Down, Play, or Walk Away: How my dog socialized me to be wiser and kinder during Covid-19

Michael Sapiro, PsyD

My dog, Bruce Moses, and I, eye gaze. I lay down in front of him, our noses barely touching, and we stare at one another; and not just for a few moments, but for five or more minutes at a time. I remember one time I felt a huge swelling of love throughout my body, and a sadness for love lost in other areas of my life, and my eyes started to tear. His eyebrows arched in an intimation on the love and sadness I was expressing in mine, and I felt held in Love. He is a kind dog, felt by all who know him.

I was walking Bruce down a trail in Upstate New York and we came up to a German Shepard who was pulling hard on his leash to get to Bruce. Unsure of the dog’s intention Bruce slowed and sat down on all fours waiting for the Shepard to come to him. After being sniffed and sensing no danger, he jumped up and began to play, a giant grin on his face. Another time, we were walking past a fenced yard where a smaller dog was barking incessantly, angrily, and Bruce walked away, almost skipped really, happy to not engage. I watch him closely on our walks, as his way of engaging in his social world, of sensing when to drop, play, or walk away, teaches me a way to engage in mine, depending if I find myself with people who are kind or unkind, skillful or unskillful, warm or hurtful.

During the Covid-19 pandemic we are seeing more vitriol and outright disrespect in public than in times of non-crisis. It makes some sense: in times of stress, threat, or crisis our nervous systems are on guard for danger, tightening our bodies, reducing blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for judgment and self-awareness while increasing resources to survival-oriented regions. We start looking for signals and signs of danger in others’ body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice where none might be. Of course, there could actually be danger; and for those of us who have been traumatized and hurt by others it is a reasonable response to be vigilant and aware of what could hurt us again. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to differentiate threatening from innocuous stimuli and we often become hypervigilant; again, looking for signs of threat where none might exist. This accounts for an increase of trauma responses to the current pandemic, civil unrest, and the increase in natural disasters. But what accounts for the disrespect and seeming hatred?

I feel pained watching clips of people yelling at, and even spitting on, store clerks and employees, as if working full time serving people isn’t stressful enough. My whole body aches and wells in grief when I think of our Black community being killed without recourse or justice. The collective pain of living in a society that was founded on slavery, racism, genocide, and greed has a profound cost to all of us, and we are seeing how unhealed multigenerational cross-cultural suffering floods out. And what would Bruce say about all this?! He might not reflect on why some dogs want to bully and hurt him, while others are curious and friendly, but he knows it. I watch him at dog parks and see how he assesses risk. Rather than engaging with aggressive dogs he turns and walks away without encouraging the aggression or retaliating. Sometimes I too struggle with how to respond skillfully when feeling threatened, and often find myself ready to assuage, convince, manipulate, beg, cajole, debate (add what you do here) someone into seeing my side. Doesn’t it just seem to feel good proving someone wrong, to demonstrate our rightness? However, when I’m really conscious and truthful of my body’s response, no, I do not feel good. When in this way of being, I feel constricted, tense, hot, angry, and self-righteous. I am certainly not in a good place to advance the causes of peace.

Addressing the complex human condition that gives rise to violence, war, unrestrained and unfettered capitalism, destruction of the Earth, and social oppression is well beyond the scope of this essay. What is more important to me, right now, is learning how small, seemingly innocuous choices to drop, play, or walk away can make substantial social differences in reducing fear and threat responses, while increasing collective wellbeing. I do not want to spend my precious time alive engaging with people who are not interested in relating in kind ways, especially during conflict. This does not mean I necessarily walk away from those I disagree or have conflict with; it means I choose wisely how I spend my time and energy, and how to best respond. When faced with a challenging person, I inwardly engage in body scans (sensing my own physiological response during the encounter); start to slow and deepen my breath (calming my nervous system and engaging the parasympathetic response so I can access insight, judgement, and have clear problem solving capabilities); discern if the interaction is worth my time, energy, and attention; and choose a response that is kind and compassionate, firm and strong if needed, not reactive, defensive, or combative.

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I want to be like Bruce, friendly but aware, willing to slow down and investigate before acting, be playful, but ultimately knowing when to walk away and disengage. Imagine the positive collective impact if more of us greeted strangers and situations like a wise, kind, sensitive dog. I want to make clear I am absolutely for wise and skillful nonviolent social engagement to help shift our culture away from misogyny, homophobia, racism, and toward social equality. And that being said, I am foremost interested in how making small personal changes transform us collectively. If you yourself cannot be kind, then walk away, take a break, and soothe yourself. If you are engaged with others who are not kind, walk away, take a break, and soothe yourself.

If so inspired, reengage with mindful nonviolent communication or restorative justice processes to make positive change and to foster growth. We need to create a culture of care and kindness, with self-restraint, especially during a crisis. We can be there for one another the way Bruce is there for me when I am in need of love. While you might not choose to eye gaze with strangers, you can be a non-threatening, non-anxious presence and let your own light be a source of safety and love for others.

Globally, and especially in the US, we are experiencing increased social distress and threats to our wellbeing. It is a very potent time for collective and personal transformation if we are all willing to make small changes that can ultimately have a large positive impact. For the last three months, I have been deep in practice in the forests of the Northeast, on an extended meditation retreat and travel pilgrimage with Bruce. During this time, fraught with stress and threat to the greater collective, I have had many insights about the nature of the formless Mystery. How all experience, positive and negative, arise from that boundless, formless, loving Mystery. Becoming still and quiet, and learning to choose wisely before responding during crisis and challenge, allows me to feel the radiant Love of the Mystery, which fills and fuels my response to others even when I am challenged by them. Our discomfort with others can lead us to Love, and allows us a chance to practice wise engagement. As you go about your days, and meet people who are reactive in their fear and respond to you and others unkindly, think of Bruce Moses and his skillful ways of engaging, and see where that leads you.

A Man Walking His Dog

bumblebees buzz in flowers near the home’s front sidewalk

and the dog snaps his mouth around one then lets it go —

all abuzz and erratic; he’s done this with butterflies too

but the mole he caught yesterday died on the trail

where it was dropped, and when the man looked up

he saw a curly fluffy white-tipped black tail,

swishing back and forth, attached to a black bear of a dog

prancing down the trail looking like Gene as he sang in the rain:

a dog’s dance of joy — a jubilation — a knowing that he is free to snap

his jaws of death and be the Master of the Universe,

acting like Death Herself, deciding the hour of another’s fate,

or God, giving the gift of Life; and the man wonders

how a nobody like him gets to walk such a Divine Creature;

and even the warm bag of stink held in his hand,

like a sacred talisman, has the weight of gold.

Michael Sapiro, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher, writer, meditation researcher, and former Buddhist monk. He is on faculty at Esalen Institute, is a Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and is completing a study on time travel, hope, and love with Dr. Julia Mossbridge of The Institute for Love and Time. Dr. Sapiro completed his postdoctoral fellowship in advanced psychology at the Boise VA Medical Center where he specialized in rural health, PTSD, and combat trauma. Dr. Sapiro is often on podcasts, and teaches nationally on the art and science of transformation, expanded human capabilities, self-care, and nondual meditation for personal and community growth. His work integrates meditation practices, psychology, noetic sciences, and social justice, and is dedicated to personal awakening for the sake of collective and planetary transformation. He can be found at michaelsapiro.com.

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