Anything can happen at any time. This is the truth of impermanence. Last Sunday, some of us experienced this in a delightful way. Swiss, a one-year-old Service Dog in training, came to sit with us as we meditated. Recently, I was talking about dogs and there she stood, a one-year-old half Golden, half Labrador Retriever.
Sometimes when I give meditation instructions, I encourage people to bring the attention to the body with an attitude of gentle allowing, as if it was a good dog. Swiss, who comes from a litter of puppies named after different cheeses (Is there is a little Munster in training?), is a good dog. This means she is peaceful and loving by nature, sensitive and responsive, naturally inclined to want to participate in life. We can feel this in her fresh furry presence, and also when we close our eyes and sit. At moments, we emerge from the shadows of thought and feel sheer joy at being here.
Being young, Swiss also sometimes manifests puppy ways, a brief impulse to cuddle with someone, or poke her nose into the bell in case there was food in there. This too, is just like the body. And just like the body, she came back to the main purpose of the evening, to sat quietly and keep us company. Just by sitting here breathing, she reminded us of the basic goodness of being alive in the moment. She helped us remember that we are part of a greater wholeness.
Anything can happen at any time. We see this when terrible things happen: tornadoes, war, mass shootings in schools, in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We see the stunned look on the faces of those who lost loved ones without warning. We see the survivors who can’t fathom what happened. Nothing can be said at such a time. No practice or imparted truth can soften or distance the devastation that comes from watching loved ones and innocents taken by violence. And yet into that great suffering…comes comfort dogs.
A week before Swiss came to sit with us, I described watching a video clip of a brigade of gentle, highly trained, mostly Golden Retrievers (and possibly Retriever Labs), being led into a center full of survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. They came to help just by sitting down and being with people, breathing, sharing their warm dog presence. The dogs wore little jackets like Swiss, inviting people to pet them and hug them. Many of the dogs were veterans, having shown up in Newtown, Connecticut, and other places of national tragedy.
Even when people seemed immured in pain, 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 present.
Our own body can be a comfort dog. It can be a refuge and support. I gently encourage you to try this sometime: give your loving attention to your own body. Silently or when you are alone say to yourself (listeners may not understand), “good body, thank you for being there for me.” Think of all your body has been through, all those cigarettes or punishing diets or overwork 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, the late nights or drugs and alcohol or myriad other forms of mistreatment.
As long as it breathes, the body comes when you call. Even when it’s tired or doesn’t feel particularly good, it responds to the touch of the attention. Imagine the love and kindness you would feel for an actual dog this loyal. You wouldn’t dream of criticizing its hair or pointing out that it could stand to 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? When we sit down to try, a new kind of feeling begins to blossom, a feeling of being present and alive. Even if life feels completely parched and stranded when I start, my brain choked with thought and care, I have a moment when I remember that life is good. I remember that I am part of a greater wholeness, that I am supported and sustained by forces and resources beyond my reckoning. I remember 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.”
“Man has no body distinct from his soul, for that called body is a portion of soul discern’d by the five senses, the chief inlets of soul in this age.”
–William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell