If you ever watched “The Dog Whisperer” on TV, you will have heard the mantra of dog specialist Cesar Millan repeated over and over: “Be the pack leader!” As it applies to dogs and their owners, this means that a dog is happiest when it is trained to recognize its human owner as the leader of its “pack,” and conversely, a human will be happiest when he or she has regained control of their own household.
When a dog arrives in a new situation, it starts at the top and works its way down. In other words, it assumes leadership of its surroundings until it receives signals that someone else is in charge. Since most humans have no idea how to communicate dominance, the new dog is mistakenly taught that it has the job of Pack Leader in the household. It has the responsibility to keep every other animal in its environment under control, constantly. This is stressful for the dog, but it can’t just give it up. The dog’s instincts won’t allow it. However, when the human owner takes the position of Pack Leader, the dog gets to relax and enjoy its life. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or behave in a dominant fashion, and from the dog’s standpoint, Life Is Good.
If you ever watch Mr. Millan solve a dog problem (he claims to “rehabilitate dogs and train humans”), you will see that most of the show consists of teaching a dog-owner how to give dog-recognized signals that he or she is now Pack Leader of the household. I’m wondering if we should expand on Mr. Millan’s teachings a bit, particularly in light of our so-called Christian community. Could we, or should we, be thinking of ourselves more as members of a pack rather than as the Pack Leader of our human herd? Would we be happier if we stopped considering ourselves as in charge of this world of ours? Should we pack away our excess egotism and let someone else be the Pack Leader?
This, of course, leads to the question of who the Pack Leader should be. For much of human history the answer has been another human being, either as a political leader or a religious leader or both. The only problem with this model is that we have become too savvy to see any human pack leader as being dominant to ourselves, unless we wish to allow ourselves the delusion that someone is “higher” or “chosen.” However, most nations don’t accept a policy of the divine right of kings, and most political leaders end up revealing their all-too-human characteristics eventually. This leads to the anxiety of the modern human, seeking to find someone to take on the job of Pack Leader because the weight of being in charge starts to almost literally weigh us down.
As you consider the responsibility of being a Pack Leader for your dog, consider also the “Slender Threads” that author and Jungian therapist Robert Johnson credits as being in charge of our lives – if we will let them. In his autobiographical work Between Heaven and Earth, Johnson calls on us to stop using our egos to try to control the major issues of our lives. He wants us to use our psychological ego to do the tasks for which it is designed: following our daily schedules, handling our day-to-day situations, being in the moment, so to speak. What the ego should NOT do is try to control our world.
"Humankind has struggled with the dilemma of how to balance fate versus free will since time began. There have been many rules of thumb for how to achieve such a balance. My personal approach is that the big events of my life follow a slender thread while the details are my business. Nobody but me will balance my checkbook or shave me or keep my house tidy. Those are the appropriate tasks for the ego. The little decisions belong to us, while the great things are like the weather sweeping us along. Yet most modern people spend a majority of their waking hours worrying about larger issues that the ego cannot really control. The small and limited ego is not the proper human faculty for such issues. The ego does not belong in the driver’s seat. In fact, the ego often gets in the way of being attentive to the slender threads. We must learn to humble and quiet our egos so that we may follow the slender threads.
"After many years of struggling with this, I feel that the ego is properly used as the organ of awareness, not the organ of decision. Almost everyone in our society tries to use the ego as an organ of decision. For example, we may say to ourselves, “I am going to Europe …” The ego is useful for collecting information about ticket fares and accommodations and things to see and do when you arrive. But the ego does not determine the experience you will have on your trip. People get so preoccupied with trying to control things that are not in the ego’s province that they neglect what is the ego’s business – heightened awareness. The ego should be collecting data and watching. The ego serves as the eyes and ears of God. It gathers the facts, but it does not make the ultimate decisions. The decisions come from the Self, Dr. Jung’s term for a center of intelligence that is not limited to the ego but contains all of the faculties -- conscious and unconscious -- of the personality. Obviously, this is but a new attempt to describe the old concept of a personal relationship with God.
"How do we know if we are truly following the will of God? One knows instinctively; there is a sense of peace, balance, and fullness, an unhurriedness. One of my favorite authors, the French philosopher Hubert Benoit, writes that there is one, and only one, appropriate action in any given moment of time. If you are in that action, then you are happy and peaceful. I am still trying to grow up to this notion of Benoit’s. He suggests that if you think you have a choice, you are not seeing the reality of things correctly. The will of God is always singular. I believe this, but I can’t always stand the truth of this statement. Certainly, it runs counter to our sense of free will and self-determination. We want the maximum number of choices and the freedom to choose among them. Madison Avenue is the purveyor of discontent; virtually all advertising is designed to create discontent so as to create a market for a product.
" When you are following the will of God, there is no choice whatsoever. Here I am not talking about following scripture to the letter. That is one way of being happy, but for most modern people this is not a viable solution. Looking for a manual to tell you what to do, whether that manual is the Bible or the latest psychological theory, is not useful. Listening to the will of God as it manifests within your own psyche, hearing what has been called the still, small voice within, this is the religious life. This cannot be reduced to a tidy formula, but one general guideline is to ask yourself what is needed for wholeness in any situation. Instead of asking what is good or what coincides with our personal interest, ask what is whole-making. Sainthood is the result of wholeness, not goodness. What is required for more wholeness will be different for each person, and it changes moment by moment. This requires realigning yourself each day, each hour, and each moment. When one can live in this fashion, aligning the ego with the inner Self, it has a profound effect on the quality of our lives. Abiding by the will of God gives life -- including its misfortunes -- meaning, purpose and dignity. It also removes a great deal of the anxiety of modern life." (*Robert Johnson, from Balancing Heaven & Earth)
Do we wish to be submissive? Probably yes, although most of us won’t admit it. Independence and so-called personal responsibility have become mantras in our culture, although when we join a ‘pack’ (say, for instance, a large corporation or government office) we get to drop a lot of stress in our lives. We don’t have to carry all the responsibilities any longer. We know where we stand. This isn’t so bad, except for one thing: we’re not dogs. We itch to break away and behave independently, although for most folks, this won’t happen until retirement, and often by that time, the habits of obedience and anxiety are too deeply ingrained. There is also, lurking behind this yearning for independence, the old problem of Pride. We yearn for the highest possible spot on the totem pole of life.
There is also the issue of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was a primary theme of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, featured prominently in the parables, although we have no recorded extended teachings about what the “kingdom” literally meant for Jesus. He spoke around and through the subject, often saying what the Kingdom was not, rather than what it was. But if we consider allowing God to be our Pack Leader (or “King”), and accept his role in the Slender Threads of our lives, we might better understand what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not a place; it is not a time. It is always around us, but we just don’t see it. We know when we are in it, but we may not know how to stay there. Could “Pack Leader,” “Slender Threads,” and “Kingdom of God” all be different wordings for the same concept? Here’s one way to end a theological musing: It Works For Me! … when I let it.