Picture a scene from the other night: I am reading by the aid of a bedside lamp, so the bedroom is shadowy.
One of our dogs, Beca, jumps on the bed where I am lying. All is quiet for a while, bar the sound of pages turning, our breathing and her little sleep noises. Suddenly, she is up in a fury of barking. Spit is flying, her neck-hair is ruffled. She is afraid – that much is clear. I’ve sprung up, flustered, a little alarmed. I peer in the direction she is aiming her barks at – the window, with the green armchair in front of it. The blinds are closed. There is nothing there.
Then I see what she is seeing.
There are clothes over the back of the chair, and the cushion, and my summer straw hat sits where I left it. I turn on the light, smiling, and pick up the hat. I let her sniff it. Finally, putting it in on assures her. She wags her tail, sits back down. Grins. The figure that she thought she was seeing, the stranger she suddenly ‘saw’ sitting in our room, has dissolved.
Dogs, then, imagine – along the lines that we do. Don’t we all know, especially from childhood, the way familiar objects can, in plays of light and shadow, suddenly regroup, re-forming to become some kind of figure, alive and perhaps malevolent -?
The event reminds me of that Buddhist story where a man must shelter in a hut overnight due to a storm. In the dim light, he sees a coiled shape – a snake – and, terrified, he sits all night unable to sleep a wink so as to keep watch on it. The storm howls outside anhnd the man sits stock still, daring not to move a finger in case he causes the snake to strike. As the dawn light spills into the hut through a little window, the man sees the truth of the coiled shape: it is a rope.
The story works as a parable. We need, it suggests, to properly attend to what we ‘see’ as fearful. Are we seeing the world as it is, or as we are?
But equally, I am reminded of the way dogs very obviously imagine, misconstrue, mis-read the world, at times. Basically, we – dogs and humans – can all get caught out by fear, and mistake ropes for snakes.