Robert Steven Goldstein
An Old Dog
Walking an old dog teaches me a great deal.
Sapphire is seventeen, a mixed breed. Her size, coat, and head-structure are that of an Australian cattle dog. Her barrel-like torso and short legs are unmistakably Welsh corgi.
I found her in a shelter when she was about two. The staff had already named her “Sapphire.” It is not a name I would have chosen, but it was her name and she recognized it. It seemed wrong to me to force her to adopt a new name.
Her hair is grey now, but when the shelter found her she was young, and like many Australian cattle dogs, had striking blue hairs jutting out from her merle coat on the sides of her head below her ears. Cattle dogs are also sometimes called blue heelers because of those blue hairs, coupled with the fact that the dogs herd cattle by nipping at the bovines’ heels. But to the woman performing intake for the shelter, the hairs resembled bright sapphire earrings. So she named the dog Sapphire.
Cattle dogs are remarkably intelligent. Sapphire has the mind of a cattle dog and has always been extraordinarily bright, but now she processes thoughts much more deliberately. Her hearing has deteriorated greatly. Cataracts have blurred her vision. Her limbs are arthritic; she moves slowly.
When we walk now, she stops repeatedly to intensively sniff whatever she has encountered, be it the base of a tree, the lower edge of a bush, or a barely discernable pool of moisture on the road. She used to sniff objects quickly, decide immediately whether or not to mark the spot with a squirt of urine, and then move on. Now she lingers interminably at each stop. Sometimes I think she is tired and uses the opportunity to rest. But more often it seems to me that she does this because her sense of smell is the only sense she can now fully trust and rely upon. She can no longer utilize hearing and eyesight to assess the situation she is exploring, but her need to know and understand is as strong as ever.
My veterinarian once explained to me that a dog’s walk is the equivalent of a human reading that morning’s newspaper. It is Sapphire’s opportunity to fully assess the condition of her territory, and piece together recent goings-on. My personal theory on why dogs and mail carriers have such turbulent relationships is based upon this. Mail carriers, on their shoes and clothing, convey the collective scents of the entire neighborhood, which to a dog, must be a confusing and overwhelming gestalt.
Sapphire’s need to ingest and process this sort of information seems eminently more critical to her now than ever before.
Many owners, I am sure, would grow impatient and pull her along. She can make a walk go quite slowly.
I never do so. Every time I am tempted to, I remind myself that this may be her last opportunity to engage in this ritual that she loves so much. She still displays the excitement of a puppy when she sees me lace up my walking shoes, and knows we will be leaving the house together for a walk.
Not long ago I had a chance meeting, at a farmers market in Berkeley, with a fellow I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. He is middle-aged now, but when I first met him he was a promising young psychoanalyst candidate at San Francisco’s CG Jung Institute. I was engaged by the Institute then, as a consultant, to help enable video presentations. He was one of my main contacts for the project.
When I greeted him at the Berkeley farmers market he gazed at me oddly, as though he was not pleased to see me. But I quickly realized that he didn’t recognize who I was. It was almost as if we had traded veneers. As a young aspiring psychoanalyst he was shaggy and a bit unkempt; he now was immaculately groomed with closely cropped hair and a well-trimmed beard. I, on the other hand, am a good deal greyer and far more bohemian than when he knew me. I may also be a few pounds thinner; I no longer work out with weights.
But when I identified myself to him, his demeanor immediately lightened. We conversed briefly. I was happy to hear that he was now a full-fledged Jungian analyst with a thriving practice in Berkeley. I was quite surprised, however, to learn that among the various lines of counseling in which he specialized, one was geared exclusively toward people who had experienced the state of mystical transcendence.
He said it had first occurred to him to open this line when he met me, decades ago.
It may seem to some a strange sort of therapeutic offering, because mystical experiences are considered to be so rare. But in fact, episodes of mystical transcendence are far more common than is generally imagined. When I first met him decades ago, I recognized immediately that he had experienced spiritual illumination. I confided in him that I had as well. He seemed relieved to have someone with whom to share his secret.
