By Susan Beal
One evening last month, it was clear my mother's golden retriever, Winston, was dying. I could see in my Mom's face the same devastation I feel whenever one of my own dogs has died. She was going to have him put to sleep the next morning. Saying goodbye to a beloved animal companion is utterly heartbreaking, every single time.
Mom and I haven't always gotten along well, but even during the worst stretches in our relationship we have connected through our shared love for dogs. It makes sense to me because I am certain dogs are here on Earth to help humans learn about unconditional love, both how to give it and how to receive it. The love of dogs brings out the best in us. Many of us aspire to greet each experience in our lives with love and acceptance, to be more forgiving, to see the best in everyone around us. It's a big struggle, worthy of a lifetime of effort. Yet dogs do this effortlessly, a reminder that we're not the only beings on this planet who can love and bless and help illuminate the world.
Unfortunately, for reasons I struggle to understand, dogs also bring out the worst in us— maybe because unconditional love can be hard to receive. It burns painfully into the shadowy places within us, triggering our defenses and all the ways we deny it. Not long before Winston died, I learned about an event in China, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, that celebrates the torture and slaughter of dogs for meat. I watched nightmarish exposé videos in an effort to bear witness instead of turning away from a horror I didn't want to know existed. It felt as if some delicate, vital mechanism in my heart snapped and broke and every bit of grief and sorrow I’d ever felt poured through the broken place. I cried on and off for days, struck mute with grief, wishing I could unsee the images or shake the despair I felt.
If our hearts have Achille's heels, mine is animal suffering. The dog meat festival hit me where I am most vulnerable, triggering all of my worst fears and greatest sorrows about humanity’s relationship with animals. Dogs were the very first animal be domesticated, throwing their lot in with ours over 15,000 years ago. Perhaps because they have allied themselves completely with humanity, loving and serving us since we sat in skins around campfires, the deliberate abuse of dogs seems the worst form of betrayal.
Learning about the dog meat festival was a watershed moment for me. It forced me to acknowledge and take stock of the myriad ways I protect myself from seeing what I don't want to see. How precarious is my faith in the goodness of the world if I must buffer myself from darkness in order to believe in light. The festival is a drop in the ocean of pain—animal and human—on Earth. To try to stay open to it all, or help in any significant way, is utterly overwhelming.
But I have always believed, deep down, that everything is part of a grander, loving wholeness (although I have questioned that belief more than once!). I wanted—I needed—to place the Yulin Festival within the context of a loving universe, to see if I could gain a higher perspective. And so, taking a cue from the ability of dogs to accept whatever comes their way, I opened up to the pain and grief I felt instead of resisting them. I remembered David Spangler talking in my ordination program about our consciousness being like an inner campfire, and how all of our experiences are fuel for the fire. He described an exercise in which we could feed difficult emotions to the fire, like logs, transforming them into light. It was an exercise in learning to witness life with love and compassion, to let the fire of consciousness transmute pain, anger, and sorrow into something finer. In that way, he said, we are like stars in the making, fueled from within by our experiences, to the point where we ignite into full consciousness, and radiate our light outward for the benefit of the cosmos.
So with no small struggle, I quieted my mind and felt into the pain. There were areas in my chest and throat of restriction and achiness, a mixture of ice and inflammation, of heaviness and disembodiment. As I focused my awareness, the pain and tension gathered and intensified and became a throbbing in my chest. My heart flaring hot, I tossed the images and my reactions and feelings onto my inner campfire, offering my anguish up as fuel. Breath by breath, my heart lightened up, and the fire flared brighter. My pain became a bright radiance, at the center of which, amazingly, was love.
I began to wonder if dogs' main service to humanity is to accept our brutality, our ignorance, our pain—all the parts of ourselves that cower and snarl when exposed to the brilliance of unconditional love—and transmute it through their own love, into something pure and bright that slowly and surely adds to Earth's illumination. It came to me that the dogs of Yulin, and the many millions of animals who suffer at our hands are part of this cosmic cycle of transmutation and illumination, helping to redeem us from our own darkness.
The world is full of pain, of suffering layered upon suffering. We can't possibly bear it all. Of course we shut down in self defense, reacting with denial, avoidance, and ignorance. To do otherwise is to burn out, to suffocate the bright flame of that inner campfire under too much weight. I can't stop the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, much less all suffering in the world. I have to be careful about what horrors and pains I expose myself to, lest I get pulled too deeply into their darkness. But from a safe and bounded place within my heart, I can bear witness, and anchor my love into Earth's vast depths by taking action in some way, however small.
In that spirit, my husband, daughter and I have begun adoption proceedings for Tulsi, a dog from the Soi Dog Foundation, an organization in Phuket,Thailand that rescues dogs from the dog meat trade, and I am helping my mother do the same. I've added the rescue organization to the list of groups I support with regular donations. I have begun a practice of tuning in to the vibration of Love as a sort of first response whenever I catch myself getting angry, despairing or grief-stricken about something. It’s a way of transmuting my anguish into action—not as a reaction to horror, but as an invitation to Love where it is most needed.
In what ways are the challenges of life inviting you to a deeper experience of oneness and love? How do beliefs and action work together in your life to bring about healing, transformation and wholeness? We want to hear your stories. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.