When the the Dogs Are Barking: A Four-year-old’s Perspective on Fear

Last week, I discovered a handwritten message that had been taken off the wall of my daughter’s Pre-K classroom. The message – really a complaint – had been voiced by my daughter during a classroom intervention led by the teacher. The teacher wanted to know why the “Doggy” game had led to so much arguing and crying.

As far as the game, I think you get the idea: the kids take turns acting like a dog, crawling on the floor, rolling over, barking, and sometimes being sick and needing to be taken care of. To be an “owner” was more responsibility. You had to lead the dog on walks around the room, give it imaginary treats, and most challenging of all, decipher what the hell all the various panting, barking, and paw shaking meant.

My daughter didn’t like to be the owner, and most kids didn’t either. This was part of the friction within the game. It was more fun to bark and lay on your back with your hands and feet in the air than it was to have to meet someone else’s needs. During the class meeting on the rug, the teacher asked students what was upsetting them about the game. My daughter said, exasperated, “I don’t know what to do when the dogs are barking. I don’t know what they need.”

My mind stopped when I read this. In two sentences, she captured my decades-long struggle to understand and deal with my body.

I could relate.

I don’t know what to do when it’s barking.
I don’t know what it needs.

As many of you know, I’ve experienced chronic pain and sizable physical limitations at times as well. I know that when our body or emotions feel out of control, there is such pressure to understand exactly what’s going on. That pressure partially comes from within, since we believe it’s up to us to correct the problem. The pressure also partially comes from outside us; well-meaning friends continually ask us if we’ve figured out what’s wrong with us.

Yet, who can say with any real confidence what the various aches, tensions, and emotional surges in our body really mean? We are all playing owner with our body: trying to understand what it needs and when to take it for a walk. But we don’t embrace the mystery. Especially for people like me, in the “wellness” field, we act like experts. As if we too aren’t fumbling around in the dark much of the time.

What happens is that we spend a lot of time dwelling in the past (who do I blame – myself?), and the future (what’s my plan for kicking this thing?). Trying to think our way out of the situation is seductive, though spending increasing amounts of time in our own head only isolates us from others.

“I don’t know what to do when the dogs are barking.” – Openness.

There is a third option in between trying to rewrite the past and catastrophizing about the future. We can learn to remain in the vulnerable place of accepting a mystery and not criticizing ourselves for it but rather understanding that this is just the way it is, right now. We can not know and that’s okay.

What my daughter channeled during carpet time is a centuries-old school of Korean Zen Buddhism known as “Don’t Know Mind.” This tradition emphasizes a mental state of complete openness where one isn’t grasping for answers or certainty. For example, I don’t know what my spouse needs right now, but I’m going to remain open and not grasp for easy answers or shut down.

Or, as my neurologist once told me when I was pressing him to try and give me a diagnosis, “Be careful what you ask for. If you keep pushing a doctor for a diagnosis, they may give you one but it might not be the right one.”

From the perspective of working with our bodies, it’s not that having an answer or solution is bad. It’s that we tend to stop looking and noticing when we “know.” For instance, I know how to walk to my apartment. For that reason, it’s easy for me to do the entire walk barely noticing my surroundings. The Don’t Know mind encourages me to walk as if I had never done it before.

I don’t know what they need.”  – Openness leads to kindness.

It’s frustrating to not know what our body or mind needs. What we tend to do is cycle, endlessly, through various strategies – ranging from fixing to numbing – thereby fatiguing and depressing ourselves in the process. We would do anything other than be kind to ourselves. Yet it’s not until we recognize our own not knowing, until we acknowledge our own lack of certainty and touch our own fear, that we can begin to be gentle towards ourselves and others. When we stop trying to fix ourselves, there is room for kindness to arise. We can be kind to ourselves even if we don’t have a clue, even if we feel like we don’t deserve it. Eventually, it dawns on us that other people, too, are grasping for answers. They have their own dogs barking to contend with.

It took me years of meditation, therapy, working with hundreds of students, and mucho disappointment to express something so simply and without blame as my daughter did. If I had been there with her in the classroom, I would’ve knelt down and given her a hug and said, I don’t know either. And we could both start, with kindness, from there.

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