Years ago, a goddess from Vector Control saved our family from a rat. Early one morning that rat had confronted me from a shelf in the refrigerator—beady eyes engaging mine from behind the tortillas, a long hairless tail twitching. I slammed the fridge door, called Vector Control; the warrior goddess arrived to capture our rat in a cage. She took him (she promised) to the mountains. It seems so easy in retrospect. So kind. This time, not so. Seven years after that first confrontation, we suffer what feels like an invasion, with legions of rats traveling from our luscious garden into our home. While that first solo rat certainly incited fear and loathing, its recently arrived cousins feel like true provocateurs, inflaming unexpected violence in me. I want to investigate this.
I write as a longtime student of lovingkindness, committed to the first Buddhist training precept not to kill, and as a person struggling to heal old tendencies toward terror and anger. Recalling Gary Snyder’s take on the human race as a gang of “primate clowns,” I’m trying, when I can remember, to keep the “evolutionary” view and to laugh at the wild antics of my own soaring reactions. Best to start by tracking my rat-infested mind.
Late in the night the mewling begins. It’s so soft I don’t know for sure that I am hearing. In the dark there are no directions, just what cries or moans. When I pull the comforter up over my ears, I so want to sink back into dreams, to be free of this. But alone in the bed, with Patrick out of town, I cannot sleep. No robust bodyguard is here to ward off intruders, only Roxie—sweet border collie pup—dozing in her basket by my side of the bed. Even as I scooch down beneath the blankets, the sound seems to rise in pitch. Do I hear thrashing? My body seizes up, beyond alert. Another rat! Much as I’ve tried to reason with myself, I’m consumed with primal images—rats carrying the bubonic plague, eyeball-eating rats from Orwell’s 1984—and I’m driven into a panic.
A rancid taste returns to my mouth as I recall the rat we killed last week, a frantic thumping this way, then that; in the morning the carcass limp and distorted in the trap; and the next day, another trap sprung but no rat in sight, just droplets of blood trailing under the stove. Now, I eavesdrop with all of my senses (is it the trap next to the stove or the one behind the TV?). I anticipate the fatal smack.
In our episode years ago, the fridge so serendipitously trapped our one rat—before my alarm had time to escalate. But now, after weeks of failed Havahart traps, after scrubbing every hidden cupboard, boarding up every hole, baptizing the floors in Clorox, we awaken each morning to trails of fresh rat shit. Here I am—childhood ban-the-bomber, would-be pacifist, host of a neighborhood sitting group dedicated to the Buddha Way—in the role of the aggressor. How have I arrived at this? “Break its wretched neck!”
My focus narrows now to one essential question: When and how did I make the decision to kill? There must have been a decision. But no matter which way I tell myself this tale, I arrive at the same disturbing impasse, the opaque shift from Havahart traps to full-on homeland security.
“What size do I need for a rat?” I found myself at the hardware store studying traps (informed that it was a rat by the dimensions of the shit). Floor-to-ceiling shelves displayed poison traps, glue traps, snap traps. I finally settled on one of the snaps as if choosing among miniature guillotines.
I scour my memories for this decision: My alarm may have peaked the weekend Caitlin came home from college; I pictured furry rodents burrowing through the roof, violating her attic bedroom. And when the kidlets from next door came over to be “babysat” with their crayons and cookies, already in their pajamas cuddled on the couch I heard the rats—I was sure of it—scuttling along the baseboard underneath. Visions of rats pouncing into babies’ cribs exacerbated a protective panic. I had to do something. Anything!
Somewhere between the “provocations” and setting that first deadly trap, this mission turned into war. But I still can’t pinpoint the shift. All I know is that now we are in a state of siege—all-out defense against the rats. We secure our home. We block off all borders, sealing every hidden crawl space. We are on red alert against any creature that sounds like a rat, smells like a rat. Exterminate them all!
When I was a child I was consumed with a horror that I would be kidnapped and hurt in some unimaginable way. Whenever I told myself this story, I would arrive at the same perfect escape: I would black out. Even now at age sixty-three, when I picture a like scenario—an accident or being jailed and tortured—I see myself “saved” by a similar escape. I simply black out. Blacking out sets me free, protects me from pain I cannot tolerate. This strategy could surely offer protection, salvation even, against something that for a tender child, or indeed a tender human of any age, might be seriously traumatic.
But such blackout can become a habitual way of relating to life—a disconnection from experience—tuning out all that is too painful, too scary, too sad or even threateningly pleasurable or joyful and, in my case, bursting out in anger. In Buddhist teachings, there’s a suffering state of mind seen as a form of craving called vibhava tanha, when you want desperately to get rid of something or want it to cease with such intensity that you crave annihilation. Was that my mind-state when I started killing rats?
