Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Losing, Continuing, and Staying Whole

In my early twenties when I lived in the city and did a lot of walking, I would longingly see what I called "good dogs" on leash and every rare once in a while I would sneak a pet as they went by me. It was not the smartest thing to do, but in my deep wish to have a dog, I couldn't help myself. Eventually we moved out of the city and after some convincing, we got a dog in the winter of 2004. We named him Wally and very soon after he was home, I began fretting over the fact that a dog's life expectancy is not very long and how painful it would be to lose him. My partner would say incredulously, "Jean, he's only a couple months old!" We would laugh and carry on. Inwardly, I was already feeling suffering mixed in with immense joy.

Though we may want it to be an exaggeration, when Buddhists say "all life is suffering," they are not joking around. Even so, suffering does not negate joy. Suffering and joy co-exist. While joy requires little work to accept, suffering is a hard reality that we can choose to acknowledge and gradually come to accept. Even if we choose not to look at it, there comes a time when that truth comes knocking with such force, the door falls down and we have no choice but to face it. I would say the notion that all life is suffering comes knocking throughout the day if we look around and see the wilting flower, the homeless person scratching his legs desperately in Penn Station, the fact that each year my skin has more sun marks than the previous one. In being present to the reality that all things change, our ability to notice beauty is made even greater. I can be struck by the bright red flash of a cardinal against the bare trees awaiting their spring leaves. I can enjoy the flowers lovingly arranged in the window boxes on 9th Street. I can see the lines on people's faces on the subway and appreciate the unknown stories behind them. Suffering punctuates beauty and beauty punctuates suffering.

11 years after we returned home with Wally, that fateful day I fretted over arrived unexpectedly and part of my heart was taken away. Repeatedly, in the hours and days following his passing I heard the words, "all life is suffering." I was trying to make peace with what had just happened by remembering what is at the base of the teachings I have been practicing for close to 20 years....everything changes and we will have to let go of all that is dear to us. 

Though I am still digesting it, the loss of Wally has been unlike any other loss in my life. It is not fraught with complexity. He was a tremendous joy taken away, yet, with no exaggeration, I cherished him every single day he was alive. I am left behind with no regrets, no bad feelings, no sense of something being "not fair." He was one of the greatest blessings of my lifetime, even if I have to endure the pain of his absence now. And yet, unlike others losses, this one is teaching me something new. I am learning that when I let go of something, willingly or not, I really am not saying goodbye at all. I am continuing in a new relationship with it; it has simply changed forms. To say goodbye has an implication that the subject at hand is no longer there and that I need to "move on." I don't feel that with Wally. He lives in me every day. I can feel his greeting at the door when I come home; I can hear him breathing next to me in my arms at night; I can feel the softness and warmth of his body on my lap; I can hear his paws on the ground; I can see the affection in his eyes; I can see him play in the woods; I can hear my own voice talking to him as I did and still do. Surprisingly, in having this new experience, it has unexpectedly reshaped all my past losses.

Wally has helped me to see that past relationships, no matter how or why they changed, actually have no end, and in their continuation, my regrets and struggles of the past no longer have a grip on me. These past relationships still live in me by having impacted me, changed me, caused me to grow. I can choose to recognize their continued presence and in doing so am in deeper touch with this other significant teaching I've been hearing for years...that there is no beginning and no end. I can feel the gifts that past relationships gave to me. These connections, no matter how long or short, made me feel special, loved, cared for, appreciated, beautiful, or they helped me value myself more by what was not given...sometimes the absence of something can be a gift. The beauty of it all is that what I give and get now is that much more full because of what came before. All of it continues and so there is no regret. I am, in essence, still in all of these relationships, making wiser choices.

When I think about why Wally's passing was so enlightening, I recognize that the difference with Wally is that I deeply sensed his time here was significantly limited from the start. In holding that, I mourned his eventual loss all along, but I didn't grasp because I knew I couldn't change it. The relationships that ended in my life that were full of grasping were the ones that left me with immense struggle when they were over. I am now inclined to view all things I love as limited in time, which of course everything is. If I can remember to do that with more of an experiential understanding, rather than an intellectual one, I won't grasp and the suffering will be gentler. It will still be painful, but it won't rip me open. I will still be whole. This is the other difference between past losses and Wally's...my wholeness is intact after Wally. What a wonderful gift to gain this understanding out of his continuation. With gratitude to you, my good dog. You continue to give to me. I'll happily see you around everywhere. For now, with care, I'll have to go back to sneaking a pet every once in a while with the good dogs that pass me.