One of our family cats, Princess Camille Rose, passed away recently after sharing her life with us for about 9 years. When we met her at the cat shelter, we learned her first human family had given her to the adoption agency because she was difficult to handle. The agency person said tortoise-shell colored cats are somewhat opinionated and spicy. She seemed sweet and engaging to my wife, 3 sons and I and we were confident we would have a happy life together. As we got to know her, we wondered if she had been mistreated, and while she was skittish, she was also delightfully feisty, and we adored her. It is such a privilege to share this life with our animal friends. She was a sentient being that appreciated her turn in a lap, playing with her toys, and a soft loving voice. After many happy years together, she suddenly began losing weight and was diagnosed to have lung cancer. In the last weeks she became emaciated, and finally began to look weak and tired. Then on the last day, she seemed somewhat confused and her pupils were dilated. My wife and I were concerned she was fearful or in pain. We decided that it was time for us to ask our vet to help her pass on.
As Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun and teacher reminds us, the more deeply we love others, then the more difficult we may find parting with them to be. My family and I have been feeling sadness, loss and heartache over her death. The Buddha taught in “The Art of Painful Feeling” as recorded in the Pali Canon, about how to use mindfulness to deal with painful experiences, which he referred to as the “first dart”. I loved this little kitty, and the grief I was feeling from losing her was the first “dart”.
One set of my experiences and more successful responses to this dart included recognizing these feelings, and as we are encouraged by Daniel Siegel MD, I tried my best to explore his acronym of C-O-A-L; to be Curious and Open to what I was experiencing, to Accept that experience and to express Love toward oneself as well. The concept of bare attention was also useful to me. This is the idea that we have 5 senses, vision, smell, touch, hearing and taste, plus the “sixth sense” of mind, according to Buddhism. If we are able to mindfully focus our attention on the “bare” fact of the perception, as we simply experience that, without becoming distracted by the embellishments we are prone to add as we interpret our experiences, identify with our expectations of the world supposing to be a particular way, or as we personalize, then we may be less inclined to suffer. I did some reading and meditating on death and found solace in Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s metaphor of the waterfall as described in “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind”. He described seeing a particular waterfall in Yosemiti National Park and contemplating how at the top of the falls, water droplets were formed as the water fell and crashed on rocks. He said, when we are born “we are separated by birth from the one-ness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by wind and rocks, then we have feeling”. He goes on, “when you do not realize you are one with the river, or one with the universe you have fear”. And finally he says, “when we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life”. Another metaphor that was comforting compared our lives to the story of the wave on the ocean. The wave is moving along, influenced by forces it understands or doesn’t; tides, wind, other waves, pollution, etc. It has its ups and downs, stormy times and calmer times. And then it realizes it is headed for a coastline and becomes fearful as it sees other waves appearing to meet a horrible death as they crash on the rocks. Then other waves, further ahead point out, “don’t you realize you are part of the ocean and will return to the ocean”?
Buddha’s second dart is “tipped” as Rick Hanson PhD says in “Buddha’s Brain” with the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. This is the one we stick into ourselves. I put some darts into myself. I experienced a greedy desire to have life as I wanted it, with a guaranteed after-life. I felt angry that my wife was feeling such pain and there was little I could do to make it go away for her. I have been angry that Camille was killed by cancer, which was clearly not of her choosing. I may have engaged in some delusional and self-referential thinking when I wondered whether I could have been more loving to Camille. I also found myself feeling guilty about why I hadn’t been the first to offer to take our cat to the vet for her passing, before 2 of our wonderful son’s gave us this brave and generous gift.
I am grateful for the opportunity to love Camille and for my loving family and Sangha. I also feel so fortunate to be a student of Domyo, our sensei, who as taught me so much about Buddhist practice. I am thankful that my Zen practice has helped me I believe, to be more mindful and to notice, sometimes sooner than I was able in the past, that my thoughts or behavior was drifting off into delusion or other distractions and to find a way to let this go, with less suffering.
Camille, dear one, may you find peace in the ocean.