Friday, March 22, 2013

The Poky Little Puppy

(By Guest Writer - Michel Weatherall)

The classic Golden Book, The Poky Little Puppy, is one of the earliest books of my memory. I still have my copy with my name written in faded ink on the inside front cover. Beneath my name is my, now 16 year old, son's name and beneath that, my 14 year old daughter's name.

For as far as my memory goes, I can always remember being somewhat confused by the story's moral – if it had one.

Last night, my children said the very same thing.

The Poky Little Puppy is a story about five little puppies who dig a hole under the fence to go out for a walk in the wide, wide world. The fifth poky puppy is always behind the others. Eventually the Poky Little Puppy smells the dessert that is prepared for the puppies each night. The four other puppies smell it too and hurry home while the poky puppy takes his time. The four puppies then eat their dinner and are scolded by their mother for digging a hole under the fence and punished by not getting dessert. Much later, along comes the poky puppy after everyone is asleep and eats the desserts the other four were not allowed to have.

This scenario takes place twice. The poky little puppy enjoys rice pudding and chocolate custard, a full helping, intended for five puppies, all to himself. 

However, the third time, after the mother punishes the four puppies, they fill in the hole and the mother then rewards them with the strawberry shortcake dessert.When the Poky Little Puppy returns he is forced to squeeze through a hole in the fence and enjoys no dessert, as the four other puppies had already eaten it, and feels sorry for himself for being so poky.

The lesson appears to be that being poky and misbehaved will have consequences. But in this three day period, the poky little puppy has enjoyed eight times the dessert of each of the other puppies. It seems like the poky little puppy is being rewarded for being late and misbehaved. If there's a moral to this story, it is ambiguous or veiled. 

The five puppies were the ones – in spite of numerous warnings – that dug holes under the fence.
Let's be clear here.
This was the crime.
This is what they were punished for. What we know is that the Poky Little Puppy did not repair the damage (the dug hole) on the third excursion; the other four did.

Is there a point about loyalty to the group? Is there a point about being separate and distinct from the group? Is there a lesson about charity, waiting for the slowest (weakest) member? The moral seems lost or confused.

I think part of the lesson is that of Karma.
“It's a round world”.
You reap what you sow.
What goes around comes around.
Intentionally or not, the Poky Little Puppy allowed his four siblings to suffer the consequences of their punishment while he enjoyed what should have been their rewards. In the end however, the rolls were reversed. But I think there is more depth to this story.

I think the story's moral lies with the mother's actions and not the puppies at all. There is a lesson of incentives vs. deterrents.

Being rewarded for good behaviour vs. being punished for bad behaviour.
We see that deterrents – punishment for bad behaviour – not only doesn't work, but also creates injustice in their small world. Their mother's numerous warnings (the signs) and punishments do not stop the puppies from digging under the fence, and the injustice of the Poky Little Puppy being rewarded for his bad behaviour. It becomes out of balance.

By the end, the four puppies decide to fix the hold they dug, but this time are rewarded for their good behaviour. This succeeds. Justice is set aright and Balance is returned. The good behaving puppies reap their rewards while the badly behaving Poky Little Puppy suffers the consequences for his actions.

This strikes me as a lesson to parents on parenting (or for that matter, simply dealing with people in general).

This has very strong Taoist undertones. These lessons can be found in Lao Tzu's Toa Te Ching, specifically verse 63, "The Secrets of Getting Things Done".
Ralph Alan Dale, a Chinese-language translator of the Tao Te Ching comments the following on this verse:
...Lao Tzu's most important advice in life is to avoid coercion. It is... precisely opposite to how most of our institutions are programmed... Most people don't commit crimes, because, if they do, they will go to prison. Even most babies and young children are accommodated to the system of coercion by physical punishment when they do something that displeases their parents. Lao Tzu says all this is wrong. The use of force indoctrinates us into behaving contrary to our human natures..." "The Tao Te Ching: Translated, Commenting & Introduction" by Ralph Alan Dale, Watkins Publishing, 2006, pg. 178-179
This resonates so true with this story, The Poky Little Puppy.

This is further reinforced in General Choi Hong Hi's (1918-2002)1 Jungshin Sooyang. He lists, according to Lao Tzu's influences (based primarily on the Tao Teh Ching, verse 38)  four types of societies or methods of governing, or simply ways of dealing with other people. 1) The Ideal Society, 2) The Moral Society, 3) the Legalistic Society, and 4) the 'corrupt' Society.
"Everyone of us, as a social being, desires to live in a free and peaceful society. At the same time, it is our obligation to build such a society for the people.
"An ideal society, according to Lao-Tzu, is one in which the ruler is of such high moral character that he can rule naturally, not by interference or fear but by appealing to the good nature of his people, who by merely doing their duty can live freely in peace without fear and anxiety 
"Next, a moral society is one in which the people admire and praise their ruler in gratitude for his love and the benign disposition he bears toward his people. 
"Thirdly there is a "legalistic society in which the ruler, because he lacks the moral authority, resorts to various laws to govern his people, who in turn obey because they fear the retribution that the violation of these laws will bring." Under these circumstances, the ruler loses touch with his people. 
"Finally the worst kind of society is that in which the ruler, through deception and trickery, misuses his legal authority to further his personal ambitions and imposes his rule upon his people by force as he deems necessary. In such a society, the ruler is despised and hated by his people and eventually invites not only his own downfall but with him the downfall of the people and the country."
Initially in this story, we see the mother functioning ('governing') within the “Legalistic Society” form, hoping and relying on the puppies' fear of punishment. But by the end of the story we see the mother evolve and grow towards the second higher form. That of “Moral Society”).

