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Year of the Earth Dog – Compassion or Viciousness, What Will We Choose?

January 30, 2018

The Year of the Male Earth Dog is almost upon us! Although I’m currently on a writing sabbatical, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return here and continue my tradition of a lunar new years symbol reading, especially when I learned it was a dog year. Throughout my own life my dogs have been a constant source of joy, compassion, lessons, and poignancy. I can’t imagine life without them, and so it feels especially like a gift to be writing this post.

This year the Chinese and Tibetan New Years’ (Losar) celebrations culminate on February 16th with the new moon, but preparations begin with the full moon on January 31st. Rituals honoring ancestors, cleansing of homes, donations to monasteries, and spiritual retreats are all part of the two week lead-up to the transit from one year to the next. Unlike in Western astrology, the element and animal assignments for each year in Chinese and Tibetan astrology are not based on the earth’s position relative to constellations. Instead they are part of a recurring cycle composed of the possible combinations between the 12 astrology animals, 5 elements, and male/female (or yang/yin) energies. In this sense these systems are more about telling you which energies are ‘up’ and which are not, each lunar year. This post is not a formal interpretation or prediction based on these systems (although I do incorporate some of the traditional readings) but instead an intuitive riff on what these energies are and what you may wish to focus on, using the symbol of the dog as a starting point.

One of the more well-known Italian renaissance paintings of the animals entering Noah’s ark (including dogs!) by Jacopo Bassano, 1570

As I started t0 research the symbology of dogs, my first discovery was that there really is no separating the history of dogs from the history of humans. Our species’ development have been entwined. Archeological digs have found dogs buried besides humans from as far back as 36,000 years ago, during the first hunter-gatherer period. Dogs were community protectors, and likely provided a warning system for early humans against their many predators. Dogs may also have been used in hunting. Whatever the reasons, dogs were with us from very early on, as our helpmates, guardians, and companions.

This ancient relationship is reflected in one of the stories circulated in many cultures about the role of dogs on Noah’s ark. In this tale, the two dogs on board (often said to be Afghans) patrolled the ark continuously, alerting Noah of sick animals, conflicts, or any other issues. One day they discovered a hole in the ark through which water was beginning to pour. One dog ran for Noah while the other plugged the hole with his nose, thus saving the ark and all aboard.

This story encapsulates all the best quality of dogs – their intelligence, protectiveness, compassion, loyalty, resourcefulness and sense of duty. In its best expression, these are all traits associated with the dog in the Chinese/Tibetan system too, and thus these are the positive energies that are ‘up’ this year. Ask yourself how you can bring these forth within yourself. Duty is not always a fun word, and thus not one most of us really like to think about, but this year it is key. Who or what are you responsible to besides yourself? Who or what do you need to protect? What is your duty? This is a year to prioritize your goals with these questions uppermost in your mind.

The jackal-headed Anubis weighing the feather of Ma’at in the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Ancient Egyptians are known more for their reverence for cats than dogs – particularly in the form of Bastet – but the canine (jackal)-headed Anubis is very prominent as well. His function as the ‘weigher of hearts’ in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (or Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day) reflects another quality of dogs recognized across cultures and times – their deep intuition and sensitivity to the truth of human character. Stories abound of dogs who sensed the true malevolent intentions of someone when their owners did not (as expressed in the popular meme ‘I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person.’) Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at – the feather of truth and enlightenment – to assess whether the heart-soul should ascend to heaven or descend to hell. Anubis is a moral compass and standard keeper.

Are you in touch with your own inner compass, your guide to what is right and what is wrong? Can you connect with your deeper wisdom and cut through the noise and ideology of our world in order to sense directly when something is in alignment with truth and when it is not? Do you try to live from this place of instinctual truth within yourself? Turning inward to find this compass, and attempting to live by it, are a big theme this year- and likely will be tested.

Ancient Greek goddess Artemis, protector of wildlife, childbirth, and young girls, with one of her faithful hunting dogs.

Greek goddess Artemis is often shown with her hunting dogs, who are both her companions and obedient helpers. Dogs are grounded, practical creatures. Although they appear throughout mythology, they aren’t dragons or unicorns – they have their feet on the ground and live amongst us mortals. Like Artemis’ dogs, they often epitomize discipline and service. Dog years are considered good times for following through on existing goals. These aren’t necessarily visionary times. Historically dog years can be times of revolution but usually this occurs when the change has been building for awhile. So what have you already started that you need to complete? What do you need to bring discipline and service to – within the world or within your own life? Keep your feet on the ground and apply yourself – this is what is rewarded this year.

The Seven Sleepers and their dog, as shown in this illustrated Falnoma (Book of Omens) from 16th Century Iran

The Seven Sleepers is a tale found in both Christian and Islamic texts from the medieval and renaissance periods. Seven youth who are being persecuted for their beliefs during early Christianity escape to a cave and seal themselves in to hide. They sleep for hundreds of years, awakening once the period of persecution has passed and they can safely and openly live according to their beliefs. A faithful protector dog is key to the story, standing guard outside the cave throughout the centuries.

