February 07, 2014

Meditation Month: Dharma Dog

Day seven of our monthlong meditation challengeEmma Varvaloucas

February is Meditation Month! The Tricycle team members have challenged ourselves—and our readers—to meditate every day and blog about our experiences. We needed a little help, so we called in bestselling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg to lead our meditation-themed retreat this month and speak to us on how to incorporate meditation practice into the workplace. We’re also featuring three meditation e-books: Tricycle Teachings: MeditationTricycle Teachings: Meditation, Vol. 2, and Tricycle Teachings: Commit to Sit. Last but certainly not least, back by popular demand is Brad Warner, known this month as our Meditation Doctor, here to answer any questions we have about our personal practice.

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FranklinThis is the third time that I've participated in Tricycle's 28-day meditation challenge, but it's the first time that I've sat with death and loss weighing heavily on my mind. Last week my childhood dog and first pet, Franklin (pictured here at right looking particularly regal), underwent surgery to remove what we learned post-op was a cancerous tumor. Being a dog, he's not overtly concerned with the diagnosis, but the rest of my family, who view Franklin and his doggy brother, Forrester, as beloved children, are torn up by the news.    

I've heard a lot of cute stories about "dharma dogs": animals who meditate when their owners meditate, or prowl around the halls of Buddhist temples in Asia listening to dharma talks. Franklin is decidedly not a dharma dog. (Though he'd probably be happy to eat some Buddhist scripture if I dropped it on the floor.) Have you heard that Tibetan story about the master who purposefully brought along the most annoying person he knew on a long journey so that he could practice patience? That's Franklin—the annoying guy, I mean. He's neurotic and territorial, and barks at people without compunction. He steals shoes, pees in the house, and has no problem howling at 4am. All that, and I still love him to pieces. I'll miss him dearly when he's gone.

My thoughts while I've been sitting this week have mostly revolved around doing: what will I do if Franklin is suffering or in pain? What will I do if my mother asks me whether or not I think we should pursue treatment for him? What will I do if we have to put him down? What will I do if this? What will I do if that?

I started as a hospice volunteer this year, and I found that my visits to my first patient progressed along a similar path: I always needed something to do in order to feel comfortable. Sometimes my patient would share with me that she was lonely or depressed, and I would freeze. "What in the world do I do now?" I didn't realize that it might have been enough that I was simply there.

When I began practicing, before I had the disheartening realization that what all the Buddhist texts say is true—my mind is definitely out-of-control, insane-in-the-membrane bonkers—and the feeling subsided in favor of incredulity at the repetitive banality of my brain, I often felt greatly liberated from the imperative of "doing" while I sat. I felt that way again today. For 20 minutes, I was with the reality of Franklin's sickness, feeling sadness, but also freed from "doing's" obsessive quality. Isn't this what we practice in the hopes of, that we'll learn how to be in the hardest and most important of life's spaces—the liminal ones, like the space between life and death? 

Good luck everyone with the remainder of the meditation challenge. If your practice has been impacted by the animals in your life, I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Animals are primo examples of meditation in motion. No thought...just do.

JoBelasco's picture

I felt moved to comment on this because my dog was diagnosed with a tumor last week, and I experienced the importance of my practice in connection with that medical emergency. I found T'ealc when he was 5 weeks old, and he would have been 10 this month. He was always happy. A big dog with a big heart and an amazingly big presence even when he was simply laying quietly in a room. He got sick one morning last week, and the emergency vet diagnosed a tumor, with a high chance that it was cancerous, and that he had it throughout his entire body. I had to make the difficult decision of letting him pass on. It was the best thing for him.

For me, it was heartbreaking. Within three hours of him first appearing sick, he was gone. I have had animals my entire life, and I am 45, but he was a once-in-a-lifetime dog. One of those dogs that just has something special that makes the two of you best buddies. The shock was immense and intense. How would I go on without him? I thought I had a few more years with him. I was preparing for my older Collie, who is almost 13 and has hip problems, to pass on this year, but not him.

I went through it by breathing. By coming back to my breath. By thinking about impermanence and listening to Thich Nhat Hanh speak about death. I sat on my cushion, and I just took one breath at a time. Sometimes, that's all I could do as the tears welled up and spilled over, and I thought I would never stop crying. I didn't know that a person could have so many tears.

I have lost animals before, and very close friends have lost animals in tragic ways, and always, in those cases, the pain seemed overwhelming. While I will miss T'ealc every day, the pain was different this time. When I felt it, I thought of all the Pema Chodron talks I've heard and the books and articles I've read, and I moved into the pain. Before, I would brace myself against that wave of hurt, not wanting to feel it, and when it hit, it was like being cut by a knife. But not this time. Oh, it hurt. But then it subsided. Like a wave washing over me instead of a knife stabbing me.

So it is that T'ealc gave me a gift as he passed on; the gift of seeing how mindfulness and meditation could have a positive and centering impact on my life in ways I had never imagined.

I bring the practice of mindfulness to people through my nonprofit with our mindfulness and nature program, and through my for-profit by working with horsepeople and mindfulness. It is my hope that by learning mindfulness, they, too, can find an end to some of their suffering. I know that mindfulness, and for me meditation as well, helped with the suffering I felt when T'ealc passed on.

I wish you and your family peace with Franklin during this time.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Thank you so much for sharing T'ealc's story and for the good work you do with people, animals, and nature. It's so heartbreaking to think that those we love can be gone from us in just 3 hours' time, but wonderful to hear how your practice helped you through the experience—it's a comfort to know that it's there for us when it truly counts.

My very best to you,
Emma V.