Years ago a friend took me to a talk offered by her spiritual teacher. I remember this because the topic of the evening was unconditional love. The teacher began by talking about the nature of pets. Years later I can still remember his definition of a pet: “A little tuft of consciousness that circles around a person like a moon around a planet, and completes their energy field making them more whole.”
As I read the deeply honest and very beautiful things that so many of you have posted on my website or Facebook page, or sent me in emails or texts, I am reminded of this. Perhaps pets are a little tuft of Divine consciousness, and by offering us a taste of the great Love, which is the foundation of this imperfect and impermanent world, they heal us in ways that are profound. And in some powerful and mysterious way even the youngest and smallest of them can kindle an echo of this Divine love in us as well.
I was born and raised in New York City and I did not really know an animal personally until I was 27 years old. As the child of a brilliant and intellectual family of doctors and nurses I grew up with the distinct impression that dogs and cats and rabbits and hamsters were a lower form of life. But perhaps this is not the case. How can creatures capable of such effortless unconditional love be of lesser consciousness than we are? How can lesser creatures embody the sort of unconditional love that can perhaps only be learned over countless lifetimes?
I have been fascinated by the idea if reincarnation since I was quite young, and at one point in my life read a great deal about this. I still wonder. What if each of us is a thread of consciousness which passes through many lifetimes like beads on a string, each lifetime offering its lessons and opportunities for growth, each one purifying the thread passing through it so that finally we become the pure thread of consciousness that is our essential being and we do not need to return. Perhaps some of those who are about to get off the wheel of repeated incarnations and go on to higher things may take one last reincarnation in order to accomplish a last tiny piece of karmic business, something left unlearned or undone that can be completed in 10 or 15 more years of living.
Perhaps our pets are such high beings, dharma teachers who have almost fulfilled their Karmic mission over lifetimes and whose hearts through generations of learning and practice have been made able to love unconditionally. Perhaps this is what makes our dogs or cats capable of loving us as they do and able to evoke in us a love more unconditional than that which we offer one another. I sometimes wonder when I meet a dog out on a walk, if I am in the presence of a spiritual teacher who is serving the person on the other end of the leash.
In the Presidio at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side there is a little cemetery where for 75 years, service men and women and their families have buried their pets. I first walked through this cemetery 30 years ago, shortly after my mother died. I could not help comparing it to my recent experience of the very old cemetery in New York City which is her final resting place. My mother’s funeral was formal and somehow remote, managed competently by others. I was there mostly as a witness. But every creature buried in the Presidio pet cemetery had been tucked into the earth by loving hands. My mother’s Marker and the Markers of her neighbors are made of stone beautifully and expertly carved but somehow cold and even a little frightening. The Markers in the pet cemetery are varied: some are small wooden boards painted in an uneven hand, others are tiny hand-carved wooden headstones. The love expressed on them all is still palpable: deep, enduring, personal and unconditional. I remember thinking that I wanted to be buried here.
Unconditional love is a high spiritual state. It does not mean infinite forgiveness; it means the perception that there is nothing to forgive. It is love beyond approval (a form of judgment) and love beyond criticism (another form of judgment.) It is the capacity to love so profoundly that it is without expectation but only deep appreciation of a uniqueness in each one of us that makes all comparisons meaningless. It is the recognition of the one soul that is our essential self.
If all the people now alive and the people who have ever lived were gathered together in the dark, your dog or your cat would be able to find you. “Aha!” you say, “this is because of their keen sense of smell.” But what if it was something far more profound than that, the capacity to see the unique essence that is who you truly are? What if our pets know us, not by a sense of smell, but a capacity of their enlightened hearts?
The national course for medical students that I first developed at UCSF is also taught in schools of veterinary medicine. A few years back I asked a faculty at one of these schools why she had chosen Veterinary Medicine as a career. “Because of what my patients teach me” she replied. She later sent me this poem by Sharon Kunin:
like meeting God
Through feather, fur, or fluttery thing.
To be judged not by words,
But by the timbre of my voice.
Not by ability
But by the gentleness of my touch.
And not for knowledge,
But by the Light that shines from my eyes.
To be loved
For the nature of my heart.
As I have grown older I find that being loved by an animal feels more and more like grace, a gift of immense value that is offered to me unearned, a clear mirror of who I might actually someday become as my true self. Even more I am grateful for the capacity to love that my cats have uncovered in me, a larger and wiser and somehow better love which I am grateful to find is becoming a part of who I am.
For those of you who would like to see pictures of the pet cemetery, you can find them here at this link.