Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Way of the Ferret

A few weeks ago, I had a dream that is still on my mind: I dreamt I was breast-feeding a ferret. I felt self-conscious about this activity – I was in a public space, and didn’t feel comfortable about baring my breast. Then I realized that I could put the ferret under my t-shirt and feed it that way. This seemed a good solution, and I felt very happy and loving towards the little animal, even though it nipped me from time to time. However, the ferret wasn’t satisfied with breast-milk; it soon got away from me, managed to break into a container holding some kind of grain, and ate the lot. By now, its little belly was very round. I was concerned that it had eaten too much, and very surprised that it had managed to get into the sealed container. I realized it would be very difficult to keep it out of anything. I woke up worrying about this.

In dream interpretation, ferrets have two apparently divergent meanings: they represent suspicion toward someone, or stand for qualities of cleverness, resourcefulness and playfulness. But perhaps these meanings are not divergent after all: a person’s cleverness might itself be a cause for wariness, if you don’t know if you can trust them. What is their agenda? Whatever it is, it seems likely that they will find the resources to get what they want, and that less worldly forms of intelligence may be no match for them. The playfulness that makes them so attractive, even adorable, might also serve to distract you from their true intentions, to charm you while with astonishing skill, they break into your precious store of grain. It’s hard to tell if they share your own moral code, or even if they have a moral code. Their strength is their flexibility, their ability to adapt to circumstances, seize opportunities as they arise, and deflect problems with a playful twist of their lithe, but muscular forms: this is the Way of the Ferret.

Some of the ferret’s qualities are typically Buddhist: being ‘in the moment,’ open and responsive to change, flexible and playful. Even its lack of any clear agenda or fixed moral code fits with at least some forms of Buddhism: Zen, in particular, emphasizes the importance of not being attached to views, and suggests, with its entertaining stories of idiosyncratic monks, that enlightened individuals transcend the bounds of conventional morality.

And yet it doesn’t seem quite right to equate the Way of the Buddha with the Way of the Ferret.

For a start, my dream-ferret was pretty greedy. It hadn’t given up craving or sensual pleasure; nor did it appear to be pursuing a “middle path.” My fear, at least, was that it would consume anything it could get its paws on, which might be anything and everything.

Also, in spite of their resourcefulness, ferrets are vulnerable animals. I’m told they make good pets, affectionate and playful, but it’s important to keep them inside: if they escape they rarely survive.

Sometimes I think that in the West we try to turn the Way of the Buddha into the Way of the Ferret. We want the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice, but we’re not so keen on giving up on craving. Instead, we see these practices as resources, clever forms of play that can help us reach our goals, solve our problems, get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. We’re attracted by the idea that there is a way to the end of suffering, but we aren’t so receptive to the idea that this way requires the eradication of craving, the realization of no self: no ‘me,’ no ‘mine.’ Even at our most resourceful, our most ‘mindful,’ we remain greedy and vulnerable animals.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the way Western psychology has taken up ‘mindfulness’ as a technique to treat depression and anxiety. In most cases, meditational methods are lifted out of the ethical context and the belief system within which they are taught in Buddhism, and treated as secular tools for working with the mind, techniques that have no particular ethical framework or philosophical implications. There’s mounting clinical evidence that these techniques work: they do help to treat these problems. But, taken up in this selective way, do they lead toward enlightenment, or merely help to create more functional ferrets?

Or is this a false dichotomy? Maybe I should have more faith in the ferret – and in mindfulness practice as it is taken up in Western psychology. Perhaps all a breast-feeding ferret needs to reveal itself as a baby Buddha is a clear mental environment infused with patience, kindness and understanding. If mindfulness practice in therapeutic contexts can help to cultivate this kind of mind, then there may be no problem with lifting it out of its ethical and philosophical context in Buddhism and treating it as a secular practice. After all, the West does have its own ethical frameworks and wisdom traditions to provide alternative contexts, which may run deeper in our psyches.

Maybe, perhaps… I think I’ll have to ferret around a bit more to find out for sure.

Vinnie the ferret in a war dance jump

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