I was at a dog park in New Jersey the other day with my friend Carla, as we watched our dogs play together. We were discussing many dog related topics, and I brought up the idea of “Ikigai” – a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” I suggested that every dog has an Ikigai, and that one secret to achieving a great friendship with our dogs is to help them find their own reason for being. After some discussion, and my usual long-winded streams of thought, Carla, who has a great talent of cutting through the hodgepodge and getting to the point said, “You mean, it’s what makes your dog sing.”
Every dog has an inner song, and one mission of the Path of Friendship is to help us bring it out so that it can be sung loudly and proudly. Unfortunately, finding it is not always so easy. It requires us to step outside of ourselves and set aside our preconceived notions about how things ought to be; what we think our dogs should be. We can only help them to find their song when we allow them to be who they truly are.
Finding your dog’s Ikigai is not an easy task. It requires eidetic vision. It’s the same as when a artist looks at a lump of clay, and instead of telling the clay what to become, he asks the clay what it wants to be. When the artist clears his mind of expectations and plans, he can begin to see the shapes and forms of a formless lump as something with purpose. Rather than demand that it reshape, he fills in the details. When I used to carve wood, I would always first “see” the shapes of animals in the wood, and I’d simply help remove the excess. The wood was already formed and I just helped bring what was hidden to the surface. This is how we should look at our dogs.
We need to see our dog’s inner patterns. The Chinese have a word for this, “Li”, which literally means the “grain in wood; the markings in jade.” A better description would be “organic pattern.” When we clear our minds of pre-set ideas, we can begin to see our dog’s “Li”, and only then can we help them realize it.
When we train our dogs using traditional models, whether through dominance or behaviorism, we take a mindset that our dogs are not good enough the way they are and need us to control them. We take the position of boss or leader because we have the basic assumption that we can’t trust our dog’s inner nature so we need to control them. However, our distrust of their nature becomes a barrier that blocks their true selves, their song, to surface and thrive. They become preoccupied with having to do the right thing, and often they will suppress their own decisions and passions in order to gain our love and acceptance. And while this may be good for obedience, it does little to enhance a friendship.
There is another way, and it requires a leap of faith. It requires us to have complete trust in our dogs and help them to grow and find their song. This is exactly what true friends do. Friendship isn’t a business transaction where my dog does something for me, and in return I do something for her. Friendship is a connection at the deepest level where I want my dog to be fully functioning, self actualized, whole. As her friend, I have the desire to help her achieve this. And I have the faith that in her own way, she wants the same for me. As friends, we help each other to become independent, complete individuals. We help each other to sing. It’s a selfless relationship, not a self-serving one. By working with my dog to find her song, I am deepening the connection between us. The more I help her sing, the more in touch with my own song I will become.
In music, there is a concept known as “counterpoint.” This is when two melodies are played simultaneously, neither influencing or dominating each other, yet they sound perfectly in harmony with each other. It’s beautiful to listen to, and this is exactly what I try to achieve with my dog. When I help her find her own song, and in return she helps me find mine, we can both sing together. Singing leads to dancing, and although we sing different melodies, we dance together the way true friends do.