Mystical Dogs: Animals as Guides to Our Inner Lifeby Jean Houston
"For many years, I have been a student of spirituality and states of consciousness. For many more years than that, I've been a student of dogs," says bestselling author Jean Houston, whose study of this subject is the basis of Mystical Dogs. Houston has spent a lifetime bridging the worlds of animals and humans, exploring a realm that pet owners have glimpsed and indigenous peoples have known for millennia. The author identifies dogs, with their deceptively uncomplicated, joyous, loving nature, as custodes animi, guardians of our souls. She shows how animals, particularly dogs, are often the best spiritual teachers. For example, in Houston's hands, a seemingly simple story, such as a man saying goodbye to his beloved dog, becomes a striking metaphor about personal and planetary transformation.
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Animals as Guides to Our Inner Life
By Jean Houston, Barbara Doern Drew
Inner Ocean PublishingCopyright © 2002 Jean Houston
All rights reserved.
Chickie and the Path of Awakening
We were both pups when my parents got her — I about eighteen months old, she somewhat younger but older by far in wisdom and experience. She had already had a brief career in the movies, having played one of Daisy's puppies in the Dagwood and Blondie series. But now, too old for the part, she had been given to my father in lieu of payment for a script he had turned in. He was a comedy writer for radio and occasionally movies, and excelled in writing jokes and scripts but not in collecting the fees owed him.
Her name was Chickie, and she was a wonderful mix of Welsh corgi and bearded collie. A white star blazed on her chest, and she had four white feet and a white tipped tail to complement her long black fur. Even though she was scarcely over a year old, she was already motherly and sat by my crib for hours on end, making sure that no harm would come to me. If I cried, she would be off to my mother, insisting that she come immediately. If I wanted to play, she would bring toys, hers as well as mine.
My Dad caught on that this was a special dog with high intelligence plus something else. He taught her many tricks, learned from the dog trainers at the movie studio. Lassie's trainers gave him pointers on how to get Chickie to respond to hand signals, as well as to climb ladders, bark on cue, walk on beach balls, dance on two legs, and jump rope with a willing human. This she did readily and well, but there was more to her still — perhaps one would call it a deep sense of ethics. She seemed virtue incarnate, a Saint Francis of Assisi of dogs, who took on responsibilities of saintly cast. I thought of her as my sister and, what with all of our travels, my constant and closest friend.
Thus it was a shock when one day one of the actors in a picture my father was working on came home with him, saw Chickie, and immediately wanted to buy her. "Jack," said the actor, "that is the greatest dog I ever saw in my life. I'll give you fifty bucks for that dog."
"Can't do it, pal," said my father. "It's the kid's dog."
The actor persisted. "I'll give you a hundred bucks for the dog. I know you need the money." Indeed, we did, and driven by the panic of incipient poverty, the one thing he dreaded more than any thing else, my father acted in an uncharacteristic manner.
Excusing himself, he went into the kitchen to discuss this with my mother. "Certainly not!" she adamantly declared. "It's Jeanie's dog."
"You're right, Mary," my father sheepishly agreed. "It's just that I think I'm going to lose my job at the studio and am damned scared of not being able to bring home the bacon."
"Well, you certainly cannot bring home the bacon by selling the child's dog," my mother fumed. "Anyway, if we go broke again, I'll just do what I always do — start an acting school for children."
A few days later the actor came back, saying, "Jack, I've got to have that dog on my ranch. I want that dog. I'll give you 250 bucks for the dog."
During this ordeal Chickie and I were sitting on the floor behind the couch, listening in horror. I was already making my running-away plans with her.
"Well, I sure do need the money," said my father. "Just a minute; I've got to talk to my wife."
"Mary, he's offering 250 bucks for the dog! We can always get Jeanie a new dog at the pound!"
"No way!" said my mother.
The next day the actor returned. He had rarely known failure and was not about to start now. "Jack, I'll give you 250 bucks and my secondhand car. I know you need a car to get around."
