April 1, 2011

On emptiness, grief & the unconditional love of a dog.

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a longer article which can be found on Yoga Freedom.

My heart is empty. My life is a country song. My lover left me. My dog died. The dog was a way better companion than the lover could ever be. Lucy was with me for nearly nine years, since my parents gave her to me when I graduated from college in May 2002. I loved her so.

A surreal flurry of fleeting emotions pass through my dazed, grief-stricken consciousness, more noticeably than ever. Sometimes the pain is so powerful, sobs overtake me.

When I am fully in the present moment, I feel a sense of abiding peace. I suffer when I wish to change the past or worry over changing the future.

I had taken her to a party at my friends’ penthouse apartment. She ran around and played with kids and made people smile like she always did. When I realized she was missing, everyone started to search. Thanks to whatever higher universal power clearly exists in this strange thing we call Life, some of my closest friends in Guatemala were right there with me. Still, I eventually started crying, overcome with worries that Lucy was not OK.

It turns out, she wasn’t. My Chihuahua had fallen fourteen stories to her death. Tragically, there was a small area on the otherwise safe balcony where a piece of protective glass was missing. No one witnessed her fall, but two of my friends eventually spotted her lifeless body. It never crossed my mind that she might have fallen. That was not a viable option. I couldn’t let it be.

I could not believe it, but of course I had no choice. I was completely at one with despair. How silly to deny a fundamental truth of nature: impermanence.

I was hit with hysteria. “No!” I cried. “She can’t be!” I was inconsolable. Thankfully, I was able to express my most intense negative emotions in those first moments after discovering the tragedy. My friends hugged me tightly. I would have surely not been able to stand up without them.

This apartment, the place where Lucy died, is also the place where I teach yoga on Thursday evenings. So I will go back there every week and face reliving the day of her death. While teaching yoga. It’s not going to be easy.

I could keep replaying the theoretical scene in my head. I could blame myself. (I didn’t take her for a walk on her last day. I didn’t keep her with me.) But I won’t. I will prevail thanks to mindfulness and compassion for myself.

Thanks to mindfulness, you catch yourself. You switch from feeling guilty to noticing a lot of feelings of guilt: a subtle but essential difference.

Recently, I’ve come to a new understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, thanks in part to the excellent explanation of it in An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama. His Holiness describes two levels of mind: 1) the clear experience of knowing, and 2) the “realization of the absence of the mind’s inherent existence,” which is emptiness.

In Lucy’s absence, my heart is full of sadness. But my heart is also empty, drained completely. The (not “my”) shock, angst, and depression are all being duly processed.

This experience is bringing me a new, difficult and incredible awareness of the ultimate paradox of life — that everything is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. Our fleeting emotions, thoughts, sensations and ideas and stubborn beliefs and attitudes color our every experience. Without those, the experience is empty.

Lucy loved yoga… of course she did the best downward dog. She especially loved it when people did yoga and would inevitably jump on me (and anyone else who happened to be there) in any seated or lying down pose. Up to her last day, she would frolic and play like a fresh puppy, so full of life.

I can’t yet bring myself to meditate in my regular spot in my bedroom. It’s still too hard. Lucy had developed the habit of coming up to my fingers, outstretched in the mudra, to maneuver her way into a head scratch. Sometimes I would pick her up and hold her while meditating. She was pure, unconditional metta. So I’m finding other places to meditate, for now.

Lucy left her canine body last Sunday evening in Guatemala City. But with all the merit she earned in her lifetime of licks and love, I feel she must have earned a human rebirth, or perhaps as one friend suggested, she has skipped humanity altogether and attained full enlightenment. Perhaps she is, indeed, now a part of everything.

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