Happy February! I hope that you have endured the freezing temperatures and ice this past month, and have been staying warm with your yoga practice.
After the death of our 12-year-old chocolate Lab about a month ago, our 11-year-old Standard Poodle started acting strangely. Our dogs had been together for nearly 11 years. In 2000, when we brought home Gus, an 8-week-old poodle, he met Coco, who was 18 months old at that time. Last month the vet told us that Gus’ extended sleeping and clinginess was probably due to his grieving the loss of Coco. It surprised me that Gus had such a visceral response to Coco’s death, and it started me wondering about relationships and love, and what it means to love another being.
Gus and Coco’s relationship wasn’t similar to what we traditionally call love. They didn’t have many shared interests. Coco always struggled with her joints, and didn’t really like to run much, and in later years rarely walked past our back steps. Gus always and still loves any kind of walk or run in the park or the city, and tends to leap vertically several feet off the ground when he sees us arriving at the front door. The dogs really never played together. The most physical contact they had was when Gus licked up Coco’s eye gunk for her. Ugh. And even though they were so different, clearly they shared a intimate connection and openness to each other.
What I am discovering in my own practice and in my relationships, is that my ability to love isn’t based on what the other person does or doesn’t do. It has mostly to do with my own inner peace and strength. The more solid and free that we are, the more we are able to leave ourselves open to love. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem Call Me by My True Names
includes the line: “Please call me by my true names, so that I can wake up, so the door of my heart can be left open.” In my own relationships, I am finding that when I am able to leave the door to my heart open, love is there, no matter who or what the other being is or does.
But leaving the door to our hearts open may be the most difficult part of our practice. As you probably know, the word courage comes from the word heart, and means a kind of inner strength. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree on the evening of his enlightenment, he was approached over and over again by Mara, who tested his open heart with fear and temptation. And because of his years of practice sitting and walking and staying with his fears, the Buddha had enough courage to stay open and recognize Mara rather than getting carried away by his fears. How often do we get carried away by our anxieties in relationship to other people? By continuing to face his own demons in his practice, the Buddha reached a point where he was able to attain a permanent state of open-heartedness.
To begin to reach such a place of open-heartedness, our focus must be on our own heart and our own practice, and not on who or what the other being is, or even what they do. Our hearts can be free from their conditioned responses to close up and turn away. All of this is our own practice, and doesn’t require the other person to be any particular way. We see how every other being is truly a mystery, and we can accept that, and instead of trying to solve the mystery of the other person, we focus on strengthening our own open hearts. Regardless of who we meet–a dear friend, a dying dog, a fellow yogi, or a difficult relative–when our practice is strong enough, we can respond from an open heart with loving-kindness, however that looks for us. When I watch my dog, I see that kind of pure open heart that accepts anyone regardless of who they are or what they have done in their life. Gus will put his head on anyone’s thigh with the same vulnerability and openness, and accept love from whomever offers it.
So this Valentine’s season, together we can keep the focus on our own practice, rather than on finding or having the perfect loved one(s). Perhaps we can do more sitting or walking meditation, more asana, or more pranayama, with a focus on strengthening our courageous hearts. We probably won’t reach full enlightenment and a permanent open heart this month, but we can definitely grow our courage so that we leave the door of our hearts open more often. So that someday every being, including ourselves, can be our Valentine. Even an old dog with eye gunk.
with true love for each of you,