"Wait a minute," said my father. "I'm sure this time I can convince my wife."
Upon hearing the latest offer, my mother, bless her heart, stormed out of the kitchen, stalked up to the actor, and chewed him out. "Ronald Reagan," she railed, "how dare you try to take away my child's dog!"
At least he knew a good dog when he saw one.
Maybe it was that threat of being parted from each other, but after that incident with the actor, Chickie and I took to having long jaunts with each other. We would be gone for hours at a time, and either my parents were too busy to notice or they trusted Chickie's care of me. With Chickie in charge, I was given a great deal of freedom to wander in a world as miraculous as it was marvelous.
Behind our house was a large wooded area where Chickie and I began what I have come to think of as our travels in awakening. Two hours with Chickie in the woods yielded an incredible range of learnings. Chickie was more nose than eyes, and I quite the other way around. But together we investigated the endless treasures of forest and meadow. I remember crawling on four legs in order to follow more closely her interests and discoveries. As she sniffed out deer scat, mice holes, squirrel trails, and bug routes, she would occasionally turn around and check with me to see if I saw them too.
Chickie taught me to be alert to both the seen and the unseen, the heard and the unheard. A whisper of wings would turn her head and mine would follow, waiting for the flutter that would finally announce to my human-hindered head, "Bird on the wing!" Chickie would lift her nose, her tail would signal attention, and we would be off and running to follow the adventures of the air — entrancing molecules luring us to destinies both savory and dangerous. Once it was to a camper's discarded remnants of fried chicken, but once, too, it was to meet up with the snarling fury of a bobcat. Chickie barked, and I, knowing that human words were useless, barked too. Our defiant duet seemed to work, for the bemused cat slunk off, never to be seen again.
Chickie gave me metaphors for my later life's work, especially when it came to digging. Paws scratching away at apparently nothing soon revealed dark secrets hidden in the earth — old bones, ancient feathers, and things so mysterious as to be beyond human knowing. Years later I would probe and dig into the soil of the human subconscious with something like Chickie's fervor to find there the bones of old myths, the feathers of essence, and the great mysterious matrix that still sustains and lures the human quest.
Those early years with Chickie were a whole education in looking, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching — the feast and lore of the senses. For many years now I have been helping schools in the United States and many other countries to improve education by making it sensory rich, hands on, art centered. When asked who my mentors have been — John Dewey? Maria Montesori? The Carnegie Institute? — I can only reply in truth, "Chickie."
Chickie and I traveled in others ways as well. In fact, we crossed the Mississippi river by train many times before I could spell it. "There it goes, Jeanie-pot!" my father would bleat with excitement. "There goes the Mississippi, the father of waters. Quick, look out your window while you can still see it."
"I've seen it," I'd say, my eye affixed firmly to my comic book. "Whaddya mean, you've seen it? The greatest river in the world! The crossroads of American history — La Salle, Showboat, the Louisiana Purchase, Huckleberry Finn! And you say you've seen it."
"But Daddy, we just passed over it going the other way a couple of weeks ago."
"Yeah ... well, that show in New York didn't pan out too well. We'll give California another try. I think I can get back with Bob Hope, and if not, Fibber McGee and Molly could always find room in their closet for me, and if not them, I could always try ..." Two days later he was writing for Amos and Andy, and if he was lucky, we were set in one place for thirteen weeks — maybe.
For years Chickie served as the center for calm and a kind of spiritual tranquillity in our life of constant change brought about through my Dad's work as well as his penchant for eccentric adventures. Even though I went to something like twenty different schools all over the country before I was twelve, I would always come home to Chickie, who regarded all of life as delightful and who maintained a saintly comportment and stability in the face of any whimsy we humans could invent.
People sometimes ask me how I can keep myself in reasonable mental and physical health even though I sometimes travel up to a quarter of a million miles a year and have a life of ridiculous complexity. In reflection I realize that Chickie's influence continues, to wit: Stay centered in eternity regardless of how much chaos is happening in time; look upon all people and events as opportunities for furthering life and its promise; and greet everyone as a potential awakened one — God in hiding, or dog in drag!
