Last week, while scooping my terrier’s poop in the park, I saw another pile of poo, just next to his, and I thought, “Might as well grab this, too.” I added the unknown dog’s poop to our little green baggie, but I noticed I felt a little squeamish. As the mother of four, and the human friend to countless dogs and cats, I don’t normally feel uneasy about cleaning up waste. But as I carried the bag, now filled with co-mingled doggie doo, I was grossed out.
I began to wonder what it was about the contents of that bag that made me feel so icky. It had something to do with the fact that the dog who produced it wasn’t “my” dog. But unlike my children, Roger isn’t biologically related to me, and so my comfort with his waste couldn’t be attributed to a parenting gene. Over the four years since we rescued Roger and his brother, Woody, we have grown very attached to them. So much so that I am completely unfazed by scooping for them, but am made viscerally uneasy when I do the same for another dog. I’m sure this non-biological attachment comes as no surprise to any of the adoptive parents reading this, but the degree of my attachment made me pause.
Some years ago, I was at a retreat with the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, where he answered questions from the audience. One question in particular was very touching. It was from a woman whose young adult daughter had recently died of leukemia and she was trying to understand how she could live while never being able to be with her again. Thich Nhat Hanh’s response surprised me. He said that if the mother was mindful and concentrated, she could find her daughter right here and now in a new form.
Just as the cloud can later be found in the rain, he said, her daughter can now be found in other people. In our universe, “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything transforms” (Antoine Lavoisier.) Knowing this, we see there is nowhere for us to go, our energy and our matter must continue on in new forms. This is what the Buddha called interdependence, and Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing — the insight that we are always in process and sharing the same matter and energy back and forth between each other, like a cold virus in preschool. In the light of this insight, discrimination between people, or dogs, seems silly. And yet we do it. If my neighbor has a raucous party that lasts into the wee hours, I would be more annoyed at her than I would be at my son having the same party in my house.
Many spiritual and mystical teachers have suggested that we are capable of non-discrimination (though I’ve not yet seen a spiritual text referring to dog waste discrimination.) The Bible suggests we “Love thy neighbor as thyself” which would require a serious feat of non-discrimination, and the Buddha similarly suggested that, “Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so let one cultivate a boundless love toward all beings.” Impossible? Definitely. Worth practicing? I think so.
“To enter the Buddha Way is to stop discriminating between good and evil and to cast aside the mind that says this is good and that is bad.” — Dogen Zenji
Even the smallest bit of non-discrimination could quite possibly lower the levels of violence and suffering in our world. Mindfulness practices, like this one, are impossible to put into practice 100% of the time — at least for we non-monastic practitioners. It’s hard to be attentive to every breath in every moment. But that’s ok, because if it were possible, it would simply become one more thing on our bucket list. Enlightenment? Check. Non-discrimination? Check. Because non-discrimination is impossible, we can continue to learn and transform by practicing it from now until the day we die.
Maybe picking up another dog’s poop is one way to begin to practice. Or treating a stranger on the bus the way you would treat your own mother. When someone annoys you, you might give him more leeway if you imagine him as your best friend. If the man on the street wearing a shabby winter coat and asking for change were your own son, would you give him something?
To practice non-discrimination, we can notice and investigate habit energies that naturally create attachment to those we spend the most time with, especially those we consider to be in our “tribe” (whether human or otherwise.) Instead of diminishing the relationships we have with our special people, non-discrimination extends the love and nurturing we have to include those outside of our immediate circle.
Since that day in the park, I’ve been practicing paying attention when I feel aversion to someone or something, like to a stranger or her dog’s poop. I see my mind creating discrimination and distance by telling me that my dog — or my family — is in some way better than, safer than, less smelly then this stranger. This story may serve me in certain circumstances, like when I need protect myself or someone else. So, I’m not rejecting the mind’s discrimination suggestions without considering whether they are true. However, most of the time discrimination is just a habitual way of thinking that I can notice it, check out, and usually abandon.
“You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love
My brain has been training itself for four years to think that Roger and Woody’s poops are better than all others. There’s nothing innately wrong with my mind for discriminating this way — it’s an effective tool for making sure I take good care of my loved ones. Once we see that discrimination is a story that may or may not be true and may or may not serve our deepest intentions, we have the freedom to choose how we respond to our thoughts. We all benefit when we expand our circle of love. So next time I notice discrimination arising, whether it’s aversion to dog poop or another human being, I hope to have the freedom to set my discrimination aside and invite other dogs, and people, into my heart.