I’ve always had what feels to be a karmic connection to sight hounds. These are the fast, elegant dogs, with the long, pointy faces (called dolichocephalic heads) such as afghans, greyhounds, and wolfhounds. They are ancient and royal. Over the past twenty-five years I’ve shared my life with a Borzoi, an American Staghound, and my absolute soul-dogs = two Salukis. At the same time, I’ve had just as many mixed-breed shelter dogs, also incredibly precious to me, but none have taught me the art of patience like my pointy-faced, silky hounds.
The reason being, there are no dogs more aggravating and fury-inducing in their own stubborn commitment to independence. Unlike my current Sheltie cross I scooped up, abandoned, from a dusty alleyway, or even the past love-of-my-life, a scruffy black Pomeranian cross, sight hounds have zero interest in pleasing anybody. Certainly not the people they love– and they do love, fiercely. It’s just that they are singularly focused on their current point of interest and not even dynamite can blast them from a pin-sized dot on the walking path they’d like to keep sniffing— for a full twenty minutes. (Any hound-person can relate to this pain.)
I first fell in love with these gloriously self-centered beasts in grade school when I checked out a book on dogs from the library. I couldn’t stop gazing at the exotic beauty of the Saluki, or the elegance of the Russian Wolfhound (aka the Borzoi). It felt like fate when at the age of twenty-two I adopted my first beloved sight-hound, a gorgeous female Borzoi I named Zoia. I had to learn new humiliating things like how to trick her to come to me (pouncing on the ground as if I were killing an invisible squirrel with my bare hands, while blowing a duck whistle) because recall was not something she would ever be interested in. I had to fascinate her, make it worth her while.
She was also incredibly expressive. They all are. Sight hounds do everything with their eyes. They hunt, they communicate, they follow you with their vision, not their nose, though they use that a lot too. Because of this incredible eye-contact, I started to see myself reflected from her point of view, a crystal clear mirror. Sometimes, that wasn’t pretty.
It was my first Saluki, Seva, adopted just a year after Zoia, who took this one hundred degrees further. In her eyes I found constant judgement. Like a spirit-guide, she reproached me anytime I strayed ugly from the path of righteousness (based on her definition of it). She was a nano-degree from being human, so blatant was her communication. If I made any attempt to lose my patience with her– perhaps I pulled her leash because she was taking too long to potty on a walk, or maybe I removed her from pulling the leaves, one by one, off my favorite potted plant– she would look right in my eyes with a shocked expression on her face, and I swear I could hear her say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm it right down! You’re blowing this WAY out of proportion!”
And just about every time, I would recognize her as being right.
When I lost my patience with my dogs, I felt like a monster. I’m sure this is how parents feel. Never having chosen to undertake such a journey of rearing human children, I can’t say for certain. But there is no worse feeling than to become so mindless (as in the opposite of mindful) as to pressure a dog into conforming to some abstract measure of the pathological human attachment to time.
Over the years, my dogs have trained me. My precious sight-hounds have freely given their advanced Zen training, molding my behavior (unlike my Aussie-cross, Koda, who wants nothing but to anticipate my next move and provide for me whatever it is he’s predicting I’ll need in the next millisecond). They have formed me into the patient person I am today. Traffic doesn’t faze me. Long lines? I relish them. Having to wait 45-minutes to see my doctor is an exercise in relaxation for me. I’m happy to return my cart to the cart corral, even if I’m parked twenty spaces away from it, and I’ll even collect other carts I see and return those too.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my dogs have completely converted me from a control-freak, impatient lunatic, to my monk-like relationship with patience today. We take our teachers where we can get them, and they come in all forms.
What’s the deal with patience anyway?
The truth is, we start with an expectation (our brain categorizes this as being a reward). We have a set period of time to comfortably wait out the result of this expectation. Sometime like, “This traffic had better start moving in thirty seconds.” Our patience is terminated when the expected time period for receiving our reward, our expectation, expires. Depending upon our patience threshold, this might be five or fifty minutes
My dogs have given me a tremendous gift because a person’s patience threshold is a big deal.