In addition to taking care of us Chickie also taught me my best lessons in ethics and responsibility. She seemed to have little self-interest. Many of her actions were clearly for others. She was empathy personified, whether in consoling with me when I was upset or in the way she would listen to humans as they railed against their supposed fate. Her answer was simply to be there, to place her head upon their knee and look at them sweetly in the eye, her gaze unblinking and never wavering. However, if their blue mood went on too long, she would try to entertain them, bringing over something to throw or, if that did not work, amusing them with one of her dancing tricks.
When my little brother was born, it was under Chickie's tutelage that I came to take care of him. I remember when he was very young, he managed to bang together some orange crates in the shape of a rocket. For weeks he had been telling us that he was going back home to where he came from up among the stars. One day, Chickie came madly running toward me, barking in distress and pulling me by my dress to our bedroom. I raced after her and found my little brother balancing in the open window in his "rocket." He waved happily at me saying, "Bye, bye. I go up home now." I grabbed his little body and pulled him back as the rocket fell eleven floors to the street.
Entering into another realm, that of the spiritual epiphany, Chickie accompanied me on the most important experience of my entire lifetime. It turned out to be my key experience in awakening. I have described it in other books, but not from the perspective of Chickie's critical role in it. It happened in my sixth year. I had been sent to Catholic school in Brooklyn, New York. My father had been tossed off the Bob Hope show for an excess of high spirits, and we were broke and living with my mother's Sicilian parents in the Italian section of that noble if bad-mouthed borough.
Theologically precocious, and buttressed with questions designed by my agnostic comedy-writing father, I would assail the little nun who taught our first grade with queries that seemed logical to me but blasphemous to her. "Sister Theresa, when Ezekiel saw the wheel, was he drunk?" Or "Sister Theresa, I counted my ribs and I counted Joey Mangiabella's ribs, and we have the same number of ribs, and so do all the other boys and girls. See? (At that moment, on cue, all the children in the class lifted up their under-shirts to prove the point.) "So if God took a rib out of Adam to make Eve like you said, how come ...?"
Then there were the Jesus questions. "Sister Theresa, how do you know that Jesus wasn't walking on rocks below the surface when he seemed to be walking on the water?" And "Sister Theresa, when Jesus rose, was that because God filled him full of helium?"
Then there was the day of the question that tipped her dogma as well as her dignity. It had to do with Jesus' natural functions and whether he ever had to go to the toilet. Her response had her looking like a black and white penguin in a state of hopping rage. She jumped on a stool, tacked up a large sheet of heavy cardboard, and in large India-ink letters wrote:
JEAN HOUSTON'S YEARS IN PURGATORY
All further theological questions of an original bent met with the little nun X-ing in more years for me to endure in purgatory, and each X stood for a hundred thousand years! By the last day of the first grade I had accumulated something like 300 million years in purgatory to my credit. Spiritually bereft, I told my father about the debacle and he, finding it very funny, took me off immediately to see the motion picture The Song of Bernadette. This famous movie is renowned for its scenes of Saint Bernadette's vision of the holy Madonna in the grotto at Lourdes, which thereafter became a famous place for healing. Unfortunately, during the holiest of scenes, with Mother Mary appearing in luminous white in the grotto before the praying Bernadette, my father burst into long, whinnying, uncontrolled laughter. It turned out that he had known the starlet playing the role of Mary and found the incongruity between her Hollywood life and the role she was playing hilarious. Leaving the theatre finally in a state of mortal embarrassment, I pulled away from my still laughing father in order to get quickly to my house to emulate Bernadette's remarkable vision.
My destination was a guest room with a very long closet that looked a lot like a grotto. There were no clothes in the closet for Chickie had commandeered it as a nest for her new eight puppies. I explained my need to Chickie, feeling that she would not mind my moving her pups, being as she would want me to open a space for the greatest mama of them all to show up. When she protested mildly, I further explained that I didn't want the Holy Mother to step on her pups. After that, Chickie watched my actions with interest.