On this insomniac night, as I search for the fulcrum of my decision, for those lost moments when terror turned to violence, the dread sounds persist. Through a locked door, through my comforter. Did a rat tunnel into the living room wall and find a secret hole through a heating vent into my bedroom? The clamor increases in volume—a rasping, a gurgling. Are these some kind of thug rats rioting?
Bolting up, I knock over the lamp, flick on the light. I scan the newly lit room. In her basket, there’s Roxie, loyal pup. I reach for her silky ears, her soft belly. Then I hear her rumbling. A wild thought. I grab the flashlight, stare at Roxie. That symphony of rat ravings, has it simply been Roxie’s gaseous belly, tuned stereophonic with the midnight flaring of my rat terror and guilt? Are these the only sounds I’ve been hearing all along tonight? Am I going crazy?
Real rats or imaginary? Nothing is so creepy as this, not to trust my own rat-tormented mind.
What is this rat? An innocent bloke doing his job, an honest night’s work.
When Caitlin was little, she and her friend Elias used to play for hours with his pet “ratties.” So sweet. And smart too. Maybe the minds of rats can’t do trigonometry, but scientists are now finding that their brains share many structures with those of primates and, indeed, of humans. While some neuroscientists are studying the brains of spiritual adepts, others are studying the brains of rats in order to understand the circuitry of the brains of humans.
The killing of these fellow mammals deserves clear and heartful consideration. But, I see it now, in my case, this was missing. On danger alert, the ancient, more primitive parts of the brain were aroused; the amygdala, that almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain, reacted in terror and violence. I did indeed black out.
And what do I do now? My preference would be a composed ending, a eureka where I recognize my nondecision, see how barbaric it is to turn my kitchen into a killing field, and I . . . what?
ο Move out, bequeathing the kitchen to the rats, the living room? Hell, give them the whole house!
ο Summon another goddess for a kindly capture?
ο Block off all holes, purify all surfaces, and if the rats come yammering in the rafters, scuttling behind the sink, tearing into our dinners, be damned; zip tight all sleeping bags, screw closed all jars, seal off all that is vulnerable and tender, live here together in armored harmony?
Even the Dalai Lama says that there may be situations where force is the only recourse. Maybe my attacks on the rats is one of those. Sometimes one thing cannot be saved unless something else is exterminated. A house safe for children in pajamas and teenage daughters who sleep in attics may not be possible without killing rats. I don’t know. But this logic could be treacherous. Once followed, it might pardon unending sacrifices, whole countries and categories of beings destroyed for the sake of mythical safety.
No fixed solution or line of reasoning satisfies me. The more I think on it, I know: What matters is considered response—instead of reaction. If I am completely aware of, and deliberate about, each step of a decision—even to the point of killing rats—I wonder if I can live with that.
As I understand it, mindfulness in cultivating nonharm is the basic practice of Buddhism: training the mind to be aware of the moment-to-moment choices and of the intimate connection between intentions and the life situations they engender. Of course, it’s particularly challenging to sustain awareness when the mind is taken over by fear. So awareness training strengthens the recently evolved parts of the brain; these can override the reactivity of the amygdala even in the face of our most primal fears, allowing us to make aware choices. Any moment when awareness is absent is what I call a moment of blackout.
Out of some lost cache of memories, a teaching comes back to me that I heard many years ago. Zen teacher Reb Anderson examined the First Precept—not to kill—from a koan-like perspective. As he phrased it, life is not killed: “What is it not to kill? When you meet a sentient being, to give complete attention to that sentient being, to be totally devoted to your friends, to your family, to your dog: that is not to kill and that is what life is.” The “not killing” Reb is talking about—offering complete attention—is supremely challenging; that’s why we sit on the meditation cushion training ourselves to stay present, rewiring the circuitry of the brain; that’s why we regularly take the precepts, reminding ourselves of the commitment to offer our attention, as we fumble along, trying, forgetting and trying again.
But the moments of blackout between commitment to Havahart traps and purchasing snap traps—any moments such as these—can have far-reaching and devastating consequences. Often there are even group blackouts. Neighborhoods black out, as do counties and states and whole societies; the Senate or Congress can black out. It was during just such blackouts that decisions were made to wage war in Vietnam, Granada and Iraq. So too, we have blindly turned our fear into a war of terror, spying and torture.
Such madness begins with the moment-by-moment blackouts in our daily lives. Radical “not killing” is to be completely present. This is what I aspire to, while keeping a tender heart for myself who is so committed yet still often blacks out, for the rest of our gang of suffering primate clowns (as well as for other sundry mammals).