8 min read

What Dog Shelters Taught Me About Buddhism

I've been working as a volunteer dog socializer at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley for just over a year, and the experience has taught me a lot about dogs, ethics, and applying Buddhist principles to everyday life. In this blog I'll be focusing on one principle: metta.

Metta is probably best described as "equanimity in compassion". It means sincerely opening yourself to the feeling of wishing that everyone be happy and free from suffering, without conditions on who they are.

By attending to and trying to develop the experience of metta, we try to bring to mind the essential community of all living beings, and extend feelings of loving kindness without attachment to judgements of who deserves what. It's not meant to be practiced with a goal in mind - not to create good feelings for yourself, or to achieve some kind of "enlightenment" or to make your life easier.

Shelter dogs have taught me a lot about metta. Meeting them and falling in love with so many of them has really highlighted the roadblocks I face - the conditions I put on how open I am to sincerely wishing others well, which are limiting and damaging. I'll try to describe two of the main ways spending time at the shelter has deepened my understanding of what it really means to wish happiness for all life equally.

The Difference Between Happiness and Metta

It's easy to wish a living being well, and feel empathy for it, when you see that it has some feeling towards you. In fact, loving a dog that loves you is almost impossible to resist! It's much more difficult to give the same love, however, when you're faced with a living being who has no interest in you, or wants to cause you harm.

The feeling of being loved or needed by an animal gives rise to good feelings, and these inspire what I thought was a state of metta, but was actually just attachment. This feeling of reciprocal love depends on something the other creature is doing. Metta, by contrast, is ideally universal and independent of context; love for everyone no matter who or what they are. The difficulty I noticed myself having, in maintaining the same level of compassion and openness towards the dogs that don't care about me and the ones who love me dearly makes it clear where I am falling short in my practice. Extending openness and love to only those beings who offer me something is the opposite of metta!

When I feel myself closing down, and wishing the interaction to be over so I can go and spend time with my favorite companion, I try to force myself to reopen my mind and remember that the dog in front of me owes me nothing, and deserves everything.

Love Without Attachment

Another benefit to the practice of metta in shelters for me, is that it has forced me to focus on non-attachment. Love without attachment is really important in Buddhism, because we believe that attachment causes the world to be full of suffering, and fails to recognize that everything in the universe is transient. Love without attachment means not clinging, or expecting anything from those we love, but being able to let go.

There is a constant flow of animals through the shelter I volunteer at, which is of course a good thing - it means we're doing our job well. This high turnover can be emotionally draining; as soon as you build a bond, they leave with their forever family, their room is filled by someone else and you're faced with building a whole new bond. It can feel like a repeating pattern. After this happened a few times, always leaving me feeling sad, I realized that seeing a pattern is itself a mistake and a failure of metta - to the dogs, this is all new of course, and each dog is an individual with its own point of perception.

Extending the same loving kindness to each dog, approaching the long term resident who covers me with kisses and the stranger who shrinks into the corner or bares his teeth, with an equally open heart can be draining, but it also forces me to recognize that metta cannot be conditional. Everyone deserves happiness, everyone deserves to be free from suffering.

The first thing I do when I meet a new dog, is to tell them, quietly, "May you be happy. May you be free from suffering". Extending this wish sincerely to every living creature is a daunting aspiration, and highlights the pettiness and flaws in my character, but it's something I'm committed to, and something I believe will benefit the dogs I am trying to help.