Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not Zen 150: Pretense

They put the dog on a leash and walked her around the block so they could discuss David's divorce where no one would overhear. The 'no one' they were concerned about was David's daughter, Julia. They left her playing with a neighbor friend in the front yard.

On their walk, his brother David explained how he didn't really like people. He felt that he was a logical thinker and other people weren't logical. His brother had heard the complaint before.

"Despite being anti-social, you married an extremely social woman," he pointed out.

"She proposed," David said.

"You accepted. And she got tired of having a sensible family life."

"And left me, yes, I know. That's how I ended up with custody of Julia." David shook his head. "There was no way out. I'm not comfortable with it. I mean, I'm doing my best. But she's so different. Mostly, I feel I have to send her to a good school and just hope they know what they're doing."

"Maybe that's enough."

Near the end of their return, the dog began to bark. She strained at her leash, ran in a circle, and bounded against the fence twice to make it rattle. David's daughter ran up to the gate. Her friend was nowhere to be seen, apparently gone home, and she had changed into a costume that consisted of moccasins, a pretend-leather smock, and a feather headdress. She held the headdress in place with her right hand while she lifted the latch of the gate with her left. That earned her a lick from her dog.

"What are you supposed to be, Julia?" her father asked. The dog bounded into the yard beyond them.

"I'm a Powhattan princess," she declared. She squinted at her father.

"Please don't do that, dear. Come on inside now."

Julia stomped her foot but she followed them into the house. She hung up the headdress on the hook next to the door. It seemed as if she had been told before not to dress up and she'd expected the reprimand. She returned to the front door to whistle for the dog. For a moment, the dog considered whether or not to come inside. As the door started to swing closed, the dog dashed through and into the living room. 

"What's wrong with her fantasizing?" he asked David when they passed the living room and reached the dining room. "Do you have an issue with the princess thing?"

David shook his head.

"I've been taking meditation classes lately," he explained. "They help me calm down. This kind of meditation is the one in which you pay attention to how things are."

"Sounds good so far."

"You don't imagine you're somewhere else. You don't pretend."

"I see where you're going." He sighed and took off his hat. He combed his fingers through his hair. "But that's only during your meditation session, not during her playtime."

"Meditation is powerful," David insisted. "Awareness should be something that everyone practices. Pretending things is the opposite. It's the antithesis of calm awareness."

"Who said that? Your meditation teacher?"

"Pretty much."

He looked around at David's living room and dining room. Since his wife had left, a few details had changed. David preferred things to have their place and to stay there. He'd kept his wife's candles above the fireplace but he'd arranged them in order, tallest to shortest. He'd left the black and white prints along the wall but he'd removed the two that had added color. Those, he'd replaced with Zen ink paintings of mountain tops. The only color they added was gray.

"Do you know what a 'true believer' is?" he asked his brother.

David nodded. "Someone who takes an idea to its logical conclusion."

"Funny, I would say that it's someone who tries to apply one idea to every circumstance."

"You've already told me that you're concerned that I think like that."

"Let's limit this talk to your daughter. You asked for advice." He paced the dining room with his hands behind his back. "Well, imagination is an essential trait for her and for everyone. Children have to pretend. So do adults. The more you pretend to be other people and the more you read novels from a different point of view, the more empathy you have for everyone else."

"I think I've read results from studies about that, yes." In David's view, the confirmation of scientists was necessary even for things that were intuitive - perhaps especially those.

"Please don't discourage her empathy. It's a trait that everyone needs."

"I don't think role playing is an essential human trait," David said. "I never did much of it."

"You weren't always the most empathetic brother. Maybe it would have helped. The ability to pretend is essential to more than humans, you know. It's vital to all social animals."

"Oh, now you're humanizing animals."

David found it irritating when people claimed to understand non-verbal communication, especially with non-humans. He didn't like pets. Oddly, the dog had been David's idea. He had sent his wife and daughter to the kennel to choose one for him. Very likely, his brother thought, David would have been happy with any dog they brought home.

"Just observing." He turned his gaze to Julia for a moment as she and her pet played in the living room. "Social animals live in groups, like humans or dogs. Don't you think your dog guesses what you're going to do?"

"Maybe sometimes she does." David nodded. "Dogs are in touch with their surroundings more than people are. She watches what I do. She doesn't show any signs of imagination."

He gave David a smile. After he leaned his head in the direction of the kitchen, he strode in. He walked to the treat jar, which sat on the counter at the imaginary edge between the kitchen and dining room. He turned to face his brother. He kept his hands at his sides.

The dog burst from the living room into the dining room. She dashed around in a circle and wagged her tail. Then she gazed meaningfully at the treat jar.

"If dogs have no imagination," he asked his brother, "how does she envision what I'm going to do before I act? She's never seen me go to the dog treats before. She only heard where I stopped in your kitchen. Yet she imagines that I'll feed her. For that matter, how did you think about what I was going to do next unless you put yourself in my place?"

"I didn't know what you were going to do."

"What am I going to do now?" He nodded his head toward the stainless steel refrigerator.

David shrugged.

He took three steps to his brother's refrigerator. After a hesitation as he made the decision, he put his left hand on the freezer door handle. He swung it wide. Sure enough, there were frozen popsicles and four different flavors of ice cream on the shelves. They were the only items in the freezer aside from ice cube trays.

He was tempted to wonder why his brother didn't have more food. Instead, he merely waited. He heard Julia's footsteps. She came running from the living room, down the hall, and into the kitchen.

"What are you getting?" she asked.

"I'm still thinking," he told her. He turned to David. "Your daughter seems quite aware of her surroundings even without meditation."

"Yes, well, I think that she imagined that you would give her a treat."

"Right. Your household seems to have good awareness, imagination, and empathy. We can, all of us, imagine what it's like to be someone else and what we'd want to do if we were them."

"That's not being aware in the meditation kind of way."

"It's still a form of awareness. Not every part of consciousness is covered by your meditation. Empathy is a step toward being nice to one another. For instance, I can see two members of your household who are disappointed that adults spend so much time considering the consequences of their choices." He grabbed a tub of ice cream. He stretched with the other arm to pick up the dog treat jar. "So, treats for everybody."


  1. I really liked the way you presented awareness in this piece. My cat waits patiently each day when I come home to clean up my dishes from lunch and get myself settled and then he will look me straight in the eye. That his way of saying, "Now is pet the cat time." This started when I was so crazy when I would get home trying to make dinner and help with homework. My cat would follow me around but I would miss the cues he was trying to give me. "Slow down, pet the cat," he would wind around my feet as I washed the dishes. Finally I sat and he jumped up on my lap and seemed to say, "See, now we can both relax....purrrrr." Now I get cleaned up and he jumps up on my lap when I sit and we both relax for a little each day. We have made it a ritual that we both enjoy. :)

  2. It's become popular to speak of awareness as if it's rather narrow thing and a self-focused thing at that. Meditation as a path to a better connection to or a better awareness of the De is valuable but it's not everything. It's not the only form of meditation. And the De is not the only aspect of the Dao.

  3. Also, your story about the cat keeps making me smile. Pretty good cat. Pretty good you for paying attention.