March 20, 2012

Stop Straining at the Leash.

Photo: Ikujoyce

We all fight against what holds us back.

My dog, Milton, does not like to heel. There’s so much world out there. So many squirrels to chase, so many other dogs to sniff in inappropriate places, so much vegetation to water. Other than the squirrel chasing, though, I don’t have an issue with him doing any of these things. He’d still get to do them all if he heeled. But since he doesn’t heel very much, and I’m training him to do so, we spend much of our walking time together working on that heeling part.

I know it’s very frustrating for him.

I can also see how incredibly uncomfortable it is for his neck when he strains on the leash. If only he understood English better, perhaps I could explain. A conversation might go something like this:

Me:  Milton, if you would stop pulling on that leash, you would stop hurting your neck (and my arm, for that matter).

Milton:  But there are a lot of interesting distractions all around us, and I want to check them all out! The leash holds me back from checking them all out!

Me: I see what you mean. It would be nice to be able to run free. Unfortunately, there’s a leash law in this town, and in the parks.

Milton: What’s a leash law?!

Me:  That may be beyond the scope of this conversation, but let’s just say it’s a sort of leash around my neck. Besides, you don’t consistently come when you’re called. And if you ran away and I couldn’t find you, we’d both be very unhappy.

Milton: I’d miss you.

Me: I’d miss you too. And you’d be very hungry.

Milton: Well, I’d catch squirrels! And eat them!

Me: Maybe. But we’ve strayed from the original topic.

Milton:  Oh, what was that? Hey, there’s a squirrel now!

Me: Heel! (sigh) The original topic was that if you would just stop pulling on your leash, we’d both be happier.

Milton: Oh, yeah. Well, but I want to go fast. And you walk too slowly.

Me: I can imagine that’s frustrating for you. But even when I walk faster, you keep tugging on the leash as hard as you can.

Milton: That’s because I’m hoping you’ll walk even faster.

Me: I don’t think I could ever walk fast enough for you.

Milton: Probably not. I’m very fast!

Me:  You are. But we’ve strayed from the topic again.

Milton: What was that topic?

Me: Heeling. Letting the leash be loose and walking by my side.


I think it’s likely that we’d go ‘round and ‘round like that ad infinitum, because we have such different perspectives on the issue. To him, the idea that slowing down, ceasing to pull on the leash, would actually increase his ability to do the things he wants to do, is completely counter-intuitive. He doesn’t want the limitation of the leash at all, so he strains against it, leading to a decrease in his actual comfort and freedom.

Which leads me to me. I have a hard time heeling, too. I don’t want any limitations, so I strain against many of the ones that I do have. I don’t like to stay within a budget, for instance, so I sometimes spend more than I can afford (thanks to credit cards). But then, the stress and anxiety of being in debt is far worse than the discomfort and anxiety I experience when I’m sticking to a budget. So I strain at the leash. And it hurts.

There are certain foods that I know, from long experience, cause me to feel crappy when I eat them. Guess what? Those are the foods I crave the most. I conveniently forget sometimes that the consequences of eating certain foods is far more unpleasant than the discomfort of staying away from them. More straining at the leash.

Straining at the leash comes in subtler forms for me, too. There are certain feelings I don’t want to have. Loneliness is a big one for me. When I start to feel that heavy feeling in my chest, that lump in my throat, that indefinable longing for a home that has no earthly location that I know of (anybody else ever get that feeling?), I strain at the leash. I get on Facebook. I watch Hulu. I get into mundane conversations. I make stupid jokes. I do anything to avoid feeling that deep, dark, heaviness inside of me.

Contemporary neuroscience tells us that the biochemicals produced when a person experiences an emotion stays in the system a mere 90 seconds. This is true regardless of what emotion it is, how strong it is, or what catalyzed it. In under two minutes, left to run its course, an emotion will move on. That’s just what emotions do. E-motion. They move.


Unless we make the decision to keep re-triggering that emotion through thought. Ah, thought. My favorite way of straining at the leash of my emotions. I try to think my way out of the loneliness.  I think about what caused the loneliness. I think about what the loneliness means about me as a person, “Will I ever be free of this feeling?” I think. “Do other people feel this way?” And so on. And those biochemicals, that in the absence of these thoughts would wash through me in 90 seconds, get dumped and re-dumped into my system. More straining at the leash.

In his gorgeous poem, The Guest House, the great poet Rumi says:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I’m a human. Being human means I’m going to feel unpleasant feelings sometimes. Milton’s a dog. Being a dog means he’s going to be on a leash sometimes. At least, as long as he’s my dog that’s going to be the case. Every once in a while I get a flash of what it’s like to just allow an emotion to be itself. I invite it to come sit down, take a load off, and tell me its story. It’s never as bad as I thought it was going to be. It never takes as much effort as it was taking to keep that feeling at bay. Sometimes it even feels pretty good. In fact, loneliness and I are getting to be pals.

Every once in a while, Milton walks for hundreds of yards by my side. I love it, and I don’t think he has a problem with it either. We both relax noticeably during these stretches of walk. We leisurely take in the sights, sniff the air, and enjoy each others’ company. I’d like to think he enjoys these times a lot, and that he’s learning to prefer them to his fits of tugging on me. I’d like to think I’m learning something similar.

Heeling and healing both take time to learn.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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