Dogs and silence

The monks of New Skete in Cambridge (New York) are well known as dog trainers, having published books and created video and television versions of their methods. Their chief premise is that the spiritual bond of humans and animals reveals methods of coexistence and interaction that benefit both, that humans can work with dogs on the basis of friendship. Would that this premise, based neither on self-interested economics nor psychological assertiveness, would be applied universally by all cultures and societies.

A friend of Hermitary speculates that part of the good relations between the monks and the dogs they train, especially evident in their video presentations, is based on the Jungian identification of introversion in objects mixed with extroversion in feeling and sensitivity. This permits the monk — typically introverted and summoning spiritual qualities to his external work — to express affection not to other people but to animals and the natural world. This combination yields precise and ethical results that bind person and animal closely.

On a more extreme (but justifiable) continuum, we might experience a radical moral imperative identifying the rights of animals (humans included) as identical on the full scale of sentience. But that is material for a different reflection.

The monks of New Skete are refreshing, even startling, in their apprehension of both human and animal need for solitude. Solitude is the inner stability of self-identity that separates self but remains potentially latent for mutual understanding. The process for breaching this divide of species and natures is, they find, a concept borrowed from one of our favorite poets, Rilke.

The term is “inseeing,” which Rilke describes (coincidentally) in the context of dogs. He muses:

I love inseeing. Can you imagine with me how glorious it is to insee, for example, a dog as one passes by. Insee (I don’t mean in-spect, which is only a kind of human gymnastic, by means of which one immediately comes out again on the other side of the dog, regarding it merely, so to speak, as a window upon the humanity lying behind it, not that) — but to let oneself precisely into the dog’s very center, the point from which it becomes a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished, in order to watch it under the influence of its first embarrassments and inspirations and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been better made.

If I am to tell you where my all-greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was to be found, I must confess to you: it was to be found time and again, here and there, in such timeless moments of this divine inseeing.

As the inspiration of their work with dogs, inseeing is the source of the monks’ gentle, tolerant and sympathetic relations to their dogs. Not only do they view animals as our earthly companions, in the fashion of St. Francis of Assisi, they view animals as spiritual counterparts, while at the same time conscious of the physical and psychological differences.

So it is fitting that what works for the monks at the profoundest spiritual level should work in training dogs, too, namely, silence. Thus Thomas Dobush, a founding monk of New Skete, writing in 1973, noted:

Learning the value of silence is knowing to listen to, instead of screaming at, opening your mind enough to find what the end of someone else’s sentence sounds like, or listening to a dog until you discover what is needed instead of imposing yourself in the name of training.

Silence as a quality in the life of dogs is a rational extension of what we come to understand in ourselves. In their book How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, chapter 22 is titled “Silence and Your Dog.” The fallacy that training needs noise and stimuli ignores the efficacy of silent communication and the need in dogs to rationalize and accommodate an instinct for quiet, whether in observant scanning, in the reassuring presence of their human companion, or in that flowing meditative state in which dogs seem to revel.

More to the point is how we humans structure our lives: in bustle and noise or in quietude and tranquility. Surely if dogs negatively perceive our infectious nervousness and constant noise, we must admit the value of silence even as a practical tool for our own lives, let alone that of dogs. But there is a deeper philosophy to silence, and the monk-authors place a generous quotation from Max Picard’s The World of Silence at the lead of this chapter to announce it.

Animals are creatures that lead silence through the world of man and language and are always putting silence down in front of us. Many things that human words have upset are set at rest again in the silence of animals. Animals move through the world like a caravan of silence.

A whole world, that of nature and that of animals is filled with silence. Nature and animals seem like protuberances of silence. The silence of animals and the silence of nature would not be so great and noble if it were merely a failure of language to materialize. Silence has been entrusted to the animals and to nature as something created for its own sake.