I think the fact that this children's story is teaching wisdom from an Eastern tradition - to our Western worldview - strikes us as confusing and difficult to understand. We try to make it fit into our own preconceived beliefs and values. We try to hammer a square peg into a round hole and it simply doesn't fit.

Although it may have taken me the better part of 40 years to finally understand the moral of this children's tale, I think I've finally got it. At least that's my take on it.

And I'm happy to say - regardless of only recently figuring this story out - my wife and I, as parents of two wonderful children, have raised them this way; with more focus on rewarding good or outstanding behaviour, and minimalizing punishment for poor or bad behaviour... maybe that's why my children are wonderful.

1 Creator and Founder of Traditional Taekwon-do

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I am / 私は









I am not my thoughts.
I am the medium in which my thoughts find existence.

The thinker, I am not.
I am the awareness that sees the thinker.

I am not a name, for I have several, all of whom are masks.

I am not my memories or experiences
for I remember my dreams.

I am the pervading background of awareness.
Like a swirling cup of loose tea, once it settles to its calm state, that I am.

These are the things that too often I fail to remember.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pain and Suffering. Golden Dreams or Red Herrings?

When dealing with the belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God, the existence of pain and suffering becomes extremely problematic, if not outright impossible to reconcile with the world around us.

Those who would address this issue, tend to either explore it inadequately, simply sidestep the issue altogether, or blatantly deny it.

Whether through experience (my faith crisis of '87), or through academic study, or plain and simply reason,  this is one exceedingly difficult stumbling block to overcome.

Of course God doesn't need to figure in this equation. I only mention this because it was the starting point of my journey. This doesn't need to be an exclusively theistic problem. I've since moved away from approaching it from this angle. Pain and suffering are just as challenging to non-theistic beliefs as well. Unless we are willing to accept and convert to a bleak and soulless form of atheistic materialism. But be prepared to abandon any form of spirituality, beauty, love, art, music, etc... the list goes on. No, atheistic materialism isn't the answer either.


What if pain and suffering aren't the same thing? Is it possible to suffer without pain? Is it possible to feel pain without suffering? Suffering is not the same as pain, although most of us see them as synonymous. (Granted, it is not always easy to distinguish the two).

I have personally experienced pain without suffering on several occasions.

I have my entire back tattooed. It was a 25 hour ordeal.
It was painful. There was one point that I began uncontrollably shivering. My body was going into shock. But I would not use the word 'suffering' to describe this experience.

When I tested for my Black Belt in Taekwon-do, I could describe it as painful. It was a brutal three and a half hour experience that pushed me close to my physical and mental limits. (And incidentally, it was during this examination that I inadvertently stumbled across my first taste of mindfulness. I was previously aware of it, but being aware of it by definition and experiencing it are drastically different).

And finally there's childbirth. Although I have experienced childbirth twice, I cannot say I've experience the pain of it. However, my wife doesn't describe the experience as suffering. There was no suffering. Pain, yes. But suffering? No. I think it is because there is purpose and hope present. At some level I think we instinctively understand that these pains are normal and maybe even necessary.

Although I could continue on about experiences of suffering without pain, I'd rather stay away from that darkened avenue.

Pain is an unpleasant sensation.
Suffering is a mental and emotional response.
Pain is an inescapable part of life as we know it; it is inevitable.
Suffering is optional.
It is the delusional belief that we deserve to live life pain-free that is the cause of much of our suffering.

Pain and suffering are so closely related in our minds - in our beliefs - that when pain arises we usually respond immediately with resistance. We respond with resistance because we believe pain shouldn't happen to us. That belief we cling to is a source of suffering. The greater we struggle with the undeniable presence of pain, the greater our suffering. It is that belief which causes us to become delusional as it is inconsistent with reality.

Alongside our delusional denial of pain is also our denial of death. Few people really give this dreadful topic much thought. We don't want to die: in fact a great many people I know build their entire belief-system or faith upon its denial.

I really like Lin Yutang's shocking biblical interpretation of God's intention for Man's immortality in his book, "The Importance of Living" (pg. 16)
"God did not want man to live forever. This Genesis story of the reason why Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden was not that they had tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, as it popularly conceived, but the fear lest they should disobey a second time and eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.""
We were never meant to live forever and we never will. Doesn't chasing this golden dream (or red herring?) of immortality, whether it is some form of favoritism  or an earned reward of Heaven for doing or saying the right things make us little more than spiritual hedonists? I'd like to believe humanity has the potential to grow and evolve these altruistic traits without being threatened into obedience or bought with rewards. I'm not saying that a spiritual life doesn't continue after physical death. It's that any position we hold is little more than conjecture - or projection - at best. Because we choose to believe it doesn't make it true. But it does affect how we live our lives.Our compassion becomes highly suspect and conditional and maybe even self-serving. Doesn't this contribute to the suffering of the world?

In the various mindfulness traditions I think there's hope.

Suffering occurs when the mind responds negatively to the sensations it identifies as pain. The key to diminishing the suffering that we usually connect to physical pain is acceptance. Acceptance means confronting unwanted pain without hatred and especially without fear.fear. And this acceptance also means a willingness to abandon some of our beliefs. To allow room for a faithful doubt, rather than a doubtful faith.

The moment we attempt to make our beliefs fact is the moment suffering begins. It can only give birth to anger, fear, panic and disillusionment and strengthen the fetters that bind us.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having beliefs, so long as we acknowledge them for what they are and are not. (Simply beliefs, not facts).

It is when the Ego attaches itself to our beliefs that we wade into trouble.