Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What I Learned in Obedience School

Rocky at 3 months.
Somehow I managed to avoid dog ownership until last year when Jack finally wore down his dad with requests for a puppy. He picked out a mutt from the Human Society shelter and named him Rocky. He was a mixture of God only knows what breeds. The vet's best guess is that he is part Australia Cattle Dog. He's a sweet pup with boundless energy.

Rocky took up residence in my ex-husband's backyard and I agreed to help out as needed. He is "Jack's dog" but of course, as is typical for kids, the ownership is only in name. Since I knew next to nothing about dogs when Rocky reached about 6 months old we signed up for obedience class at the local Petsmart. From the first class it became apparent that Rocky wasn't the only one who needed training.

Over the course of our six Saturday morning classes, we learned—with help of dog treats and a blue plastic cricket clicker—how to sit, stay, shake hands and walk on a loose leash. But one of the most useful commands was "Leave it!" This is an all-purpose directive can be used whenever a dog shows overly enthusiastic interest in anything you don't want them to approach. The idea is that whenever a dog goes after something really desirable, such as another dog, or another dog's poop or a baby with an ice cream cone, or whatever, that you condition the dog to leave that desired thing and come to your side and sit. This repeated action of returning to their person's side resets the dog's urge to compulsively run after anything and everything of interest. Of course, favorable behavior is reinforced by providing treats each time the dog leaves the coveted item and sits down beside you. The idea is that—eventually—the dog learns to overcome his distractions by merely being reminded via vocal cue.
Jack with Rocky at Puppy School!

After our instructor explained the exercise, she set us loose  in the aisles of Petsmart to practice. I thought she was insane. Have you seen the aisles of Petsmart?  It's a fantasy land for dogs! We could only walk about two steps before Rocky tugged at the end of his leash. My arm was already growing tired from holding him back from shelves of chew toys and stacks and stacks doggie delights. At first, I was very frustrated. How could Rocky ever learn when there were so many wonderful scents? Rocky tugged this way and that, trying to get at all the wonderful dog stuff. He didn't want to "Leave it!" 

When the instructor stopped by to see how we were doing, she could tell I was a bit miffed—to put it nicely. 

"Can we go to aquarium supply aisle?" I whined. "There are just way too many distractions here! He'll never learn."

"He'll get used to it," she said, smiling patiently. "There are going to be even more enticing smells when you take him for a walk outside. Keep working with him. He's a smart dog. He'll learn."

I was dubious, but to my surprise after a few false starts and stops, Rocky began to catch on. As it turns out, Rocky's love of treats far outweighed his desire to sniff stuff. After walking up and down the aisles a few times successfully, Jack set out an entire obstacle course of sexy-looking chew toys. Rocky was able to navigate around them all without getting distracted. 

Each week, we worked on these skills and after the six week course was complete, we graduated from Puppy School with honors. Okay, we graduated. Okay, we completed the course and for that we received a diploma, but as the trainer warned us, the real work was ahead of us—out in the real world. 

Leaving a rubber, squeaky bone lying in the aisle of a bright, sterile pet food store is one thing, but a stroll through the neighborhood supplied an infinite number of opportunities to challenge Rocky's obedience degree. Every two inches there was a new distraction. We didn't get but a few feet down the street before he tugged the leash longingly as he lusted after the neighbor's azalea bush. "Leave it, Rocky!" I said sternly and clicked the plastic cricket.

As we rounded the street corner, he tugged to sniff a mound of monkey grass laced with the scent of a countless dogs, cats, rodents and God only knows what, but finally he came back to my side to gobble down his treat. After the first few blocks, we strolled along nicely until he encountered the one temptation that no amount of kibble could prevent Rocky from lunging after: grey squirrels. 

There must be a million grey squirrels living within a mile radius of Jack's dad's house. Every one of them came out to taunt and tease our poor dog. "Leave it, Rocky! Leave it!" became my mantra. Rocky wanted to run after them so badly, he almost launched himself into the air. Of course, he was tethered to  me by his nylon leash, but that didn't seem to matter when it came to all things squirrel. He needs more practice for sure, and the only way to break him of this habit of chasing after these teasing, fluffy-tailed distractions was to spend more time reinforcing the behavior to leave it—no matter what.

