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My Dog — My Spiritual Teacher

Photo by Cedric Johnson — Our beloved friend Oaxaca a week before she died

(An excerpt from my unpublished memoir “Out of Your Mind — Into Your Heart”)

I dedicate this book to my beloved fifteen-year-old Black Lab, Venus, whom I had to release to god while beginning to write this book. Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me- Fr. Richard Rohr’s dedication to his book the Universal Christ

Falling in love with a dog is a formula for heartbreak.

It is also a painful heart-opener.

That’s true for the death of any animal in our lives. And that animal and beloved friend is still Christ to us after all these years .

I stumble down the long staircase and carry the lifeless body of our beloved-Oaxaca to Dr. Luciano Carrasco’s car. A few minutes earlier Kris and I had held our dog as this loving Mexican veterinarian at first injected her with a muscle relaxant that caused her to melt into our arms. He looked up with compassion in his eyes as if to ask “Are you ready?” We nodded and slowly and deliberately he administered the lethal dose. Kris placed her ear to
Oaxaca’s chest to listen to her last heartbeats.

Oaxaca died a few seconds later.

Luciano kindly offered to have her cremated. But after he delivered her body to the crematorium he decided that the container for the ashes was not suitable for a dog we loved so deeply. And so in a great act of kindness he constructed a special box for her ashes.

How did this once emaciated abandoned dog worm her way through the large creaky door of my heart slammed shut to the expression of sad emotion?

What were the life lessons that she taught me that hundreds of hours of theology lessons could not impart?

We console ourselves with the fact that we gave her a great life for her last 18 months.

We know that it was far superior to her village wanderings in Oaxaca, Mexico.

We also thank her for opening us up to rescue dogs. I was not one to pick up a stray dog from the street or adopt a dog from a shelter. In fact, before Oaxaca I was largely ignorant of the world of rescue dogs. All my past puppies had been from breeders or pet stores. It was not even within my frame of reference to think of adopting a stray dog.

Today we have adopted two more — one from Costa Rica and one I found as an abandoned puppy in an old plastic shopping bag on the side of a road in Mexico.

My teacher made me realize that I had put my love on hold for decades. Her life and death continued to dismantle many of my internal fear-based barriers.

And my biggest fears were the potential for loss as well as loss of control (an illusion anyway in the light of the impermanence of life)

Oaxaca gave us courage to adopt other dogs and give and receive unconditional love, learn that life is something that you give away, and have to have the courage to absorb the loss.

I thank Oaxaca for teaching me to open my heart to deep feelings of grief and love. I learned to feel Presence in a more immediate way. In fact, she became Presence to us.

She was a totally safe space that always seemed pleased to see me even when I could not stand my own presence.

She also has put me in touch with my own history of abandonment both in childhood and from the two wives that left me.

In our society where we are biased towards happiness, we avoid suffering. We also get into the toxic positivity of “I’m fine” when that is not the case.

We are also inclined to resist viewing pain as a gift.

But when we fight our deep and sorrowful feelings we miss the purpose of being on the margins of society in the presence of chronic suffering. We miss the lessons and the opportunity to expand our love beyond our comfort zone. Yes, that expansion of our interior self increases the intensity of grief, but it also creates a certain beauty in suffering. I had lost animals and people in the past and managed to choke off my feelings.

Was it because my male conditioning told me that big boys don’t cry? Or was I fearful that the sorrow would overwhelm me? Or was it that at an early age I detached myself from painful feelings? Maybe it was a all three.

I suspect now that love is more than a feeling. I don’t have to cry to show my love. I can love through my action. We adopted her. We gave her a quality life for her last 18 months on this planet. And in return she taught us that having a dog is more than having a pet. We had a loyal and faithful friend. And heaven knows we need friends in this broken and divided world.

We can learn from Confucianism where friendship is a core relationship that is the glue in any society. Because of Oaxaca we adopted two more dogs where I have no problem openly expressing my affection.

These “dog” teachers continue to humanize me.

I learned from her that love is an outward-bound action. And that heroic surrender is indicated. Why? Because as I emptied my frenetic hold on controlling my world I could then go inward doubt and experience what it means to love.

Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it — Persian mystic Rumi:



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