You may not know his name—Patrick McDonnell—but 50 million people read “Mutts,” his affectionate, fanciful comic strip about the love and wisdom we can absorb from the animals around us.
Even if Patrick McDonnell is new to you today—you’ve almost certainly heard of his co-author Eckhart Tolle. Depending on your perspective, Tolle is a prophetic godsend—and his summaries of the world’s great religious traditions in books, TV appearances and documentaries are a wonderful doorway toward a rich spiritual life. Or, if you don’t care for Tolle’s work, you may see him as a media “popularizer” whose success depends on his friendship with Oprah and his ability to “boil down” religious traditions into simple language.
We’re not judging Tolle here, today.
But, we are celebrating this creative spiritual collaboration with Patrick McDonnell. (You can buy the book via Amazon through the link, at right, and—at the end of today’s story—there’s a link to learn a whole lot more about Patrick and his work with the Humane Society.)
I know this: “Guardians of Being” is going to be a hit. I’ve been toting a review copy around with me and I’ve seen people respond eagerly to this lovely book. Why? Because Patrick McDonnell selected very brief excerpts from Tolle’s work and then illustrated them with colorful comics—and the result is magical.
ReadTheSpirit has often written about the growing power of comics and graphic novels in shaping global culture. (Most of the Top-20-Grossing-Movies-of-All-Time are based on comic-type characters, for example.) We’ve also written a lot about the growing awareness, around the world, of our deep connection with the natural world.
So, it was—well, it was natural for us to embrace this new book—and recommend it to you.
Who is Patrick McDonnell? He grew up, like a lot of us, as a fan of “Peanuts.” He told me, “I’ve loved comic strips since I was a little kid so this was in my blood all my life. I loved Charles Schulz as a kid. I was aware of the spiritual quality in the comic strip and that’s why I loved it so much.”
Patrick is a true artist, which is why his cartoons have a loose and personally expressive look to them that might spark memories of earlier comics like “Krazy Kat.” In fact, “Krazy Kat” is one of Patrick’s own favorites, partly because it featured wildly imaginative writing and partly because of the “scratchy, handmade look in those comics.”
Or, in other words—clear signs that a Creator’s hand is shaping the narrative.
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS
OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH PATRICK MCDONNELL
DAVID: First question: How do you describe yourself religiously?
Based on the handful of excerpts you’ve selected from Tolle’s work—I’d almost guess you’re a Buddhist. In the book, you champion concern for the environment, you talk about the importance of compassion—and you urge us to appreciate the “here and now.” You urge us to be “completely present.” You even refer to “Zen masters.”
But, you also have sections in the book about “soul” and “divine presence” and the “Creator.” So, how do you describe yourself religiously?
PATRICK: I was born Roman Catholic. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. I kind of read everything about religion these days—Eckhart’s book in particular. I was taken by the directness and simplicity of his writing. I would call myself a spiritual person.
DAVID: Let me push you a little further. There’s one page where you quote Tolle’s words: “We are immersed in a continuous stream of mental noise. It seems that we can’t stop thinking.”
Again, that section of your book seems pretty Zen to me.
PATRICK: I think a lot of people can appreciate what’s being said there, whatever their religious background may be. We need to realize that we live too much of our lives in this kind of—talking ego head. Just to be reminded of the need to quiet down is a powerful thought.
People may do this in various ways. For me, I think making art, creating art, is my spiritual practice. To me, it’s meditation. You definitely lose yourself when you’re making your art. I get my ego out of the way and I connect with a deeper place—and I just let the art come.
I always understood that about my art—but trying to practice this elsewhere in my life has been a lot harder.
DAVID: What is the life of a cartoonist like?
PATRICK: Doing the daily comic strip keeps me very busy. I work farmer’s hours. My cat wakes me up at 5:30 in the morning. I get up and feed my cat. I have a little breakfast. I start with a little meditation or spiritual reading. And, then I work until dinner. And I pretty much work seven days a week. I do my comic strip, my books—and a lot of charity work.
I’ve got a studio in my home on the second floor overlooking an acre of woods behind my house. So a good part of my day allows me to watch the birds and animals walk by. It’s convenient. I have a dog and a cat.
DAVID: Your dog is on the back cover of your book.
