Why do I love my dogs so much? Apart from the obvious facts that they are both incredibly cute and funny. Also, the fact that they are dogs, with all of the attendant well-known and time-tested traits which make them man’s best friend: loyalty, unconditional love, patience, gentleness, trust, etc.
And why do we sometimes have more difficulty loving other people as much as we love our dogs? Perhaps because people don’t practice these time-tested traits as frequently, or as consistently, as do our canine friends?
But I think the answer also lies hidden deep within our own hearts, not entirely dependent upon our puppies’ loyalty, nor upon the virtues or failings of our fellow humans. I propose, however, that the answer is hidden within the mysteries of silence and of music.
Think back upon your own life—when were you most happy, most alive, most joyful and at peace with yourself and with the world around you? If you are at all like me, I would guess that it was a time in which you forgot yourself (at least to some extent), and when you were engrossed in an activity which took you beyond yourself in some way. Perhaps you were playing a sport, as a member of a team, serving an organization or another person, or dedicated to a craft or art, or some other kind of discipline; or perhaps you were on a walk in the woods, in the mountains, or on the beach…
When I’m in the surf I feel an exhilaration sometimes bordering on bliss; my senses are heightened and I am attuned: I experience a hush, a quieting of my mind, and a simultaneous widening of my perception. I am as one who feels the waves, tastes the salt, smells the sunlight—and lives hearing the heartbeat of the earth, and seeing the music of the spheres. My entire being lifted and lowering, rocked like a baby, quiet and silent, listening only to the voice of my mother; my everything focused solely, intently upon the meaning of another.
It can be the same with my dogs—they do not speak with words I can understand yet still, when I quiet my mind and listen to them with my being, I can perceive them. In our shared silence, when I look into their eyes and they look into mine, we can experience the truth of one another. I must admit that it can oftentimes be easier to do this with my dogs than with another person because I am already at ease, free of pretensions with nothing to prove, vulnerable and humble before my dogs.
In other words, I am at rest—I am still and silent within myself—and because of this I am perceptive to those around me. Within my silence I can hear their music. It is true, I believe, that each of us has a signature song—all creatures made with a unique melody that is their trademark; but in order to hear the music of another, we must quiet the noise within ourselves.
True love, a love that is meaningful and giving, and not merely selfish, is born out of truly knowing the one whom we are loving, and knowing is born from silence.
I had a startling experience with a friend the other day because I thought that I knew him. Yet, as our meeting unfolded, I discovered I only truly knew him in part, and his song was much more profound than I had previously understood. I was tempted to shut out this new information about my friend, so as to maintain my caricature of him, so that I could continue to live within the safe confines of my own prejudices, so that I could interact with him in just the way I am comfortable, so that I could maintain my control; but instead, I risked the silencing of my prejudices and entering the silence of the unknown, that space of truth and reality that exists between us, if we are so bold as to enter.
This friend of mine loves music, he sings on the street to earn extra money. Often when I visit him, I find him practicing his craft, rehearsing songs, working to expand his vocal range. He might spend several hours each day rehearsing, pouring himself into his music. I’ve asked him what it is about singing that he likes so much and he says it keeps him from falling; the discipline keeps him from succumbing to drugs and alcohol. He lives in a small camper, a shell attached to the back of an old Ford F-250, and living like this, in the cold, so close to the elements, it is easy to give up and turn to things to ease or dull the pain. But singing keeps him focused and protects him from this.
He has had an amazing and wild life, something to fill volumes. Over the years that I’ve known him I’ve learned a great deal about his childhood in Europe, his career as a professional bicycle racer and as a business owner. I’ve learned the facts of his life traumas—from the months he spent in an iron lung after having been run over by a motorcycle as a child, to the abuse from and fights with an alcoholic father, to the suicide of a beloved sister, to the years alone as a runaway in Germany.
I was a good listener to all of this, silencing my own voice to hear his, but the songs each of us carry within us are so deep and wide, far surpassing the mere facts of our past. We are not merely a simple melody but rather a symphony, with a multitude of instruments playing within us—harmonious and discordant—rhythmic and syncopated, with themes and variations, movements following upon further movements…
He sang for me. Often when we met he would share what he was working on, showing me the lyrics to some song from Cold Play, or Journey, or Jane’s Addiction for instance, that had a vocal part which interested him. Then he would sing through the song, stopping to explain what he thought was the key to a particular line, or how Chris Martin or Steve Perry might have achieved their effects.
This time as he sang through a song he turned the lyrics so I could read them and motioned for me to sing along. I sang a little of “Patiently” by Journey. I like to sing, but I felt self-conscious standing in the open doorway of his camper, on the side of the street singing with him. But I saw the joy in his eyes as we sang together—he smiled and nodded his head, encouraging me to continue along. I smiled in return and kept singing.
We sounded pretty good together. I was startled by the blend of our voices and how pleasing it was. Next he pulled out the lyrics to “Life in A Northern Town” by Dream Academy. I was perplexed because my role with him had suddenly become uncertain. I had thought of myself as simply an interested friend, though somewhat detached, and now he was inviting me into his most sacred activities, no longer detached, but intimate. We were making music together. I was afraid. As we sang this next song, I wondered what others might be thinking of me, and what he might be thinking. I felt suddenly vulnerable and exposed but I kept singing, resisting the urge to stop in order to return to the status quo.
And then, as we continued to sing “Life in A Northern Town” together I felt a shift and I understood suddenly that though I knew all the facts about this man, I hadn’t known him at all. Singing revealed more about him, about me, and about us than all of our previous talking had shown me. In these moments together, sharing this song, making mistakes and giggling about them as we sang, I perceived something deep and intangible, difficult to articulate, yet existentially powerful. I felt love, for him, for us, and simply for love’s own sake; love let loose and freed.
What must we do to truly love? The answer isn’t simply mathematical, nor is it a reaction of chemicals, but it is more alchemical, because it involves a transformation that is somewhat magical. Music perceived through silence can yield love. The essential truth within each element of creation, the music of our souls, the truth of our being, can be heard through the stillness of our heart, by the silencing of our restless mind, and the silencing of our fears. I believe that love for each other, like love for our dogs, is much easier and closer than it may appear to us at first.
Love is natural, the most natural and elemental aspect in all of creation; it surrounds us and permeates us. Yet we keep ourselves aloof from love. We need courage to enter the silence of ourselves, and we need trust to perceive the music of others. It may be easier to access courage and trust while in the presence of our dogs because they are loyal and trustworthy; though it can be riskier to extend ourselves to other people in this same way, the reward of doing so is a life filled with love.