Contemplative Life Lessons with Oliver

Jan 2 / Kathi Gatlin
I love animals. I've enjoyed dogs through the years with different breeds and temperaments. Looking back, I only had one dog growing up, but I have had several as an adult. There is something about a dog at your side that brings warmth and comfort.

Like many others, I decided it was time to get a puppy during COVID. I was tired of the shedding of previous pets and chose an Australian Labradoodle. Getting a puppy seemed reasonable because my life would still be consistent after the world started back to work. I work from home, so this new pup wouldn't be alone while I was at the office. I had trained previous dogs, so I felt this would not be a problem.

You can probably tell where this is going. We picked up Oliver, named after a very contemplative poet, with the hope of a quiet and contemplative dog. We even thought he would grow to be a therapy dog that sat beside those we hosted in spiritual direction. We should have suspected something because his kennel name was Jalapeño. His mom's name was Spicy, so all the pups were given spicy-type names.

Oliver has certainly lived into his flavorful and spicy name. Instead of the peace and gentleness of his namesake, we discovered a smart and anxiety-driven puppy. All of my previous dog training knowledge did not provide the results I had hoped. A science-based dog training approach has really changed how people train their dogs. Since my old way wasn't working and I needed something new, I reached out to a highly recommended dog trainer. Working with her, I discovered the potential of relationship-focused dog companionship. This approach was familiar since this is how my dad taught me to work with horses.

It was also how I have chosen to live my life based on a give-and-take flow of relationship with myself, the world, and God. This is the contemplative life, and I wondered how my dog, Oliver, would teach me in this flow of life.

It hasn't been easy, but certainly rewarding. A non-anxious presence allows Oliver to settle into where we are at the moment. If I am anxious, so is he. If I am frustrated, so is Oliver. Now sometimes, the focus of my frustration is Oliver. But when I breathe and listen, I usually find his behavior is a means to communicate a need and not being "bad."

So, I am learning to have compassion for Oliver in his outbursts and myself in mine. What if that is a life lesson - that when we act out, if we stop, breathe, and listen, we might discover an unmet need? To listen in this way requires a non-judgmental approach. Instead of labeling how we feel or how we see others act, it requires a gentle curiosity of listening and believing the best of both; us and them. I wonder how that would change how we are with ourselves, others, and in our relationship with God.

As we have been living together, Oliver has taught me a bit about community. When we are in our home space, sometimes cuddles and play are the invitation, and sometimes space. We respect each other in this way, but we must work together to hear the other.

When we are out in the world, I have learned that when I trust Oliver to communicate what he needs from other dogs in the space, he becomes more comfortable speaking his expectations and reading the dog language others use to communicate theirs. And in the process, Oliver is becoming a little less anxious in the world and more comfortable in his own skin.

Except for squirrels - Oliver and squirrels are really not good friends. But that is okay too.

Oliver has taught me much about myself and the invitation to navigate a relationship-focused way of living. It requires being present with where I am and what I am experiencing in the moment. It also includes an invitation to listen to every part of me, my emotions, body, and the way my emotions feel in my body; a felt sense. What I need and desire is important in the world, and it matters. What others need and desire is important as well. Communicating our needs and desires in community is helpful for all involved.

Communicating and trust have become necessary as Oliver and I navigate life and his anxiety together. I'm thankful for the several walks in a day that gets us both moving, coffee cuddles in the morning, and a fun game of hide and seek before bed. Oliver seems to like routine, and his play also gives me a break. We make a good partnership in this work I feel called to - even if he doesn't feel called to be a therapy dog. He gets to follow his own life's work, walking with me in mine.

If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to join me for the first 6-week course of our Three-Way Listening Series on Thursdays from January 26th-March 2nd, 2-3:30pm PT.

We will look at our spiritual selves and embrace the sacredness of our humanity using resources from spirituality and psychology. When we become more self-aware, we can increase our capacity to host others. Join me in beginning to learn how to listen to ourselves, God, and others.

Kathi Gatlin
Kathi Gatlin co-founded the Companioning Center and founded Boldly Loved to bring together her two greatest passions: spiritual formation and teaching. Walking alongside others in their spiritual journey, whether individually or in groups, brings her immense joy. She loves sharing the contemplative life and exploring ways of understanding God with others. Ultimately, seeing companions grow deeper in their own understanding of who God is and who they are in relationship with God is her faithfulness.

Kathi is a trained spiritual director, supervisor, writer, spiritual formation group facilitator, retreat speaker, leadership mentor, and adjunct professor with George Fox University and Portland Seminary.

Kathi has two grown daughters and five delightful grandchildren. She enjoys coffee, chocolate, deep conversations, reading the mystics, and walking in trees with her Covid puppy, Oliver.