Memories of the Future

© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 25, 2011

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My relationship with my dog Buddy was truly love at first sight. I had been following his litter online for weeks through the website of a local bay-area rescue group called Second Chance. Finally they announced that this particular group of puppies would be available for adoption at an event the next Saturday. When I arrived I saw that they had created a pen in the middle of the space that was just chock full of puppies. Never had I seen such an overpoweringly adorable site, as I watched several litters of puppies - easily over 20 dogs in total - scampering around, wrestling and playing with each other. I knew that to enter that arena would be to enter into a life-long relationship, because with the power of cute spilling out of that pen, I knew that no one could possibly leave empty-handed.

So, I waded in and sat down towards the middle of the circus. And - this may be a surprise - but for the first time it dawned on me that I was going to have to make an actual choice, a decision between all these amazing dogs. It hadn't occurred to me to think this part through ahead of time: how was one to pick between so many adorable options?

Just as this moment of anxiety began to descend on me, so did Buddy. He simply plopped down on my lap, rolled over onto his back and presented me his belly. I instinctively began scratching his little pink fuzzy stomach and within seconds he was napping on me and I was head over heels in love.

It has now been over eight years since that August afternoon in Marin and I have never regretted bringing Buddy into my life, not for one second. Buddy is my first dog, as I grew up in a cat home. And I know there will likely be other dogs in my life. There already is one more, as I gained Stella along with my wife Nicole. But I know none will ever be like this one. Buddy truly is my best non-human friend, and he is pretty high on the list even when humans are included. Through all of the ups and downs of the last eight years of my life, Buddy has been by my side, just simply loving me. We have traveled through dozens of states together, climbed mountains, swum in lakes, walked on countless beaches, and moved across country together 4 times. His unconditional love is a gift that I will never stop being grateful for. I could quite easily spend the next hour talking about what a wonderful aspect of my life Buddy is, but we are here to talk about all animals, not just my companion.

I suspect that many of you can relate to what I am talking about. For you, it might be a different creature, one with more legs or fewer, one with more fur or less, one that slithers or crawls or swims. So many of us have meaningful relationships with animals that we never get to speak one word to, and there is good reason for that.

Our relationships with our animal friends do so many important things for us. One is that they allow us to map ourselves right on top of them, imagining them in our image and thus connecting with them through our shared understanding of being alike. Another is that they model to us a completely different way to live, because in one very essential way animals are completely different from humans. I always suspected we were different in this way, but it was confirmed for me a few months ago by an interview I heard on NPR. I was listening to Ira Flatow on Science Friday as he interviewed neurologist Antonio Damasio about his new book on human consciousness entitled Self Comes to Mind. At one point Ira asked Prof. Damasio if we should expect animals to have consciousness as well, and his response was that they do, but that it is different from human consciousness in a key way.

In his words: "It's perfectly obvious that it is not going to be a consciousness of the kind we have in terms of scope, because animals will have a limited amount of what I call the autobiographical self, which you and I have in spades, and which allows us to have a full sense of the narrative arc of our life from beginning to where we are today, and something quite unique to humans, I think: the possibility of having already a sense of what the future may be.

I can't imagine that your dog is going to be very worried about Christmas presents or what it's going to do for vacations, but some of us are. We have a plan of what we're going to do tonight or over the weekend. That plan is in fact our anticipated future. We have made plans. We have revised plans. And more important than all of that, we have committed those plans to memory, so that we can, in an almost paradoxical way, say that we have memories of the future. And our present in our consciousness is constantly placed sort of instant-by-instant between the lived past and the anticipated future that we're constructing right now."

As I heard these words coming through my radio, one piece of that last sentence just jumped right out at me: we have memories of the future, and animals do not. Wow! What an enormous difference that is.

Buddhism and many spiritual systems talk about this human phenomenon - that we invest in outcomes that are far from guaranteed. Inasmuch as these plans are what enable us to do and be all the amazing things we humans have done and been, it is also a huge part of the cause of our suffering. This is the core of so much of our human anxiety. Yet our animal friends live, it would appear, completely devoid of that.

My dog Buddy could hardly be called a Zen Master, and he is certainly not devoid of anxiety. Although he has spent thousands of hours trying to unwrap the koan of the tennis ball, he definitely gets anxious. But his anxiety is always caused by forces outside of his control. Basically it is caused by wondering when he will be fed and when I, his master, will come home. That is about it. So as long as he is fed and basically aware of where I am, he is good to go. And according to Prof. Damasio, rather than being busy dreaming of an uncertain future, he is completely living in this present moment.

This concept of living in the moment is indeed the antidote prescribed by most spiritual systems that see this attachment to outcomes as the root cause of suffering. But, as so many of us know from firsthand experience, this is much easier said than done. I think it is fair to say that none of us will achieve the level of mastery that our pets display. But they really can be very helpful in moving us towards the goal.

One of the major ways my life has changed because of having Buddy in it, is that he forces me to periodically stop thinking, caring and doing all of the things I want to focus on so that I can take him on a walk. This means stepping away from the TV and computer; this means not returning emails or reading a book. When I am out walking with Buddy I am forced back into the present moment, one footstep at a time. Of course if one is going to be out walking, it might as well be somewhere beautiful. Nicole and I always make it a top priority whenever we move somewhere new to quickly learn all the best places to take our dogs. And between Chabot and Garin and the amazing regional park system, we are at no loss for options around here.

I often have some of my most incredible moments of truly being aware and in relationship with the moment I actually inhabit when I am out on these walks. Of course, not every animal lover is a dog lover like me. Nonetheless, any relationship with an animal has similar opportunities to stop thinking about ourselves - and more importantly to stop thinking about our memories of the future - and to just be in the present moment with this lovely creature that is so different from how we are. I think that, in the end, this is a huge part of why we have invited animals into our homes - because of this amazing reminder and connection they can be for us of this other way of being.

The Blessing of the Animals service is traditionally about bestowing our blessings upon the animals, but after hearing Prof. Damasio, it sounds to me like we should be much more focused on the blessing that our animals bestow upon us.

About 30 minutes after this service concludes, we will have a wonderful service outside when I will bless our animal friends, one by one, as they deserve. What I would like to do now is for all of us to have an opportunity to be aware of how they bless us.

I would first invite you to take a few moments in silence to think of an animal that you have loved. It may be a pet, it may be your spirit guide, a bird that frequents your backyard feeder, a favorite stuffed animal, or cartoon character, or some other creature that you have shared time with on your journey. Remember what it was like to play with your friend, to feed it and care for it, and to know that it loved you. In the mystery of the silence to come thank your friend and know they will be with you forever. If you feel so moved, please come forward and leave a picture, or memento on our altar, and/or write their name in one of the books and I will include it in the blessing that follows the silence.

Silence... Ring the bell...

With all the energy that is in this room, all the energy we have created here together today, all the energy of creation that animates us all and that wordlessly guides our evolution from form to form, I ask that you bless all of the animals that we love, those that we have represented here on the alter, those that are with us in our minds and in our hearts, those animals that we have known and loved, those that we have required to make the ultimate sacrifice so that our bodies may be nourished; all the animals of the sky, of the ground, those that climb and those that slither. From the depths of the great oceans to the peaks of the highest mountains, we recognize our animal friends as created beings, just like us, with inherent worth and dignity. We give thanks for all that animals do for us and pledge to work harder to protect them in the future.

May it be so. Ashe.

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