Monday, January 07, 2008

My Latest Guru

A few months ago my wife and I stumbled across a remarkable show on television. I say remarkable not because it's hugely entertaining in any obvious way, but because it's about the only example I've found in the popular media of real human and spiritual wisdom. It's a reality show called “The Dog Whisperer”, and it documents the work of Cesar Milan, a famously skilled dog trainer, dealing with ordinary people's problems with their dogs. He has amazing success dealing quickly and effectively with the kinds of dog behavioral problems that most owners can't seem to make a dent in for years and years. Even more remarkable is the way he goes about it, and the understanding that he brings to both the people and the dogs.

His approach is to treat dogs as the pack animals that they are, and recognize that they have innate social needs that must be provided by the pack, or the dogs become aberrated, neurotic, and dysfunctional. The primary need of the pack is a pack leader, someone who demonstrates the proper skills to maintain pack cohesion and safety. When Cesar diagnoses problem behavior in a dog, generally speaking he finds the problem not in the dog itself, but in the “pack”, which in this case is the human family the dog is a part of, and how that family relates to the dog. He points out that to the dog, the human family he belongs to is his pack, and the human owners are the pack leaders. Unfortunately, it seems that human beings simply don't know how to be good pack leaders much of the time. They relate to the dogs as if they are human children, and fail to give them the necessary discipline and leadership they need. Instead of being firm leaders, human dog owners tend to indulge their dogs and let them do whatever they like, and then when the dogs do things they don't like, they don't know how to stop them.

It surprises most every dog owner on his show that what dogs really want is to find their proper place in the pack, which in their world means to be subordinate to the pack leader. Yet even the most alpha-leader dogs recognize humans as their dominant pack leader, and expect humans to fulfill that role. Humans tend not to understand this, however, and so when the human owner fails to act out that role, the dogs become insecure and panicked. They feel a necessity to act aggressively and dominantly to fill the gap that their human owners have failed to take responsibility for. They will test the boundaries of their owners, and end up in a state of perpetual nervous exhaustion rather than what Cesar calls “calm-submissive” relaxation. He points out that what dogs really want is to be submissive, to be relaxed and at ease within the pack, and that this is how they achieve stable happiness. Humans, who have different social needs and ideals of individuality that dogs do not share, fail to grasp this, and keep expecting dogs to act as responsible humans, rather than as dogs. The result is chaos and irresponsibility on both sides.

What Cesar teaches people who come to him for help with their dogs is how to act as “calm assertive” pack leaders. He eschews any kind of violent or angry behavior, which usually has the opposite effect, and is a sign to dogs that their human pack leader is himself out of control. Instead, he shows that the pack leader must demonstrate a calm but assertive attitude towards the dogs, constantly aware of their presence and state of mind, and constantly setting simple limits on their behavior. Any signs of deviation from a calm-submissive attitude by the dogs is met by a simple corrective communication, often just a small “ssshhhhhh” and a slight movement or pull on the leash. Cesar points out that the energy we bring to the animal has a profound effect on their own response, and that a constant maintenance of this calm-assertive attitude can very quickly bring about dramatic changes in the behavior of dogs, who will fairly quickly resort to their natural calm-submissive response.

The turnaround in problem dogs documented on his show is quite remarkable. We began watching the show because we thought it would help with our own two dogs, who sometimes get overly aggressive themselves, and the techniques he gave do indeed show real results. But there's something more to the show than just that. One thing that seems clear is that Cesar himself is a very remarkable person. He's simply mature and calm, which is so rare in our media world that it sort of leaps out from the screen. His way of dealing with the human beings on his show is as remarkable as the way he deals with dogs. He's able to bring some fairly intense criticism to these people without their reacting or rejecting his ideas, but rather embracing and enacting a new way of doing things. That in itself is pretty remarkable. And quite a few people seem to recognize that he is teaching a basic principle of life that can bring about changes in far more thean their relationship to dogs. One couple realized very quickly that they had to change their whole life around, including the way they ran the five businesses they were involved in, including the way they related to their employees. They began to understand that being overly aggressive and angry with others simply did no good, but created an environment where people could not simply relax and be happy, but were always worried and tense, because they as “pack leaders” were bringing the wrong energy and attitude to the pack.

In some sense, human beings are indeed very much like dogs. They too have leaders who must fulfill a basic role in order for them to feel relaxed and at ease. Unfortunately, too many human leaders don't know how to practice this “calm assertive” disposition, and instead bring a dysfunctional and neurotic attitude to their social sphere. One thing I notice about Barack Obama during this election cycle is how much he is able to bring this “calm assertive” disposition to his campaign, and how strongly people respond to that. (I've been a big supporter of his from the start). And likewise, how many other candidates fail to grasp this basic sign of human maturity, but instead resort to fear, manipulation, excessive dominance, indifference, and mixed messages that merely make people anxious and insecure.

