Dogs and Words

Bruts head shot at beachIMG_0781

Brutus, the lab mix that I often dog sit, sends me love with a look, as dogs do. We have bonded. He and I look directly into each other’s eyes each time we communicate. It’s simple. Direct. Clear. We are mind-reading.

Words are not necessary between us, even though I revert to their use out of habit. Brutus probably hears “Blah, blah, blah.” When I use words, he looks at me patiently until I make myself clear. This is one of the reasons, I think, that people need dogs—we get sick and tired of talking. Or we can’t stop talking around people and can only be quiet with dogs. Words are hard to come by. The right ones. Words can be so difficult to find. Those we speak are often the ones we repeat out of habit; they aren’t the words available, or even appropriate often, in the present moment, if we took the time to notice those. People don’t listen for the most part. They talk. Dogs listen and watch intently entirely present in each moment, each wordless conversation. Of course, dogs do learn the meaning of many human words. When I say “car” or “beach”  or “cookies” to Brutus, he comes to attention in a most happy way. Have we learned any language from other animals in the same way? We are more limited creatures.

Our words come from our minds and our minds are filled with past and future. So how accurate are they? How wise? Mind, so elevated in our society, is not as smart as we think it is. Meanwhile, my stock and trade is, ironically, words; I’m a writer and a teacher. However, I’ve been investigating the mind as a Buddhist and I am starting to see its limitations and often destructive tendencies.

I’ve been reading a book called Intelligence in Nature, An Inquiry into Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby,  an anthropologist. It’s filled with words for 243 pages. Since they are written instead of spoken, they have been carefully chosen and re-thought many times; writing can be a more clear form of communication than speaking. He writes about the intelligence he and other scientists, have discovered in creatures great and minuscule (like nematodes!). “A slime mold,” he writes,” in a maze has the capacity to apprehend its situation and act on its knowledge.” He makes the point that there are more forms of intelligence than we ever dreamed of, but a Western mind, like mine, has to overcome hundreds of years of the myth of human superiority. I feel like a child in grammar school when I consider the meanings and sources of intelligence in nature.

Recently I read in Narby’s book that “Information of one kind or another is consistently circulating in nature, in particular in the form of biochemical molecules. The world is streaming with signs. Not so long ago, some people considered the use of signs a specifically human trait.” He quotes semiotician Yoshimi Kawade who wrote in 1998,”The Western mind draws a sharp boundary between humans and the rest of the world….for the Western mind, it is hard to recognize mind in animals, whereas for the Japanese mind, it is hard not to do so.”

All this is to say, that I am searching as I write: what is nature telling me? What is it I am missing? Can I become better at reading the signs life is posting? I may learn to be as attentive as Brutus, if I practice.

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