Zen and the art of being with my 'dying' dog

My dog is dying.

Before you get too emotional, let me just assure you that there is no scheduled trip to the vets quite yet. Oody is, in fact, pretty perky.

But she is dying - because she is nine in human years and ageing seven times faster than I am, and because she has a small cancerous tumour in her chest and several lumps that may, or may not, be malign. True, the vet said the cancer may not grow or spread for years. But it is there, all the same.

I have always known that the chances of parting with Oody at some point are 100%. And I would say the chances are higher of me saying goodbye to her, than the other way around (although I am not counting any chickens...). Dogs do not live as long as us but the stretch ahead of her life has always seemed longer than shorter. Now the opposite is true.

Since discovering the lump, I have suffused my interactions with Oody with a sense of loss. I take her for a walk and find myself crying as I watch her burrowing in the undergrowth - grief stricken by the thought that there will be an end. Tears pour down my face as I sit stroking her head, her long and heavy snout resting on my lap and a vaguely puzzled look in her eyes.

In her very presence, I feel her absence.

How often does this play out in my life and that of others? In Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert refers to a friend, who upon stumbling across a beautiful view exclaims woefully 'Oh, we must come back here someday'. We ache for the loss of something even at the point of attaining it.

This is something referred to in the first noble truth of Buddhism. The truth of suffering - misfortune, sickness, old age and death are inevitable - and in response we try to grasp onto pleasure and avoid pain, which in themselves cause suffering. This is a bit of a downer, I know, but the next three truths offer a path to liberation, albeit not a particularly easy one. The path to liberation pretty much lies in releasing desire and the ego, and living in the present moment. 

Mindfulness practice is defined as being in the present moment with acceptance. In the present moment, Elizabeth Gilbert's friend is standing before a stupendous view. And in the present moment, I have a very exuberantly alive dog.

In fact, her aliveness is hard to ignore. Oody is in many ways, a sensual onslaught. She has a large physical presence, with a black coat that shines and shimmers like dark water in starlight. Sometimes I can get caught up for several minutes admiring the beauty of her silky ear, and how the light reflects its contours.

Despite being large and overweight, she is in touch with her inner lap dog. She insists on sitting on whatever human will tolerate her, causing scratches, bruises and internal injuries as heavy feet, claws and sharp elbows dig in. To stroke her is like running hands repeatedly across warm responsive velvet. And she is odourous - emitting a faintly cheesy smell which I find homely and comforting, while from her orifices at either end there exudes, I cannot lie, a stench.

So, it is hard to ignore the very aliveness of Oody in the present moment. In fact, Oody herself teaches me this constantly. She is stubbornly joyful despite her imminent demise. She insists on cheerfully greeting each day as if her days weren't numbered. She runs around the fields, tail wagging, refusing to be dragged down by the inevitability of the day that will be fieldless. She eats each meal with enormous relish never considering how much more of her life is to be weighed out by the dog food scoop. Her appetite for life, adoration and well, just appetite, remain undiminished.

It is said that only humans have the capacity to understand that someday we will die. Dumb animals do not know this.

I, on the other hand, with my overactive unenlightened  monkey mind, can only too readily begin my mourning right now. Domestically, life is tricky at the moment, and Oody is one of the few providers of near-guaranteed joy. Every day, I list three things I am grateful for and three things that made me laugh or smile. This, incidentally, is not airy new-age stuff. Studies show that the act of reflecting on your day with a view to finding positive things, counteracts the negativity bias in the human mind (read here about that...).  Oody always figures in these lists of happy things. In my premature state of grief I wonder 'what on earth would I put in my 'smile' list without her'?

So, while I mope around sniffing and sighing and grieving for something I have not yet lost, Oody continues to be nonchalant and joyful in the face of certain death.

So, which of us is the dumb animal?