Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pondering the Meaning of Compassion on the Rail Trail

Sunday was just one day shy of longest day of the year--also known as summer solstice. While it wasn't also the hottest day of the year, it certainly seemed like it. The temperature was almost 90 and the humidity was so high my cold nose and panting couldn't keep me cool. As you see over to the right, I spent a great deal of time hiding on it fields of clover. They are a fantastic place to find bumblebees, little morsels of discarded foods, and chipmunks.

Chipmunks? Whoops. Wait just one minute. Did someone say chipmunks? Next to squirrels, I think chipmunks are my favorite thing to chase after. They seem to be slower and pay very little attention to me. I've gotten close to catching them but my lead always seems just a little too short. I wonder how that happens? Anyway, I spent an awful lot of time scampering back and forth across the trail. The humans walked about five miles. I probably did closer to seven. There was so much to look at and see as I scurried back and forth across the rail trail. Do I look blurry in this picture? That's because I was in near constant motion. Chipmunk on the right, bird on the left, field of clover on the right, and well, you get the point. It was a lot of fun.

At the half way point we stopped at a store called Traveling Rhinos and Friends. I was sipping my water when one of the humans went in to purchase something with a little more flavor. A few minutes later the shopkeeper appeared along with two small dogs. We did the usual "nice to meet you dance" (the dogs, not the humans). Before I knew it I was escorted into the nice air conditioned store. What a nice surprise.

Both dogs were rescue dogs. I was rather taken with Buster. His story was a sad one. The story I was told was that Buster never had the opportunity to play and interact with other dogs. His previous owner kept him locked up in a cat carrier for most of the day--every day--for four years. One day Buster finally had enough and didn't want to go into the cat carrier. He apparently bit his owner who then surrendered him to the shelter. Buster was labeled a vicious dog.

In the end, Buster was lucky: he found a new home that took him in, showed him lots of patience and love, and helped him have a life worth living. Buster is also lucky because he seems to have some extraordinary social skills. He approached me carefully and slowly. My human who is generally extremely cautious was extraordinarily so when we met because of Buster's story. Within fifteen seconds he had assessed the situation and relaxed. There were no signs of aggression and many calming signals: yawning, licking, turning head away, play bow, sniffing, walking slowly, and walking in a curve.

It's useful to know about these calming signals. It's even more useful to learn to recognize them in your dog as well as in other dogs. Once humans learn to have some skill at interpreting canine behaviors things go along a lot better. Anyway, for a dog that hasn't played with other dogs, we had an awful lot of fun. We rolled, played, and generally frolicked all around the air conditioned store.

Buster's humans took a leap of faith and demonstrated a great deal of compassion for him. He had been considered a dangerous dog: one that was very likely going to be euthanized. There are dogs out there that are dangerous. It's a serious problem, requiring serious attention. I don't know for sure what made these humans look at Buster differently. Perhaps the humans took the time to look at the facts.  Maybe they saw something deep inside the dog. It's unclear and that's really not all the important.

The humans demonstrated a great deal of compassion for Buster. In hearing his story, they were moved. They had some sort of emotional experience that was caused by the experience that Buster had. On the walk back to the car I got to thinking about the nature of compassion.

Compassion is at the heart of what many companion animals freely offer humans, yet do we ever really stop to wonder what compassion really is? Many comment that animals don't judge, offer unconditional love, and other such things. All that might be true, and all those are wonderful gifts, but none really represent the compassion that companion animals can offer a person. While no one knows for sure what goes on within our minds, a careful observer can notice how many animals respond to the suffering of others.

Over the first year of my life I've shown myself to be a dog that seeks out those who are suffering. Sometimes it's obvious, like when I'm rubbing tears off a face with my nose. Sometimes it is demanding when I'm pulling my human around Cambridge and "stumble" upon a person sitting alone on a park bench or huddled under a bridge.

Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed. --The Buddha

While I'm just a small dog, might I add one thought? Compassion is a word with direction. As quoted above, in the presence of pain experienced by another being, compassion moves the heart to hold and shelter the distressed.  I think the Buddha might have forgotten to say something. Compassion also transports you from where you are to somewhere else. Compassion can shine like the light at the end of the tunnel and draw you to a place you hadn't known existed.

Just ask Buster.


  1. What a touching, thought provoking story filled with wisdom. I loved the quote & would like to add a few other quotes about compassion:

    If you want others to be happy,
    practice compassion.
    If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
    ~ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

    I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics.
    ~ Albert Schweitzer

    Compassion is the basis of morality.
    ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

    Compassion comes from a sincere desire to be loving.
    ~ Unknown

    Sent to Maggie & her human with gratitude & compassion.

  2. I was so moved by reading this story & the Buddha quote I was inspired to look through my file of quotes regarding Buddhism & compassion. If I may, I would like to share these quotes with you & your human audience:

    Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.
    ~ Buddha

    Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human “brain” with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human “heart” with compassion. This is what the real role of religion is."
    ~ Dalai Lama

    The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes.
    ~Pema Chodron

    I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it.
    ~ Thomas Aquinas

    Our task must be to free ourselves . . .
    by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
    ~ Albert Einstein

    Amen & hallelujah!