You Don’t Own Me.

Via Ann Nichols
on Sep 27, 2013
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Photo: Andy Prokh

“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}


About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


10 Responses to “You Don’t Own Me.”

  1. Laura says:

    I really like this one. It speaks to me on a pet level right now. And it is so true on a person level. So insightful.

  2. Tang says:

    A great read. I think it also really talks of the desire to control behaviour which is different to owning and also a close relative in a sense. Free will is the end game in both and in relinquishing control, one sets free and is set free.

  3. Annika says:

    Thank you! I really liked your analogy of our relationships to our close human friends through those to our pet friends.
    Also I would like to add what I have experienced through time. I would often (and sometimes still do) take very personally how someone would react to what I did or said. Though really how the other person reacts is very much based on his/her own reality and life experiences, which tend to form ones character, and doesnt necessarily have anything to do with me. So why should I be expecting something specific? But by trying not to be emotional and take the other persons reaction personal it allows me to be able to see the situation objectively and thus become able to deal with conflict or my unfilled expectations better. In a way this has allowed the freedom it takes to be more confident and self-reliant and release from those "ties that bind" as you said. So when it does happen that you receive what you wished for its amazingly wonderfull!

  4. caroline says:

    thanks for this article…on the pet level AND the person level. When mykitty showed up 3 yrs ago and became my best friend..I didn't want to "own" him..he came freely to be with me when he knew I needed it…I didn't name him, he's just "mykitty"- but he comes when I call, and a great snuggler …and it seems like no matter how hard you try to get people to love you, in the end they are free to they're own freewill and don't owe you anything…

  5. imagineannie says:

    Laura, thanks so much for reading!

  6. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Tang – free will is the end game. Ideally. 😉

  7. imagineannie says:

    Annika, our expectations and responses to peoples' reactions is huge. I can't tell you how many times I've planned out how some human interaction would go, only to be totally flummoxed when the other person took a different path.

    Thanks for reading – I wish you many of those amazingly wonderful moments.

  8. imagineannie says:

    Caroline, you are so right. And it feels so good when someone (who owes you nothing) gives you EVERYTHING because they just plain feel like it…………

  9. Catherine says:

    I agree with the other posters! This article was so insightful on the pet AND human level. My big smuggler, Ramses, loves to cuddle, be wrestled with, kissed, hugged, belly scratched, etc. but every once in a while he will jump all over my sweet, passive Persian, Cosmo, until Cosmo is CLEARLY upset and angry. Ramses is bigger than Cosmo and he just sort of plays too hard. Yelling has no affect on Ramses he is so into his need to expend his excess energy or something. I find growling at them works.

    On the human side, I recognized, in this article, part of the problem in my relationship with my sister who seems to expect me to act and behave in a certain way clearly based on what SHE believes is correct behavior. By the same token, she also seems to act like, because I am her only sibling, I "belong" to her and therefore she can treat me any way she wants which is sometimes verbally abusive.

    So thanks for the article!

  10. DIRNDL SKIRT says:

    Just a short comment (but stuck on a huge "thumbs-up!") Exactly what I need to hear and in a way that I can embrace with a softened ego, a knowing nod.