September 27, 2013

You Don’t Own Me.

“To live a pure, unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.”  ~The Buddha

It’s natural, I think, to want to be “sure” of those we love.

I want to know that my husband, my child, my family and my friends will always love me, support me, and provide me with soft landings when I fall. In the deepest and most primal parts of my psyche it seems that if they love me, they are “mine.”

Buddhism has taught me that nothing is really “mine,” including the relationships I cherish. Buddhism and a cat named Teddy.

Recently, we heard terrible cat screams outside and stepped onto the porch to see Teddy locked in mortal combat with Enemy Cat, who lives one street over. They rolled around making horrible noises, and there was no way to gloss over the fact that Teddy really wanted to kill E.C. My cuddly, pink-nosed sweetheart, a descendant of lions—this fight was hard-wired into his nature.

My husband separated them and brought me a bloody-nosed Teddy, a string of blood and spit hanging from the corner of his mouth, a gash on his face. His bunny-pink nose was red with blood, and he sneezed and gasped furiously.

Totally spent and conserving energy, Teddy made it to our bed and slept against me for hours, waking only occasionally to sneeze out the irritating blood that prevented him from breathing freely.

Cozy, worried and stroking his battered head, I found myself thinking how awful it was that such a gentle, beloved house pet felt the need to fight, and hunt and kill things.

Why wasn’t it enough to be my baby? Why did he need to mutilate chipmunks when his bowl was always full? Why weren’t his savage instincts tamed and subdued by our love and generosity?

Then I thought —I often feel the same way about people.

I believe that I have been so good, so patient, so loving, and so incredibly freaking awesome that they become bound to me by an invisible filament of willing obligation. I have tamed them. They are mine.

Why does my son hate school when I set such a good example for him? Why does my father insist on using a table saw when he has Parkinson’s in both hands and I keep telling him I’ll do it for him?

If they really loved me.

And that’s the big mistake that breaks our hearts and makes us bitter and resentful—we believe that with our good intentions, and our big, warm hearts we forge an obligation in others to love us back, to behave in accordance with our wishes, to belong to us.

With animals, it’s clear why this doesn’t work. We can offer love, regular food, long walks and a big warm body. We can train gently and humanely to insure safety and basic civility. Beyond that, we are simply honored by the fact that a descendant of savage beasts consents to trust us, live with us, and provide comfort and joy.

Teddy is a snuggler and comes to me when I call him, but he is not mine. When his deep instincts are triggered and he protects his turf, he is not breaking a rule or behaving badly. He is being himself, a cat, as nature intended.

As I have learned to respect the wildness and individuality of my four-legged loves, I must also understand the same qualities in my human posse. And that’s much harder.

Every moment of deep connection is fragile, impermanent and miraculous. That connection is lost the minute I treat a free creature as an extension of my own needs and desires.

My son is not great at sitting in a chair for six hours in a row, but he is incredibly gifted at all things technology-related. That’s his nature, and when I try to bend him to my will, and make him what he “should” be, he pulls away. We have raised him well, he knows that we love and support him, but he is not “ours” and we can’t demand compliance in the name of love.

My father needs to feel useful, as he has been all his life. I could demand that he stop using power tools, but it would hurt his feelings and leave a hole in his sense of self. That would be not love, but an exercise of the power associated with ownership.

The goal, the sweet spot of abundance is in recognizing that all of the creatures we love, animal or human, have at their core the same need for freedom.

It is not for us to “tame” them in a way that denies their true nature. We must love them, take pleasure in every moment of intimacy and connection, and be prepared to open our hands and let them go. Our touch must be light, pure, and unselfish.

It feels lonely at first, to break with the comforting and cherished illusion of possession and control over those “ties that bind.” But in those moments when love is returned freely, a thing apart from duty, guilt or taming, there is deepest and most satisfying joy.


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Assistant Ed: Tawny Sanabria/Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: by Andy Prokh}

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