My Dog, the Zen Master

by Julie Bolitho

The night I adopted my first rescue dog, I sobbed. I was 23, newly married, and felt like what I imagine a new mother feels like. I cried to my husband, “Will we be able to do right by her?” She was a precious, broken thing and, every time I looked at her, my heart seemingly imploded.

We rescued Janie, a Boston Terrier, at a Michigan shelter on a snowy February afternoon. The shelter, only the day before, had collected her from a puppy mill in Ohio that used her as a breeding dog. As in so many breeding operations, animal welfare was of minimal concern. Janie was housed in a barn in a cage for more than two years, and the shelter veterinarian estimated that she had likely birthed four litters of pups in those years. The facility owners discarded her after she needed a C-section in her last labor, and thus she had become too expensive.

Janie had never been in a house; she had never played; she had never been loved. She could not even get up a single step as she had no muscle tone from her life spent in a cage. The first food I fed her—homemade, fresh from the stove—she ate so fast that she vomited. She trembled when people approached her. She had no idea how to be a dog or even how to be loved.

It took time (years) and patience from both Janie and me to rehabilitate her, and for her to find enough confidence to experience that profound canine joy with which any dog lover is familiar. The rub here, though, is that Janie, by and large, put me back together over the years: She saw me through failed dreams, a divorce, and even a transatlantic move (during which the sympathetic United crew put us at the back of the plane and allowed her to sleep on an empty seat next to me). There have been times during the past decade that the only thing keeping me alive was being Janie’s person. In effect, her resilience became my own.

Janie, like so many dogs, seems to be a Zen master or, at the very least, a Zen master in training. Buddhist beliefs that animals are sentient beings and have their own dharma seem apt. In a yogic system, in a Buddhist system, in an ecosystem, we are all connected—every blade of grass, every dog, every human. While cruelty to animals remains an immense spiritual quandary, I can only hope that the consolation for Janie’s early mistreatment in life is that this was part of her dharma, part of her lessons for this lifetime. Her pain and her triumph are all part of a greater story that affects more than just her canine life.

Janie, through her resilience, not only teaches about forgiveness—about letting go of the past and letting go of fear, she also teaches about transformation. Spiritual seekers can spend their whole lives seeking enlightenment (whatever that may be) through meditation, pranayama, yoga, and scriptural studies, but Janie merges with the light in the moments when she rolls on the grass in soft C-shapes on sunny afternoons. She is a completely present being, appreciating whatever the Earth offers to her. She surrenders to joy whenever it presents itself.

The great poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Dogs seem to have an implicit understanding of this. Companion dogs, in particular, are forced to surrender. They are at human mercy for most things—food, water, shelter, security, love—and while this must, at times, be terrifying (as it surely was for Janie during her first two years of life), it also allows the liberation that comes with surrender. Janie was able to release her earlier anxiety because she surrendered to her situation, because she let go of her past traumas. Everything in her world she allows to happen without resistance (except possibly for the cutting of her back toenails). How often, it seems, we hold onto fears in an effort to control them when, in fact, surrendering paradoxically brings the peace we sought through control. 

No dog is a perfect being (no matter what their pet parent says). They are sentient creatures with their own personalities. Some are stubborn, some are jealous, and some have been so mistreated that they cannot relinquish the past and trust humans again. This, in part, is why, when rehabilitated dogs find their way back to love, to presence, to joy, that they, in effect, become our greatest teachers. The patience and love required to rehabilitate Janie provided me with immense lessons, and her teachings continue daily because of the Zen being she has become.

Recently, at nearly 13 years of age, Janie became deaf. This bothers me more that it bothers her. She likely spent months compensating and taking cues from the other dogs without my knowing until, finally, it was painfully obvious that she could no longer hear me say this name I have grown to love so much that my heart hurts: Janie. Janie. Janie. (In Hebrew, Janie means, “a gift from God.”)

Upon the diagnosis of her deafness, I cried, wondering: When was the last time she heard me say ‘I love you’? Does she miss the sound of the wind and the birds? Yet, I knew the answers before the thoughts even finished, as this Zen master has trained me well: Her appreciation and knowledge of life extends well behind the realm of hearing.

For two weeks now, I’ve been watching her (and watching behind my feet as she follows me more closely these days), and I can see that her deafness has not diminished her joy. Perhaps, in small ways, it has increased her joy in that she can sleep more peacefully, and she has relinquished her “alert dog” status to the two younger dogs—again, offering herself up as an example of yielding, of surrender.

Janie remains, by all counts, a happy being. She lives fully from a place of presence and love. Her sweet bat ears no longer twitch and turn as they once did, though the rest of her remains the same: forgiving, resilient, compassionate, unabashedly joyful, and completely present. Over the years, I have experienced the teachings of dozens of other teachers, but without a doubt, Janie, the rescued Boston Terrier, remains not only my best friend, but my life’s greatest teacher.

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.,

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