yoga take many forms. Sometimes they come disguised as big, black furry dogs. Four years ago, on a cold dark evening, just before closing a yoga class a student came in through the front door of the Atma Centre and left a stray dog. A year earlier, the best dog I had ever known had died. I did not want another dog, but I couldn't put her back out in the street, so I took her home.
The first lesson she taught me was to accept what life gives you. After three weeks of putting up 'Found Dog' signs all around the neighbourhood and refusing to name her, I gave up and kept her. Since she was virtually untrained, fearful and quite easily excited, I named her Shanti, hoping she would come to embody her name. I took her to the vet for a check up and although she behaved much like a young dog, I found out she was probably about seven years old. It is said, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks". This is not entirely true, but for all I have taught Shanti, this dog has taught me more.
She quickly responded to my love and affection, becoming my constant companion, and guarding me with a level of awareness that any guru would wish to see in a disciple. She was aware of my every move and watched closely anyone who came near me. If they spoke harshly or laughed too loudly or moved too suddenly, she placed herself in front of me growling a warning. If this was not enough to deter them, she'd snap at them. She reminded me of Paramahamsaji's dog Bholenath.
Shanti is able to sense those with open hearts and an honest nature, but remains alert and watches closely those who have yet to earn her trust. She has taught me to trust more cautiously as well. Another lesson I needed to learn.
Over time she has calmed down considerably and learned basic dog commands. However, Shanti came with a deep samskara about other dogs. From the beginning she barked viciously and lunged at every dog she saw. Friends who walked her have on occasion, suddenly encountering another dog, found themselves flat on the ground with this 42 kg beast. I've paid the vet bills for three dogs bitten by her.
The next lesson she taught me is just how difficult it is to change. Of course I know this on an intellectual level, but I suspect I am like most other people and become impatient with my progress. She has taught me not only to be patient, but to be much gentler with myself about my shortcomings. For four years I have worked with her aggression towards other dogs. I have tried so many approaches. First I tried to move her attention away from approaching dogs by offering her treats, but her samskara about other dogs was so strong and automatic, that the prospect of reward was not enough to change her pattern and was simply ignored. I felt a connection with her. What would my reward be if I could truly change my reactions? It too, can be hard to see.
Next I consulted the 'professionals'. In the same way we often consult psychologists or counsellors to help us understand our own behaviour. I hired the area's best-known dog trainer. Over the next few months Shanti was outfitted with one training device after another. A collar that sprayed citronella under her chin at the sound of her bark. I think she began to like the smell. A collar that had a strap that went around her nose turning her head to face you when you pulled on it. I feared I would break her neck as she continued to bark and lunge. Finally, a collar with a remote control to give her an electric shock, to get her attention and then give her a treat, with some marginal success. Next lesson. You may be able to modify behaviour through suppression, but the behaviour will reoccur as soon as the suppression is removed.
A dear friend has helped me in my busy life by walking Shanti most afternoons and some evenings when I teach. She used the electric shock collar, but didn't take along any treats.Gradually the shocks made Shanti less aggressive toward other dogs, but she sometimes growled at my friend, now that she had figured out who controlled the shock. Deciding that restraint must have a voluntary component, when my friend was out of the country for two months, I abandoned the shock collar and consistently carried treats on every walk and also kept a stock of them on the front seat of my car.
It was at this point that Shanti began to exemplify the value of the process 'witnessing'. In the same way, we learn to place our awareness at a distance from our thoughts to enhance our ability to see our choices, rather than react. If there was distance between her and another dog, she began to make the choice to 'sit and no barking' in exchange for a treat. This continues to require tremendous will and restraint on her part. As the other dog draws nearer, she looks dog to treat, to dog to treat, all the time doing what I call 'doggie kapalbhati' as she struggles to hold back the bark. But, if we come around the corner to 'suddenly find another dog, that space is not there, and she totally loses the witnessing perspective and reverts back to lunging and barking.
Next lesson. Paramahamsaji has said, "If there is a lack of constant vigilance and spiritual alertness, the spiritual personality goes into oblivion." For me Shanti exemplifies a form of sadhana. Determined to be consistent with her, I am always vigilantly looking for other dogs, with treat in hand, to give her the opportunity to practise sanyam and create a new samskara that will eventually replace the old one.
This dog that no one wanted has taught me so much. Through her lesson I've learned more about awareness, abhyasa, the value of the drashta and great patience toward my own spiritual development. She has taught me to accept myself more fully and to feel my own value as a devoted, yet imperfect being. Now, at the ripe old dog age of eleven, she will soon teach me a final lesson, 'the impermanence of life'. In the meantime she continues to show me the importance of love and joy in each day.