Kneeling in the now cleared Brooklyn "grotto," I prayed to the Madonna to show up in the closet as she had for Bernadette at Lourdes. I began by closing my eyes and counting slowly to 10, while promising to give up candy for two weeks if she would only show up. I opened my eyes to encounter the Madonna Chickie lovingly carrying one of pups back into the "grotto." I kept on counting to ever higher numbers, promising all manner of food sacrifices — mostly my favorite Sicilian delicacies like chicken with lemon and garlic sauce — but my revelation was only to be more and more puppies back in the closet. Finally I counted to a very high number, 167, and having given up all calories, I told the Holy Mother that I could not think of anything else to give up, so would she please, please, please show up as I really wanted to see her. This time I was sure that she would make it. I opened my eyes, and there was Chickie contentedly licking all eight of her puppies.
"Oh Chickie," I sighed and reached out to pat her, whereupon she bestowed on me a kindly lick and a compassionate look as if I were her ninth puppy. At that moment came a vague spiritual forewarning, as if I had prayed for the Madonna and seen her in one of her many forms in Chickie, the all wise, all loving mother, and her care for her pups. But still I yearned for the movie version and did not yet recognize the truth of what I had been given. And so Herself offered me another chance. In a dreamy, unspecified state I went over to the window seat and looked over at the fig tree blooming in our yard. And suddenly it all happened — the most important awakening state of my entire life.
As I have written, "I must in my innocence have unwittingly tapped into the appropriate spiritual doorway, for suddenly the key turned and the door to the universe opened. Nothing changed in my outward perceptions. There were no visions, no sprays of golden light, certainly no appearance by the standard brand Madonna. The world remained as it had been. Yet everything around me, including myself, moved into meaning."
Only in reflection have I come to realize how much of what I then felt and knew had been prepared for me by Chickie and her guidance in the ways of awakening. All those rambles that we had taken together were now one ramble, all the smells and sights of nature to which she had introduced me were present along with the fig tree blooming in the yard, Chickie herself and her pups in the closet, the plane in the sky, the sky itself, and even my idea of the Madonna. All had become part of a single unity, a glorious symphonic resonance in which every part of the universe was a part of and illuminated every other part, and I knew that in some way it all worked together and it was very good.
My mind had awakened to a consciousness that spanned centuries and was on intimate terms with the universe. Just as Chickie had taught me, everything was interesting and important: deer scat, old leaves, spilled milk, my Mary Jane shoes, the fig tree, the smell of glue on the back of the gold paper stars I had just pasted on the wall paper, the stars themselves, my grandfather Prospero Todaro's huge stomach, the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, Uncle Henry (the black porter who took care of me on the train across the country), the little boy fishing in the lake who waved to me on the train when I was crossing Kansas, the chipped paint on the ceiling, my nana's special stuffed artichokes, my father's typewriter, the silky ears of corn in a Texas cornfield, my Dick and Jane reader, and all the music that ever was — all were in a state of resonance and of the most immense and ecstatic kinship.
I was in a universe of friendship and fellow feeling, a companionable universe filled with interwoven Presence and the dance of life. This state seemed to go on forever, but it was actually only about two seconds, for the plane had moved only slightly across the sky. I had entered into timelessness, the domain in which eternity was the only reality and a few seconds could seem like forever.
Excerpted from Mystical Dogs by Jean Houston, Barbara Doern Drew. Copyright © 2002 Jean Houston. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jean Houston is a writer, scholar, and researcher in human capacities. In 1965, along with her husband, Dr. Robert Masters, Dr. Houston founded the Foundation for Mind Research. She is also the founder and principal teacher since 1982 of the Mystery School, a school of human development, a program of cross-cultural, mythic, and spiritual studies, dedicated to teaching history, philosophy, the New Physics, psychology, anthropology, myth, and the many dimensions of human potential. Her books include A Mythic Life and The Possible Human. She lives in Ashland, Oregon.
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