On Being Your Own Comfort Dog

Suffering is impermanence. We saw this truth in a terrible way last week in the wake of the mass shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We saw the stunned look on the faces of those who lost loved ones without warning, the survivors and the lost mostly young people who were enjoying an evening out dancing and having fun with friends. The Buddha and his followers tell us the cause of suffering is ultimately ignorance of impermanence. Yet nothing can prepare us for the pain that follows the loss of loved ones. No practice can soften or distance the devastation that comes watching friends gunned down or a safe haven turned into scene of carnage. Nothing can be said. And yet into that great suffering came comfort dogs.

I recently watched a video clip of these gentle, specially trained, mostly golden retrievers, being led into a center full of survivors of our most recent gun great tragedy.  They came to help just by sitting down and being with people, breathing, sharing their warm dog presence. The dogs wore signs inviting people to pet them and hug them. Many of the dogs were veterans at this, having shown up in Newtown, Connecticut, and other places. Even when people seemed immured in their suffering, these gentle dogs leaned in, literally leaning on people and sitting on their feet. Think of how comforting that gentle presence would be, the sides of a soft, furry golden dog body rising and falling, soft dog eyes patiently looking at you. Those dog eyes were free of judgment and opinion and valuation. That whole gentle dog presence was just plain there.

 Our own body can be a comfort dog. It can be a refuge and support. Try this sometime: give your loving attention to your own body. Say to yourself (others may not understand), “good body, thank you for being there for me.” Think of all your body has been through, spills and chills and ordinary wear and tear. Shut your eyes and register how loyal the body is to you, quietly breathing and pumping blood, and walking from here to here. Sense how eagerly it responds to the gift of your own attention. It can practically bring tears to your eyes, the generosity and loyalty of this poor, sweet body, the way it forgives you for all those years of neglect and late nights and myriad other forms of mistreatment. The body comes when you call it. Even when it’s tired or doesn’t feel particularly good, the body responds to the touch of the attention. Imagine the love and kindness you would feel for a dog that had been through all this body has been through. You wouldn’t dream of criticizing it for being tired and wanting to rest. You wouldn’t dream of calling it names or pointing out that it looked tired or old or like it could stand to exercise more or lose a few pounds. You would express simple love and gratitude and joy at being with this good dog.

 So what do think would happen if you turned this kind of loving accepting attention on your own body? One thing I discovered when I try is that a new kind of feeling begins to blossom. Even if life feels completely parched when I start, I remember that life is good, that I am not stranded here alone but supported. I remember that there are forces and resources beyond my reckoning and that even on my worst day, I am loved.

“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

–Mary Oliver

“Man has no body distinct from his soul, for that called body is a portion of sould discern’d by the five senses, the chief inlets of soul in this age.”

–William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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