Of course, Rocky is not the only one who is easily distracted. My mind is often filled with "grey squirrels" that I desperately want to chase. I am easily side-tracked by chattering discursive thoughts. Some days they lead me to—quite literally—bark up the wrong tree. I can observe this tendency whenever I sit down to meditate, but when I'm not on the cushion, the squirrels in my brain can be much more damaging as they compulsively gnaw away at my positive mood and serenity. I'm going about my day and suddenly a negative or worrisome thought scurries across my mind and I lunge for it. Unlike Rocky, my mind is not on a short leash, so I can chase after that negative idea all day if I don't recognize my thought process and tell myself to "Leave it!" 

Setting aside anxiety is not easy. Even though there is nothing I can do about a situation—I know I have no power over the person, place or thing—I still want to race after it. My only hope of finding peace is to take my mind to obedience school and learn some new strategies for letting go. Like Rocky, I must  replace my habit of chasing squirrels with the desire to sit patiently and be rewarded. This takes effort and practice and it can't be accomplished unless I am willing to experience life on life's terms. In other words, I can't stay in the aquarium section.

If I want to improve the way I respond to life, I must be willing to experience the real crap that triggers my negative responses. What's my reward? Something much better than kibble. When I refuse to chase that miserable squirrel across the yard and up a tree, I gulp down a little peace of mind and the satisfaction. Good girl!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Threadbare and lovin' it

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby."
Recently I was invited to join the faculty of an organization called the Institute for Conscious Being. At first I thought they had the wrong number. I found myself teaching a writing course and surrounded by an incredibly brilliant group of people. Faculty members include an Episcopal priest, a Catholic nun, an Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and a New York Times best-selling author. (Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? As in, "A priest, a nun and a psychologist went into a bar...")  I have to say it's a dream come true. Four years ago, I was an unemployed editor struggling with divorce and some very difficult issues. How in the world did I end up here? I believe I arrived at this very wonderful destination by owning up to my true self.

The Institute uses the principles of the Enneagram as a method for discovering one’s true spiritual self And no, despite it's odd-sounding name, the Enneagram has nothing to do with witchcraft or the occult and it's not a parlor game. (Read more about it here—and take the free assessment.) 

The idea behind the Enneagram is that we all are born in divine perfection and over the years, we put on all sorts of armor to shield us from the crappy things that happen to us along the way. For example, I'm six years old, and my beloved cat runs away and I'm inconsolable. Boom! Up goes armor. My dad has to work and misses my performance in the school play. Armor up! My best friend puts a preying mantis in my Snoopy lunch box then makes fun of  me while I scream my head off in the lunchroom. Armor! After my first date, I make out with the boy and then he tells everyone that I'm the worst kisser in the world. You guessed it—up goes the armor! 

These are minor offenses, of course. You can imagine (or know) what happens when really terrible things happen, when family members die, or you're abused or abandoned by a parent. The armor goes up and we learn to respond to life in a manner than seems to relieve the pain. Of course, this armor is ego. And ego is not an all-together evil thing, but often in the process of trying to protect ourselves, we buy into the ego self and set aside healthy and true aspects of our personality. Then, at some point in our lives (a-hem! often around middle age) when the old, unhealthy responses no longer bring relief—and in fact may be causing more harm—we finally look for a better way to live.

Returning to my authentic self seemed scary at first. I mean, I looked sorta cool in my armor. What if I'm just a big nerd beneath it all? And yet, only when I remove that hardened shell can I know what it means to be truly alive.

Last night, I was reminded of a beautiful story that encapsulates the concept of finding one's true self. This wisdom comes from a beloved children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit. In this passage the story's hero, the Velveteen Rabbit, is chatting with the Skin Horse, another toy/resident of the nursery where they live. Rabbit asks Horse what it means to be real.

“'Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit. 

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.' 

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?' 

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.'” 

In her book, Daring Greatly, author and researcher Brene Brown describes this passage from Margery Williams' classias "a beautiful reminder of how much easier it is to become real when we know we're loved." I respectfully submit the converse is also true: 

It's easier to be loved when we know we are real. 

Being real may not feel easier at first, but only when I'm my authentic, honest self am I truly lovable. Anything short of really real and you may love me, but your love will be on condition of my ability to keep up a facade. When I am 100% myself, I know I am loved unconditionally.

Maybe this is why people in mid-life (like me) tend to have identity crises. We are finally ready to get real. Certainly, at this point in my life, my hair is thinning, my eyes are getting weak (must get bifocals!), my joints creak and I'm a bit shabby, but my sharp edges have been worn smooth and I can no longer be broken quite so easily.