On the other hand, human beings are also clearly different from dogs, and have much more need for individual autonomy and personal responsibility. However, I think there is indeed a real correspondence between this “pack leader” role and our own internal psychology – particularly in relation to our own “animal”, the human body. The body, after all, is very much an animal that needs to be led by our conscious mind, which, unfortunately, often does a very poor job. Like an irresponsible dog owner, we tend to indulge and ignore the real needs of the body, which simply wants to be relaxed and in a state of “calm submission”. However, because our minds are crazy, neurotic, and swinging between passive irresponsibility and overly aggressive domination, our body suffers immense stress and instability. So in relation to our own bodies, we have to take on the “pack leader” role with an attitude of calm-assertive authority. We have to set simple limits for our body and its desires, and make corrective assertions that keep the body in line with what is healthiest and best for us.

But it doesn't stop there. The mind itself is merely a pack of thoughts and desires, and it too must be brought under disciplined control by the real “pack leader” of our psyche, which is consciousness itself, the central intelligence of awareness itself. The mind has to be made still, calm, and submitted to the conscious being, the “who” of our own being, or it will run amuck, and if it runs amuck, so will the body. There is a natural hierarchy within the psyche which needs to be recognized and taken into account, and the lower orders of the hierarchy must submit to the higher orders, or chaos and unhappiness will result. So many human problems are simply the result of irresponsibility at the higher levels of the psyche for what is below, and not understanding how to assume and enact that responsibility. Like bad dog owners, we tend not to bring a calm assertive attitude towards our own mind and body, but instead indulge them and whip them into a neurotic frenzy which results in all the various forms of depression, anxiety, and ill health, on the mental, emotional, and physical level.

Taking responsibility for these things is a basic form of spiritual practice which is often underestimated or ignored in favor of more esoteric ideas. But without the proper “pack leader” attitude towards our own body and mind, these ideas never actually go anywhere. They don't develop or take hold, because our own relationship to body and mind is aberrated and unclear.

Body and mind are always on the verge of veering off into disaster if we are not properly steering them into the correct disposition. As with Cesar Milan's dogs, the body and mind just aren't all that smart, and they can't help but instinctively respond to the leadership we provide for them, positive or negative. When we have problems, it is generally because we are not providing the proper leadership to our body and minds. We are simply bringing an irresponsible attitude, and our body and minds quickly decay into aberrated patterns which seem intractable, just like these dog owners whose dogs can't seem to change. But if this calm assertive leadership attitude is brought to them, they fall into place very quickly. It can take time, to be sure, but not nearly as long as we imagine. The body-mind naturally wants to return to a state of calm submissive happiness, and it will as soon as we take the position of conscious intelligence seriously and bring the right energy and attitude to the body and mind. When we do that, the body-mind naturally relaxes into a state of ease like a dog lying at our feet.

So, this should give a few hints as to what self-enquiry is all about in practice. In relation to the body-mind, it means assuming the position of consciousness that can calmly but assertively “lead” the body-mind, and allow it to fall into a state of calm submission and happy easefullness. These are the signs that self-enquiry is working, that we are genuinely finding our real self, our real position in life, and acting from that position. The body immediately relaxes. The mind immediately relaxes. We don't become dysfunctional, we become functional at last, but within a calm dynamic of ease and relaxation, rather than frantic activity or dulled depression. This is what is called “sattvas” or balance, in the traditions. It is pointed out that such sattvas is natural to us, and natural to the body-mind. So self-enquiry is really just about calmly asserting the conscious position which allows the manifest body-mind to return to its natural state of submission and balance. One doesn't need to do all kinds of tricks and training programs to achieve this. One simply needs to play the proper role of pack leader in relation to the body-mind. One simply needs to assert consciousness as primary and at the top of the hierarchy of the psyche. One needs to issue corrective communications to the body-mind whenever it begins to step out of line, or really, even before it steps out of line. Over time, it will learn to stay in line without much correction. It will find itself attracted naturally to the pack leader, and to the disposition of calm submission within the pack.

So, I bow to my Guru Cesar Milan, teacher of dogs and humans. May I become a wise pack leader of my own mind and body.


Anonymous said...

Right on about Cesar Millan! I don't even own a dog and I watch him. I have long admired his clarity, calmness, understated strength, and, as you pointed out, simple human maturity.

I have seen shows, though, in which it was obviously his character qualities as much as his techniques which worked the apparent miracles. He leaves the people with his wise counsel, his fine example, but not necessarily with his personal qualities. Then I wonder whether the people will be as successful in his absence. In any case, Cesar is one of the most impressive and refreshing characters on the public media.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this introduction to "The Dog Whisperer". I've just watched a few short episodes on YouTube (looks like there are about 412 episodes there to choose from). Amazing stuff.

Anonymous said...

Dog lovers are so dumb. On the one hand they don’t realize that what they love about their dog is that the dog looks up to and obeys them. So they are always trying to find out what the dog wants! The dog wants to be led, not asked for input. The absurdity of this passes belief. The only exception to this is when a bitch is with her litter. Such a bitch has her own agenda.

gniz said...

Hey, i also found Cesar Milan to be a real eye-opener.
Unfortunately, I have seen that there is a good deal of controversy regarding some of his methods of training and whether or not "regular" folks can watch the show and learn these techniques, which are very subtle.

He also has been known to use shock collars, etc, but they dont really discuss that within the show.

I agree with so much of BY's post, very intelligently written, there'a a lot in there which resonates with my own experience of consciousness and awareness.