PATRICK: He passed away last year at the age of 19, but he’s the model of the dog in my comic strip, although he doesn’t have the circle around his eye like the dog in the strip. I just tried to capture the real joy of his life in my strip.
DAVID: I’m sorry to hear he passed away. Have you adopted another dog?
PATRICK: Yes, we’ve adopted a new shelter dog, Amelie. That’s one of my favorite movies: “Amelie.”
DAVID: What kind of dog?
PATRICK: The same kind. We adopted another crazy Jack Russell Terrier.
DAVID: You’ve done a lot of books on your own. Then, you approached Tolle with this book proposal, and he eagerly agreed, as I understand the story. Why did you want to link your imagery to his text?
PATRICK: In studying his work—not only his books but his CDs and his DVDs—he talks about nature a lot and he talks about how animals bring us into the present moment—dogs and cats in particular. That’s at the heart of my work, too. I’m always showing readers this important bond we have with our animals. Since I started studying Eckhart’s work, some of my own work has been influenced by his teaching.
Then a year or so ago I saw a photo of Eckhart with his dog Maya and I thought: I really ought to do a book with him to show how special our pets are. My wife and I found all kinds of quotes from his work that talk about dogs and cats. So, I picked a few of them I wanted to use in a book and we proposed this.
DAVID: What kind of dog is Maya?
PATRICK: A King Charles Spaniel.
DAVID: Have you met Eckhart?
PATRICK: No, we’ve only talked on the phone and we did the book through Email going back and forth. I’m in New Jersey and he’s in Vancouver and we do hope to get together, but it didn’t work out while I worked on the book.
DAVID: One of the things that’s distinctive about your work—compared with a lot of other books about the natural world, these days—is that you’re not really talking much about going way out into the wilderness. This book is about living next to animals in our daily lives and, mostly, it’s about humans and pets.
PATRICK: It’s important to raise consciousness about this. I’m on the board of the Humane Society of the United States and I see all the horrors of how too many animals live their lives. Between dog fighting and puppy mills and all the other bad ways animals are treated, I think there are lots of unaware people out there. We need to realize—as the book says—that we are all sparks of the divine.
DAVID: One of the lines you chose for the book is: “Allow nature to teach you stillness.” And, you chose lines about how petting a dog or listening to a cat purr can be “a doorway into being.”
PATRICK: We should say those are Eckhart’s words. I did the cartoons in the book. But obviously I chose those words from Eckhart’s work because they mean a lot to me.
Another great line in the book is that millions of people are kept sane by their animals. For a lot of people, it’s one of the few moments in our hectic days when we stop for a few minutes. It’s hard to keep being so crazy when there’s a cat purring on your lap. You want to just let go. I think that’s why people love their pets.
This book sort of answers the question: Why do we love our pets so much? I think they are our link back to nature and they quiet down our minds.
When you walk your dog—or play ball with your dog or pet your cat—you’re just in that moment. You’re more like they are—which is totally aware of what’s around you.
Surrender and acceptance are so important in our lives. Living in the present moment is where Heaven is. That’s where we all need to be instead of lost—trying to live in the future or the past. I think we need to be in the present moment. Your dog or cat can bring you right into that present moment. They are a doorway into being.
DAVID: I’ve been very impressed with the work of the Humane Society. We’re going to include links at the end of this story to the Francis Files, which is a very creative part of the Humane Society Web site—based on themes from St. Francis. And we’ll include other links, too, to their other materials.
PATRICK: Obviously, I’m very aware of those things the Humane Society is doing and I’m very supportive and excited by that.
DAVID: Are you hopeful or worried about the future? Do you see things getting better for people and animals? Or are you pessimistic about what you see happening?
PATRICK: I’m excited to see more religious people talking about making the planet green again. That shows a growing love. That’s what’s going to change people—love and awareness.
You can make rules and laws, but people break them. The real root of the problem, when people allow animals to be mistreated, is an unconsciousness of the creatures we share this planet with. Raising consciousness is ultimately what’s going to solve these problems.
I’m encouraged when I see Eckhart selling millions of books. And I’m encouraged that churches are starting to talk about preserving the planet and caring for animals. There really is this powerful group of voices out there rising up. I want to be part of that. I think that we can expand this awareness—and I think people are out there listening.
I know these are tough times for a lot of people and our planet faces a lot of problems, but I have to believe we’re going to rise above it all.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)