In his practice now, he helps clients who have had such experiences to integrate that spiritual sensibility back into their day-to-day lives through Jungian psychoanalysis. It is a brilliant notion.
No such psychotherapeutic services were offered decades ago. Had they been, I certainly would have availed myself of them. It might have made my journey far easier.
In the mornings now, Sapphire and I hike on trails where she can roam off leash. We walk unhurriedly.
I have taken to practicing walking meditation while Sapphire scrupulously sniffs the terrain. The trails we choose are long loops that slope uphill first and then descend back to the trailhead.
Sapphire teaches me that I too can make a slow walk meaningful.
The walking meditation I practice is a modified version of the Buddhist meditation technique known as mindfulness.
Classically, mindfulness consists of trying to still the mind by briefly and calmly acknowledging any thought that intrudes, and gently letting it dissipate. But I recently developed a slightly different approach.
The psychoanalyst I ran into at the farmers market mentioned to me that he and several of his colleagues had become avid meditators. They are, in fact, researching new approaches to meditation. The most promising new techniques involve easygoing variations on the classical practice of mindfulness. Interestingly, some of these approaches do not require that thoughts be forced away at the outset of a session. Meditators are, in fact, encouraged to examine and ponder thoughts that arise early in the session if the ideas seem important or interesting.
During our impromptu conversation at the farmers market he had very little time to outline these approaches. He had to rush to an appointment.
But I found the concept most intriguing. Over the next few months, I worked out, through trial and error during my morning hikes with Sapphire, an efficacious application of the theory. I now employ the method daily.
I set aside substantial time, at the beginning of each hike, to leisurely think through issues of importance. But even as I do, I simultaneously anticipate that my brain will at some point acknowledge that nothing of further pressing significance remains to be considered. When I reach that juncture, the background process asserts itself over my foreground deliberations, and emptying my mind becomes almost effortless and instantaneous.
It took a while, of course, to train my mind to execute this dance seamlessly on a daily basis. At first, after pondering my issues, I would become aware of a general sense of conclusion, accompanied by a desire to relax and meditate. But conscious effort was still required to track down random notions and escort them away. After a few months though, the entire process automated itself.
This approach appealed to me immediately because of my inherent love for methodically examining ideas. But I also understand the importance of periodically stilling my mind to enable the replenishment of my spiritual coffers. I find now that I am comforted in having ample time to ruminate initially on anything I wish. Allowing my brain to decide for itself at what point it is ready to empty itself of thought, and become a vessel for universal consciousness, makes the whole experience quite joyful.
I would have been afraid to adopt such a radically different approach to meditation on my own, fearing that it was somehow spurious or fraudulent. For whatever reason though, knowing that this Jungian psychoanalyst and his colleagues are investigating these sorts of variants, allows me to embrace this technique without qualm.
Sapphire’s leisurely and systematic pace guides me as I go. It enables me to resist any urge to rush through in a perfunctory manner.
Sapphire also appears to appreciate my achieving this state of nonjudgmental attentiveness, as it frees her to amble on the trails without feeling pestered.
Robert Steven Goldstein
I began practicing Yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism when I was sixteen, based upon what I could cull from texts found in libraries and secondhand bookstores. Those practices, to which I have remained devoted for the past fifty years, form three of the four legs of my personal spiritual discipline. The fourth is somewhat less tangible, but for me, crucial. It is Ahimsa, the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition of non-violence, harmlessness, and compassion toward all living things. From that sensibility, honesty and ethical behavior inevitably derive.
At this stage of my journey, my favorite form of meditation is a variant of mindfulness, performed while walking on quiet trails, surrounded by trees, plants, birds, and other wildlife. I find that meditating in this manner draws the spiritual sensibility more actively into my being, and keeps it with me more viscerally throughout the course of each day.
My prior published works include the novel The Swami Deheftner, and the short story “Fumatorium.” The piece featured here, “An Old Dog,” is from my second novel, Cat’s Whisker, which I hope to publish soon.
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