Trungpa Rinpoche was traveling with his attendants to a monastery he’d never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer, he could see the bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.
I do a lot of work with myself and my clients on the topic of “turning toward” emotional difficulty. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the strong desire to freeze or run away when my grandfather passed away last week. I didn’t want to face it, telling my wife “I’ll go to Florida, but I might not go to the funeral.” Luckily the universe conspired to make sure I would be present to all of the thoughts and emotions that arose from that time with my family. I am better off having thoroughly grieved.
This is why I stress the “Practice” aspect of this work we do. Spiritual practices as well as mental health practices are less about achieving a state of perfection or living under perfect circumstances but more about being capable of living more fully within the limits of those imperfections. It is unlikely that we will one day be perfect at turning toward, or being compassionate, or living with a grateful heart; but the effort we put in towards being our best selves is what matters. That effort, coupled with the openness to recognize when we’re falling short, is at the heart of our fulfillment.
These situations will continue to rise again and again in our lives, where we will have the opportunity to respond with freezing in terror, running away from our problem, or turning towards the barking dog to see exactly what needs to be done.
May you be brave enough to turn towards or wise enough to notice when you cannot.