This story represents the protection and keeping of what is sacred, even in the face of tremendous opposition. The dog is the guardian of those holding truths that must be kept secret for a time, but never die out. What is sacred to you? What is at risk of dying out in today’s world? What is being persecuted that you must stand against? Or more personally, what flame inside of you must be kept alive at all costs, or your life is not worth living? These are also guiding questions for this year. Protect what matters most.

Ferocious, three-headed Cerebrus, from a Greek vase, 560 BC

Of course there is another arcehtype of the guard dog, in reality and mythology – the vicious one. Perhaps the epitome of this is the Greek Cerebrus, or ‘hound of Hades’, who guards the gates of hell. A fearsome, ravenous three-headed beast, Cerebrus flatters and fawns over souls entering, but viciously attacks any attempting to leave. His job is to keep souls in hell. Symbolically, this is what he represents – the forces in us that keep us bound.

Within the Chinese and Tibetan systems, dogs are considered earth animals, linked to the element earth. With this year also being an earth element year, it is considered ‘double earth’. On top of this, it is a yang or masculine year. All together this represents an imbalance that can be problematic, the biggest risk being stubbornness, intractability, and rigidity. These are our biggest binding forces right now. Continued patterns of segregating by ideology, of seeking out media and viewpoints that only reflect what we already believe, of digging in to what we already ‘know’ and shutting out any other perspective, are the biggest dangers for us all. These are the shadow side of the energies arising. Danger lies not simply in any one particular ideology but in how we attach to it, and how we respond to those who disagree. Danger lies in thinking that only the ‘other side’ is being rigid and closed, and not ourselves.

So can you resist this tendency to solidify and hunker down? Can you stay open and inquisitive? Can you seek interaction with those whom you know believe differently than you or whom you even find threatening? Can you break through your own self-imposed inner binds, whatever form they take? Can you avoid objectifying and villainizing the ‘other’?

Dogs don’t fight for sport unless trained and bred to do so by us.

If we give in to the darker aspects of this energy rising, the price is clear – conflict and violence. This can quickly spiral out of control. Even conflicts that start in defense of noble values and ideology can take on a life of their own, turning vicious and spiteful, and no longer connected to any moral goal.

Dogs in nature will fight for territory, food, or status but they don’t fight for sport. Humans have trained and bred them for that, reflections of our own darkest depravity. Viciousness for entertainment is not natural to dogs. Is it natural to us? What causes it? It’s all too easy to justify aggression in the name of protecting ourselves and our tribe, in defense of territory or ideology, but when does it stop? Do the ends ever really justify the means?

These are the question we need to ponder and face right now, on a personal and social level.

The actual Hachiko, who inspired the famous Tokyo statue

But let’s get back to the lighter side of dog nature, and what it may have to show us. Above is the actual Hachiko, he of the famous statue in Toyko. Hachiko used to meet his owner at the train station at the end of every workday. Is there anything better than a dog greeting – tail wagging, always happy to see you, whatever mood you may be in? Like most dogs Hachiko offered this every day to his owner, until one tragic day when his owner didn’t return. He had died suddenly at work of a cerebral hemorrhage. Hachiko never gave up, returning day after day to the train station at the same time for the rest of his own life, in the hopes his owner would return.

There are many ways to read this story. Certainly it is a testament to the loyalty of dogs, and to their steadfastness. There are many stories of dogs who traveled hundreds of miles to return to their owners after having become lost. But for me the beauty of this story is also in its tragedy, the reminder of the unpredictability and transience of life. We cannot control or predict everything that will occur. However, we can choose to meet whatever arises with love and steadfastness.

Usually things are the other way around – our dogs pass first. As writer Agnes Sligh Turnbull put it, “Dogs’ lives are too short – their only fault really.” The shortness of dogs’ lives relative to our own is a constant lesson in the transience of life, and a constant reminder to live it fully now. A reminder too that love is what matters most; and when we brave love in spite of fear – with a new puppy or dog adoption after a beloved dog dies – they remind us anew that love is always worth the risk.

So do you live with this mind? Are you holding back anything out of fear? Do you live with the precious knowledge that nothing lasts forever? What are you waiting for?

From a British post card from soon after WWI – the first guide dogs were for British soldiers returning from the war blinded by gas attacks.

As I explored the energies of this year, and the relationship of dogs to humans, at one point I was overcome by gratitude for all they have given, and do give, us humans. I read story after story of dogs rescuing humans, warning humans, helping humans – often to their own detriment (if you are looking to spend a few tear-filled hours lost on the internet, just google any of these topics!) I learned that guide dogs were first widely introduced after WWI, because so many soldiers returned from the war blinded by gas attacks. Guide and caretaker dogs are one of the most beautiful examples of canine selflessness. These dogs go far beyond the training they receive, bonding so deeply to their owners they can often sense even slight fluctuations in their ‘person’s’ biological functions, alert to any potential health dangers.

