Shelter Volunteerism as Spiritual Path

Shelter Volunteerism as Spiritual Path
As Ram Dass has said, "We are all just walking each other home."

This is part two of what it was like for me to start volunteering at the animal shelter, offered because I know that many people are frightened of entering shelters and facing all that pain and suffering. I was too. Very much so. Here's part one.

Even though I had signed up to volunteer at the animal shelter, it wasn't as if my inner curmudgeon disappeared with a 'Poof!" I was definitely still disgusted with people in a generalized way. One drive down a busy street gave me all the information I needed to tell me that people were becoming increasingly selfish and reckless. In no time I could go from feeling cheerful to vowing to never leave my house again after watching people treat each other terribly on the road ways.

The question was, what to do with this growing sense of hopelessness about the world?

I kept going back to something social policy consultant Margaret Wheatley said at a conference I attended years ago. She said that she had gotten to the point that she really didn't have much hope any more but that she didn't worry about that so much. For her, the only question that really matters in her life is:

"Am I doing the right work?"

Right work.

And that sent me straight to Buddha's Eight Fold Path.

But before we head there, let me just say, I'm not a hater by nature. I'm not chronically annoyed by design. I'm not prone to judging people in harsh lights because I think I'm particularly awesome.

In fact, it's almost the opposite.

I'm The Woman of a Thousand Wishes and that's why I find myself thinking about Buddha.

No one wants to read my thousand wishes, but it all boils down to this:

I wish we hadn't let things get this far and I fear they've gone too far. It just looks too often to me like human selfishness outpaces compassion.

A recent Harvard study seems to confirm my opinion. That study didn't make me feel any better. Maybe I'm right to feel hopeless about the human race.

Enter Buddha.

B: Life is suffering.

Me: Um, yeah, I kind of noticed that. Have you seen all the shit people are doing these days? I mean we have a huge island of plastic floating in the Pacific and some idiot invents K-Cups!  And people buy them! People with kids who have to grow up in a world with increasing environmental degradation! I don't get it! And don't get me started on kids and all the caffeine. Who lets their kids drink coffee forcrissakes? And not only that...

B: Suffering is all in your mind.

Me: I'm sorry but: Whoa. Seriously, dude? Um, it's in the Pacific plastic island and in huge factory farms and in the effects of corporate greed...

B: Which you find yourself thinking about more and more?

Me: Well, yeah, it's kind of important, don't you think? I think about it all the time lately. Every time I think about dinner I can't help but thinking about the disappearance of small farms and about the welfare of the animals we eat. I have to fight the temptation to just order my husband a pizza while I eat a few asparagus spears from the farmer's market because all the things I would normally feed us are also so often the wrong things...not local, not humane. I walk the grocery aisles and I think of...

B: And this thinking all the time? Is it making you happier?

Me: You would have made a good lawyer.

B: Thanks. Now what happens when you eat that spear of asparagus from the farm?

Me: I can't imagine ever buying asparagus from a store again. It's fantastic!

B: So the asparagus didn't make you suffer?

Me: Actually, no. Just the opposite. It validates for me every time I take a bite that this is the best way to be living.

B: So you see, suffering can cease.

Me: But wait, what about...

B: Are you about to start thinking again?

Me: Um, sort of.

B: Suffering can cease.

Me: But those thoughts are based on reality! On what is happening here. I'm not imagining all this am I?

B: Look, do you want a way out of the suffering or do you just want to justify it? Blue pill or red pill, let's go! I don't have all day, kid.

Me: Okay, okay, I vote to stop suffering. So what, I never think again? Stop reading? Learn to fiddle while Rome burns?

B: Jesus Christ, will you hand me that chair? (Jesus pulls a chair over.) Thanks. Okay, Laura, I'll ask you again, do you want a way out of suffering or just a way to justify it and explain why you'll never really be able to stop?

Me: Shit. Okay. Stop. I want to stop suffering. I want to feel hopeful again.

B: Whoa. Not so fast, Kowalski. Who said anything about hope? If you just want to spend your time suffering because no one can guarantee a rosy future, I can't help you. There is no such thing as the future, only now. And with only now you don't need hope. You only need to be here. And you can be here, now, without the suffering. Do you want to know how or do you still need to spend a little time bitching about things first?

Me: No. I think I'm through. What's the plan, Stan?

B: Just follow these eight steps.

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

But, I'll make it even simpler for you. Don't even worry about remembering all of these. Forget I even brought them up if you want. But if you can only do one thing just do this: Whatever you do in your present moment, as each moment passes, just ask yourself, "Is this the right thing for me to be doing at this time?"  

Laura, do you trust yourself to know the difference between right and wrong?

Me: I do. I don't always live like I know, but the truth is, I do.

B: Remember you have a choice every time your thoughts lead you to suffering. For you, I see that action always helps you. Have you ever felt worse after weeding your garden? Making dinner? Coming back from the farmer's market with your bag of asparagus? Walking a shelter dog?

