When I took the dog out to the beach this morning, there appeared to be a dead baby seal beside one of the logs that had washed up in the night. Since the dog is virtually blind, it was easy to steer him in another direction, but once he was safely back in the house I went back to take a picture, worrying all the while about what might have killed the seal and where I should report it.
But when I stepped off the boardwalk to take a closer look (thinking I would photograph it) I realized it was breathing. My initial reaction was delight, but then it opened its huge dark eyes (it's odd how terrifying eyes can seem when there are no pupils) and we both realized we were too close to each other.
I pulled out my camera anyway, trying to get a shot before she skittered off, but by the time I had adjusted the light she was almost in the water. She did look back at me briefly, but I suspect either my camera or my glasses frightened her; she dove in and swam away.
Later, nursing my coffee at the dining room table, I found myself wondering if I could have handled that confrontation differently -- crept up more slowly, noticed the rise and fall of the chest sooner, taken off my glasses, set aside the camera -- if there were something I could have done to reassure her that I meant her no harm. And I realized my autopilot had taken over yet again ("get a picture, get a picture").
It's amazing how strong those autonomic response/defenses are, despite all our efforts to the contrary. They seem to kick in whenever we are frightened or surprised -- I mean, think about it: How many times have you reacted in situations without thinking, and then later wished you'd said or done something completely different?
I keep hoping my meditation practice will defuse those response systems, enabling me to be more present in the moment, even under stress. And some part of me believes the whole earth would benefit if more of us could achieve that. But clearly I still have work to do...