Selflessness is something we have a complicated relationship to in the West. We are very focused on self-definition and individual accomplishment, and are wary of martyrdom. Certainly self-sacrifice can be unhealthy, especially if it’s rooted in imbalanced power structures, or feelings of unworthiness. But true selflessness is not this. True selflessness is based in compassion for others, and the impulse to act on someone else’s behalf besides our own. It is a reaching outward of our heart. Do you have space for this in your life? Can you reach outside yourself? Can you act outside of self interest? (As a start, consider making a donation to your local animal shelter or to a non-profit that trains guide or caretaker dogs, in honor of the year of the dog.)

The presence of dogs has been shown to have medicinal effects on the ailing, stressed, or injured

To act in this way requires really being present with someone outside of yourself. This is another area in which dogs have a lot to teach us. Have you ever seen a dog not fully present in the moment? Visitation by dogs, and dog ownership, have been shown to trigger relaxation hormones and endorphins in humans, and to aid healing of all types. What is it about their presence and energy that impacts us so deeply? What if we all brought this to every interaction we have with each other? How would the world change? Can you challenge yourself to do that this year?

The story of Yudhisthira’s dog from the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata demonstrates what dogs teach us.

My favorite dog story summarizes all that dogs represent for me. At the end of the Indian epic the Mahabharata, the Pandava family is determined to renounce their kingdom and ascend the ‘mountain of liberation’ – enlightenment or heaven, depending on your interpretation. They are accompanied by their dog. One by one, the brothers fall on the path, each due to personal weaknesses, and only Yudhisthira and his dog make it to the top. Yudhisthira is greeted here by Indra in his chariot, offering to take him to heaven, but telling him that the dog may not enter. Yudhisthira responds that then neither will he, as the dog has been his faithful companion, and does not deserve abandonment. He turns away from Indra, ready to descend down the mountain with his dog, when Indra calls him back. He praises Yudhisthira for his compassion and selflessness, telling him that this had in fact been his final test, and that the dog was actually Dharma. With this, Yudhisthira enters heaven/enlightenment.

Yudhisthira had accomplished many things in his life, and attained much power. In the end, what mattered most was his development of compassion, and his ability to think beyond himself. For me, this is the highest expression of ‘dogness’ and the potential for this Year of the Earth Dog. In every moment we have a choice, whether we will think or act only in our own best interests, or can consider others’ as well. It is not a problem to put ourselves first sometimes, it is even appropriate, but when it is all we can do, we are missing out – and so is the world. May we all open to others this year, in addition to ourselves. Happy Year of the Earth Dog!

Wishing you the love of a dog in this Year of the Dog

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”
– Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

P.S. Also, I will start my next Energy Work for Sexual Trauma teleseminar on March 26th.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    January 30, 2018 11:27 am

    Thank you so much for this! Xxxx

  2. Anonymous permalink
    January 30, 2018 4:23 pm

    I had read that the double earth means we will have lots of earthquakes this year, what do you think? I’m also wondering what you think this year will bring for the #metoo movement?

  3. January 30, 2018 5:35 pm

    Gla you liked it Anon.

  4. January 30, 2018 5:50 pm

    I have read this too about the earthquakes, but there’s a lot of variation. I’m not an expert on Chinese or Tibetan astrology (and my post isn’t meant to be a formal prediction) but my understanding is that normally the year energies are compared to the animal signs of individuals to read what’s up each year for each animal sign. So it’s more about what will the year of the dog be like for everyone born under the sign of the dog, or the rat, or the sheep etc. It’s not often used to make sweeping predictions for the planet:-) But yes, one interpretation is that so much earth will cause clashes including in the actual earth…
    As for #metoo, and other social movements begun last year, dog years are considered times for follow through, so turning momentum into concrete action is key this year…and of course maintaining the integrity and compassion behind the action, so that it doesn’t turn to simple vengeance but is in alignment with truth, and the surfacing of shadows…I think that will certainly continue, as that is a larger phase going on right now…over decades:-)

  5. Lisa permalink
    January 30, 2018 9:43 pm

    I wait for this article every year! Thank you, Lisa. It always puts me in good stead for what may, and can, be learned and experienced in the months ahead. I got my first dog (first pet too), 4 years ago, and she has become a powerful teacher for me. I sometimes call her my little heart chakra because she has reintroduced me to my own deep capacity for love and compassion that I had protectively walled up over the years. I started therapy dog training with her three weeks ago so that she can soon be a visiting volunteer to patients at the local hospital, and I am filled with admiration and love for her as I watch her work hard to learn and cooperate in preparation for what I know will be a new sense of purpose for us both.

  6. January 31, 2018 2:17 am

    Hi Lisa, that’s wonderful that your dog is becoming a therapy dog! The perfect thing to do this year:-)

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