1.) Patience brings greater mental health. A higher patience threshold decreases stress, improves cardiac function, and decreases depression. And while we’re at it, it’s generally a good idea to evaluate our relationship to expectation in general. The Buddhists have been telling us for years that as our expectation for outcome generally increases, our mental health decreases, something I see everyday in my line of work. It’s okay to want things. But when our happiness fully depends on some impossible set of detailed circumstances surrounding the want of that thing, and is completely shattered when every single one of those circumstances doesn’t come to fruition, well, that’s just an exercise in psychological paralysis. It’s not an effective strategy for moving forward, which is what the impatient person wants more than anything.
2.) Patience brings stronger decision making. It allows us to calm down, see the big picture, and make an informed decision rather than allowing feelings of urgency or fear to make the decision for us. There’s power in patience. And it’s absolutely required when navigating enormous life-changes. Rather than jumping from one unsatisfying situation to another, it allows us to feel our way to the more intuitive answer, rather than the perceived safest, which may not actually be the safest at all. Impatience allows fear to talk much more loudly, when it’s the heart we need to be listening to. People sometimes make the argument that the language of fear is smart (choose safety over courage!), but there’s a difference between the smart decision and the wise decision. For growth and lasting happiness, wisdom reigns supreme, and wisdom requires patience.
3.) Patience builds stronger relationships. There is nothing that builds a positive reputation faster and stronger than patience. People feel safer with us, more loved by us, more free to be creative in our presence, more accepted by us, and more respected by us if we allow them the gift of patience. Patience renders us better listeners, with more compassionate hearts.
4.) Patience builds self-possession. In other words, patience helps us take control of our reactions. Rather than allowing emotions and reactivity to run the show, it allows us to take survey of what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling it, bringing a greater level of mindfulness to our day. Patience makes us better communicators. Without patience and self-possession, we can’t possibly master the art of conversational-intelligence.
I ask you to ask yourself, “Am I a patient person? What is my patience threshold?”
And if you feel you’ve received a not-so-pretty picture as a response, ask yourself what it would take to expand your threshold? I wouldn’t necessarily recommend running out to adopt a team of reproachful sight hounds. Like I said, it was my karma to become their student, not necessarily yours.
I have some ideas on working with patience, if you don’t have twenty-five years to devote to Salukis.
1.) Breathe. Really breathe. Several times a day take a deep inhalation that expands your lungs completely, hold it for a second, and then exhale slowly to the count of five. Nothing resets the nervous system like a good old-fashioned deep breath.
2.) Slow Down. Learn to prioritize your time. Trying to fit in a ridiculous amount of activity into your day is both unrealistic and cruel. If you’re constantly stressed by your schedule, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with your schedule. I don’t care what your excuse is. Make some shifts, or risk running yourself into the ground.
3.) Meditate. Anyway you have to. Listen to guided meditations, join a meditation group, read a how-to book. It doesn’t have to be an hour a day and it doesn’t have to look any one way. Find a method that resonates with you, and give it a try. And throw those expectations for perfection out the window. There is no way to fail at meditation.
4.) Emotional Intelligence. Learn to identify your emotions and say them out loud. It’s astonishing how powerful a stress-reliever it is to simply say, “I feel afraid” when you’re stuck in a traffic jam caused by a terrifying car accident one hundred feet up the highway.
5.) Exercise. Take a walk. Take a class. Dance for fifteen minutes in the middle of your day. Bike around your neighborhood. Climb a mountain. Whatever you do, move with the intention of lowering your stress-levels and increasing your patience tolerance.
6.) Let children and animals be your teachers. When they dilly-dally while putting on their shoes, or take too long sniffing a flower, take that time to breathe and feel gratitude for that moment. Nature demands patience. Let these little representatives of nature teach their expertise– mindfulness in appreciating and savoring the moment.