Me: Never.

B: The shelter thing. You were afraid of doing that at first, weren't you?

Me: Wow. I was. I had almost forgotten that. I sat in that parking lot for the longest time. I wasn't sure I could go in.

B: And why were you afraid?

Me: I was afraid to face that suffering. I didn't think I could be there, couldn't even walk in, without wanting to bring home every single animal and right now I can't bring home any. I didn't think I could bear facing my own powerlessness.

B: And do you feel powerless there?

Me: Not at all!  I love those animals.

It's going to sound goofy, but there is something very fulfilling in seeing a dog take a good long pee after it's been waiting patiently in its cage for someone to come and take it out. It seems like such a small thing but these are good dogs. And dogs who are housebroken will go through such pains (literally) to remain good dogs even in shelter conditions. Yes, they can relieve themselve in their cages.

The staff keep them very, very clean, but still, mentally, for a good dog to do something it was taught was bad, that is suffering. You can see it.  A lot of these dogs were given up by their owners for reasons that have nothing to do with the dog. Maybe someone lost a job and can't afford to keep the pet.

One of my fave gals, Scarlet. She's sleeping under my desk as I type this while I foster her this weekend.

One of my fave gals, Scarlet. She's sleeping under my desk as I type this while I foster her this weekend.

So now you have a dog that is rejected and confused as to why. You can see them trying to figure out what the new rules are in this circumstance they are in because they want out of it. I have to believe to be a good dog, to get back in a family (pack), is a strong drive for these guys. And I may not be able to bring them all home but that immediate need for the walk is a suffering I can do something about if its only helping them out of that terrible anxiety of trying to avoid doing something that they ingrained as 'bad'.

I can help a good dog know that it is still a good dog. It means a lot to me to be able to do that. Seeing a dog actually relax in the middle of all that is beautiful. It's the reason I've gone back every day.

B: Every day, huh? Good thing it's only temporary. I mean, it has to be, right? So, how long do you think it will take for the shelter to find homes for all the animals? Has anyone ever said anything about that?

Me: Oh, there will never be an end. Ever. There will always be homeless animals that will come to them. So, I think I'll be there for a long time. Long as I am able. I can't imagine not wanting to be.

B: So there is no hope that this will get better? No hope for this suffering to end no matter how long you keep at it, no matter how many walks?

Me: Like I said, you would have made a good lawyer. But to your point, no. And in that moment, watching a good dog find that relief, I don't even think about the future. I'm just there. It's like the parable with the lady throwing beached starfish back into the water. A man watching tells her she is doing a futile task. There are too many starfish on the beach. She's never be able to make a difference. And in response, she picks up one and tosses it in the water saying, "But I made a difference to that one."

Dogs have a way of bringing you into the now now now. I can't think about anything else when I am with them.

B: How many are you going to bring home?

Me: None. I can't right now. But you know something? I'm okay with that. I know if I had one at home, I wouldn't go to the shelter every day and the shelter walks are 'right action' for me. The needs of the many are greater than bringing only one home.

B: So you cured your fear of suffering by walking right into the river of suffering...the endless river of animals that will find themselves in the shelter.

Me: Funny, isn't it? And it doesn't feel like a river of suffering. It feels like a river of opportunity to serve.

B: To make a difference?

Me: In some small way, yes. Lots of small many ways as there are dogs to be walked on any given day.

B: Are you the only volunteer?

Me: Some days I may be the only dog walker but other days there may be a few others. I love those days because that let's me give longer walks to the bigger dogs who really need the extra exercise. Sometimes we divvy them up to make sure everyone gets the extra attention available.

B: So there are others making a difference there also.

Me: Oh, God yes. There is an old neighbor of mine who has done cat care there for 11 years!

B: And if you can make a difference, and if there are others there, too, maybe you can also find a way to hope.

Me: Watch yourself now, pal. Don't push your luck!  But seriously, you know, that whole thing about the future...maybe you are right. Whenever I am in my right work/right action, the future is irrelevant. For that matter, so is the past.

B: Good. Now, you are out of milk and lettuce. Don't you have a farm to get to.

Me: Indeed I do. Watch my back, Buddha. This mind of mine is a tricky bastard. It does like to think, I'll give you that.

B: No worries. What else is a Buddha for?

And scene.

And that was where it began for me, even before I had a parade of shelter dogs coming to my home. Even before I experienced the first euthanasia of a shelter dog I had come to know and love (due to the effects of kennel stress). I feel like my life had become one big love affair and that I have stepped on a spiritual path like no other. I will have much more to say on this topic along the way because, really, I get tried by the week when it comes to dealing with suffering, and intensely emotional people and drama and pain and feeling so ridiculously small in the face of such vast need. If this is at all interesting or helpful to you, please subscribe so you can be sure to see future installments.

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