A Dog's Path to Spirituality
Spirituality is a very personal thing. How do you connect to that sacred, still core? That sense of yourself that feels like home, like part of the Universe? How do you make peace with the disparate parts of yourself—the ones you wish weren’t there or that other people didn’t know about? How do you celebrate the things you do really well? How do you handle the subtle and small ways that you beat yourself up, that you withhold grace and compassion? How do you come home to yourself?
Spirituality has been absent from most of my life. I didn’t know how to connect to myself or anything greater than me. I thought if I was perfect enough, it would make everything okay. The problem is, there never is a ‘perfect enough.’ I was fortunate to have a family who loved me, but I couldn’t take it in that I might be worth it. I wasn’t being myself, so the love I received felt as if it didn’t belong to me. It took 30 years before I found the courage to make my own path.
Those 30 years took a heavy toll. My quest for perfection led to self-deprivation and compulsive exercising. I was so hard on my body for so long, that I ended up with what felt like a nervous breakdown. Anxiety and panic attacks plagued me, and they would cycle for hours at a time. I thought I was dying.
Years ago, I experimented with meditation. I found that I could reach an altered state but had no desire to connect with my true nature because I thought it would destroy me. I could sense the edge of an abyss within me and I was terrified it would swallow me whole. When therapy and all of my other coping mechanisms didn’t help the anxiety and panic, I was desperate enough to try it again. Abyss or no, I knew that I couldn’t go on much longer. I still didn’t like myself, but I found that when I sat—even for 5 minutes, I had glimpses of true peace. It didn’t happen each time, but it was enough that I kept going back. I was learning that there is a part of me that is connected to everything. For tiny, tiny moments, I felt like I had come home.
That burgeoning sense of peace was sorely tested when I got a puppy. Her energy was unflagging, her remarkable intelligence meant that she was difficult to train unless she decided it was worth it, and she exhibited handler aggression. I trained with her intensively and did my best, yet she would bite me if I corrected her. She refused to submit and we were locked in a battle of wills that often ended in my tears.
As difficult as she was, I had glimmers of insight. She reminded me of the ways I wished I could be. How often had I wished I could say no when I wanted to? When I could let myself express anger? When I could say, this is my space and you’re not welcome in it?
After following the experts’ advice and trying everything but standing on my head, I finally gave up (it was like the anxiety and panic attacks all over again—nothing I had been trying was working). I realized that I was waiting for her to change before I would love her. So, I started looking for the good things in her and treating her with compassion instead of frustration. I began to be softer in my expectations. I was bringing my meditation practice to the way I handled my dog. It was also the way I was starting to handle myself.
The lesson culminated in one of her anxiety attacks. She was running around the living room, ping-ponging off of furniture and unable to settle. What I did sticks out for me because I wasn’t following someone else’s rules. I followed my intuition.
I sat on the floor in easy pose and began a meditation. Without my saying a word, she came onto my lap. I continued to follow my meditative breathing pattern and withheld all judgement about how she had been acting or how I thought she should be. I was fully present with her and allowed her to be as she was. I did my best to feel and express love. She responded beautifully.
She’s three years old now, and while she still has a lot of sass in her, our relationship has changed remarkably. When I was able to stop fighting her, to extend love regardless of whether she had “earned it,” and to be fully present, we bonded. She is cuddly and affectionate and a rewarding companion. Her essential nature is the same—she’s prone to anxiety (breeding issues from her mother), and I can’t just expect her to obey me. I have to remain calm and remember that if I am angry, she will immediately be defensive and there will be a fight.
But, instead of wishing that away, I see her now as a way back to the disowned part of my shadow. I know that when I judge myself (or my dog), I create disharmony and tension. She may not be perfect and neither am I, and that’s okay. She is worthy of love no matter what.
My spiritual path has been that homecoming: to learn to love myself regardless of whether I have earned it, to extend compassion toward myself and others, and to not rush the process. To let it be.
Spirituality was the coaching certification I was most excited to receive because it’s what changed my life. When I began to find my way, I experienced connection and purpose. It gave me a sense of what I’m here to do and how I can be of service. And to think, so much of that lesson came from how I handled my dog. I never would have thought I’d be saying this, but a sassy cocker spaniel has been one of my greatest teachers.
When talking about how everyone has a different edge in yoga, Bryan Kest said, “Be where you’re at because you’re already there.”
You’re already on your spiritual path. Where you’re at today is where you need to be for the lessons that are unfolding for you. Be gentle with yourself, especially the parts you don’t like. Practice compassion. If you have a furry friend, let him/her serve as a mirror for how you give and receive love. How do you connect? What do you let in? Strive to do so with grace and ease.