At our house this week we’ve been reading the hugely popular book Walter, the Farting Dog by William Kotzwinkle. My six year old brought it home as her library book this week. When I asked her what she liked about it she said, “That it’s funny and that it makes me want to laugh because before it, I never said ‘fart’ in my life. “
I’ve been enjoying it a lot too. It’s quite liberating to talk about bodily functions that normally get politely ignored around our house. And anything that gets a good belly laugh out of a six year old is a winner as far as I’m concerned.
But there’s something else that I really love about Walter. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a couple of kids who bring home a very stinky dog and just want to keep him because they love him even though he farts all the time.
After trying various remedies, their father finally puts his foot down and declares that Walter will have to go back to the pound the next day. The kids and Walter are miserable and Walter resolves to never fart again. And then he goes down to the kitchen and eats 25 pounds of the very snack that makes him fart the most. And you know what he thinks to himself after he eats them? “Very tasty.”
I fell in love with Walter at that moment. I wanted to break down and cry for him and hug him and adopt him into my home. To me, Walter is every single one of us who sets an intention and then promptly does the VERY thing that makes it least likely that we can achieve our goal. It seems to me that in some corner of our minds, if we’re really honest, we recognize the intrinsic reward in our poor choices, even when they don’t truly serve our purpose. Being dead to the “very tasty” nature of these actions, even when they are unwholesome may be part of what keeps the whole cycle of resistance to change engaged.
This is what it means to be so much a product of our own conditioning. I have repeatedly had the experience of setting an intention which requires self-discipline and finding that I can achieve it if it flows out of a healthy place, a positive regard for myself and others and a sense of realism about what I can control. On the other hand, many of my experiences with intention put me right where Walter is. Even when the stakes could not be higher, if the intention comes out of a place of self-loathing or external pressure (and resentment), it often just falls apart before I can even get started. Then I have no results AND self loathing. In Buddhist psychology, this is the second arrow. The first arrow is the pain of the life situation. In Walter’s case that he has to leave his new home. The Second arrow is made of the thoughts, feelings and judgements that proliferate around the situation, leading us to feel even worse than we already do.
We are so quick to judge ourselves, others, and our students. But behavior, change is so hard. Not impossible, but it requires a self-kindness to both honor and then interrupt the deeply conditioned aspects of ourselves that keep us stuck. To have any hope of lasting success, we have to start by setting the intention to change the right things and then do it with love and a gentle self-compassion.
I won’t spoil the end of Walter for you, but it’s worth a read if you get the chance. In the meantime, I’m going to be paying attention to how I set intentions and what my expectations are for others to change.