On Freedom, Love, and My Dog Janie

by Julie Bolitho

If you love someone, set them free; if they come back to you, it was meant to be. Like all clichés, the saying exists because there is a dose of truth in it. Yet, from a yogic perspective, the second half of the saying is better lopped off, leaving us with, If you love someone, set them free.

Recently, my 14-year-old rescue dog, Janie, about whom I’ve written before, began what appears to be the dying process. For the past six months, she had lived stably with chronic kidney disease, but last weekend, she took a sudden turn and was unable to hold down any food. When her veterinarians ran her bloodwork, they were aghast. Two of her results were literally off the charts. The vets didn’t understand how she was functional—how she was alert, walking around, drinking water. After an IV drip was unable bring back her kidneys, they sent her home with me for the night, expecting that she would either die overnight or need to be euthanized the following day. Janie, as ever, continued to defy the odds, and persisted despite her biochemistry. She has not yet given me the signal that she is ready to leave this Earth. Instead, she still buries her face into the crook of my arm, follows me into the bathroom (I have not peed alone in over a decade) and looks at me curiously each time I enter the kitchen.

Nonetheless, when she was particularly lethargic one day (surprising us again later by perking up), I stroked her head and sweet bat-like ears. Crying, I told her that she did not need to stay in this body for me, that she had already given me everything and more. I have told her some variation of this every day, with as few tears as possible. I love her, and because I love her, I mean every word: I want nor need anything from her.

Janie teaches me what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be compassionate—and mostly, to love unconditionally. My love for her is not dependent on her achieving or behaving a certain way; it is not even conditional on whether she is alive. All week, she has been coming to my yoga classes and sleeping in her basket next to me while I teach. As a result, it only occurred to me now that my animals have no idea what I do for work, what “work” even looks like. My value to my pets has nothing to do with my status, my appearance, or my station in life. My value to them comes from our energetic exchange (and admittedly, that includes keeping them fed). The love between us is as timeless and boundless as earthly love can be.

My best (human) friend and I both have in-laws who were arranged into marriages. Our spouses are the products of those unions. While neither of us condones forced marriage in any circumstance (and to be clear, not all arranged marriages are forced, though many still are), in discussing the differences of romantic versus arranged matches last week, we noted that it is far too easy to herald love matches as the only way to happiness, when, in fact, love matches by their nature are incredibly conditional. We love our spouses based on the person they are at the time of marriage, not necessarily on the person they might become, and certainly not as the person we ourselves might become. In wedding ceremonies, we typically make lofty promises about faith and love, when really, it would probably be healthier and more honest to make promises about practicing forgiveness, about accepting change and challenges, about seeing love as one ingredient in the diverse set of needs of a marriage.

I once quietly and deeply loved a man who I could not be with for altogether too many reasons. He was everything I desired in a long-term partner: extraordinarily intelligent, wise, handsome, driven, and gentle. My favorite days of the week were the days I knew I would see him. My heart swelled each time he entered the room. Once, in a meditation, I was startled when an image appeared of him holding a small child in a lavender snowsuit, seemingly our child. I wondered if somehow we were “meant to be together.”

This meant-to-be-together storyline is one that has haunted me since I was a small child. Precociously, from the age of five, I kept a diary. My five-year-old diary professed love for my kindergarten crush, Nick Bentivolio, who kissed me on the last day of school, after which my family moved away. Until the age of seven, I wondered about him in my scribbled musings on my lock-and-key puppy diary. I even wrote him letters, which I asked my mother to mail for me. (I found his email address when I was 18 and wrote to him, and though he replied with a kind message, he did not remember me.)

Our cultural stories ask a lot of love. Our stories ask love to be romantic, to be timeless, to be unconditional, to even be destined—and by asking these things, they place the very conditions on love that they seek to avoid. When we insist that something is destined, we actually limit our capabilities for love. We leave the hard work to fate, only to then find that fate jumped ship after love set sail into the sunset. We never see what happens once the prince and princess are in a routine domestic life. Human love is not easy; it is not a singular occurrence. Like forgiveness (which often is intrinsic to love), it is something we must choose over and over again. Likewise, when we insist that something remain past its expiration date, we diminish our capacity for love. It becomes easy to stagnant and to judge ourselves amongst other limiting cultural stories that might not be our own.

My heart began hurting daily over the man from the meditation. For me, our connection was so strong that it felt unfair that we would never have an opportunity to be together. I wished I had met him in another time, in another way, in which our love story could have played out. I utterly lacked the yogic precept of santosha, or acceptance, contentment. Like so many, I was heavily invested both in my feelings and in the love stories that have passed to me culturally since childhood.

Then, one day, while walking my dogs—those beings that teach me the most about love and being present—I understood that to really love this man, I had to let go of that desire to be with him. To love him, to really love him, meant to need nothing from him at all. Unconditional love truly is a state of being; it is not a negotiation; it is not fulfilled in kisses or promises. So, to love someone and set them free is as much about our own freedom as it is about theirs. To let go of what could be, to let go of what was, this is what it means to love; this is how we come back to gratitude for what is and how we appreciate others for exactly who they are—both as individuals and for the diverse roles that they play in our lives. To love unconditionally is to become love itself; this to me is the yogic way, which also happens to be the way of the dog.

Postscript: Since I wrote this, Janie passed from her earthly canine form. She had a natural death at home, and she did not suffer, nor was she in pain—merely, she went through the dying process. She left her body early one morning while lying in bed next to me, where she had slept for the previous twelve years. My husband and I held her as she took her final breaths.

Her love for us was unconditional, and I miss her fiercely. There are times when the deep wells of grief in my heart feel all-consuming. So, I have to believe in a teaching I learned from Ram Dass: No being comes to this Earth a minute too soon, and no being leaves this Earth a minute too late. I have to believe that she taught me everything I needed to know to live without her. I also have to paradoxically believe that love is like life—that love flourishes and dies all in due course, but that love is also timeless, transcendent, and not bound by our mere human existence. I choose to believe in meaning, to ascribe meaning to her life, which was so intrinsically meaningful to mine. By the sheer act of breathing, we live in a connected world. Each of us has connections that sustain us, that haunt us, that teach us. Janie was a connection that sustained me, that allowed me to get through the dark periods and exult in the joyful ones. It is my hope that anyone who has ever been positively touched by my life can see that they too are connected to her, and that by extension of this, we are all connected to one another, to every living thing, and even to the dead.

Julie Bolitho is a Kripalu Yoga teacher from northern Michigan who currently resides in Oxfordshire, England. A Truman Scholar and a published poet and essayist, Julie is currently at work on a memoir. juliebolitho.com, sanctuarygrace.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.