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June 27, 2016

Mindfulness & Death: 3 Helpful Practices to Do when Losing a Pet.

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Recently, my best friend of 10 years—an extremely handsome, charismatic, and intelligent American Bulldog/Pitbull mix named Albin—suffered from a rapid and destructive infection resulting in euthanasia.

I’m blessed in the sense that this was my first experience with a loss of this magnitude. It happened so abruptly that I had no time to prepare myself for the devastation. As I reflect on the experience, I believe a large portion of our anxiety surrounding death is the uncertainty of what to do, if anything, in those situations.

What can one do to help their loved one and themselves in such a heightened emotional time? I felt a sense of helplessness that, thankfully, was minimized through my background in contemplative practices. Through meditation, I had a general idea of what my role would be in his passing.

My mindfulness practices were indispensable in that moment. When practicing mindfulness, you sit every day, aspiring to employ ideals such as compassion, forgiveness, non-attachment, and lovingkindness into your day-to-day life. When the time came to say goodbye to Albin, I was able to rely on several practices to serve and guide in his passing: metta bhavana (lovingkindness), tonglen (sending-and-taking), and phowa (transfer of consciousness).

These needed to occur in a rapid succession. So, I did a little homework ahead of time, relying on my previous studies to serve me. Primarily, I pulled from Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Although the book was written to assist humans in passing, I found it appropriate to aid me in Albin’s farewell. After all, Albin was the best “person” I knew! This book was a tremendous resource in creating a general framework of what I needed to do for him: give him permission to die, recite my metta phrases, absorb his suffering, transfer my love, and, finally, visualize him re-assimilating into the universe.

There are two steps in euthanasia: first sedation, followed by a solution to stop the heart. I chose not to leave Albin alone for this treatment. I wanted to be there with him. I also knew that I didn’t want to delay once he was given a sedative. I wanted his passing to be as quick and peaceful as possible. Using Sogyal Rinpoche’s words as a guide, I gave Albin my permission to die and reassured him that I would be okay once he was gone:

“I’m here with you and I love you. You are dying, and that is completely natural; it happens to everyone. I wish you could stay here with me, but I don’t want you to suffer any more. The time we have had together has been enough, and I shall always cherish it. Please now don’t hold on to life any longer. Let go. I give you my full and heartfelt permission to die. You are not alone, now or ever. You have all my love.”

I didn’t say those exact words. I expressed my own sentiments, but they worked beautifully as a template. Once Albin was sedated, I said goodbye and then recited my metta phrases to help him stay calm while the veterinarian administered the euthanasia solution.

Metta bhavana, or lovingkindness, is a practice to develop love, compassion, and connection between yourself and others. It’s derived from the idea that all beings want to be free from suffering. In its most basic form, you’re cultivating three avenues of love: health, happiness, and ease of mind. Well-being is directed toward yourself; friends; neutral persons (whichever barista made your coffee today, for example); difficult persons (with whom you might have conflict); and, finally, all beings experiencing suffering and desiring wellness. I’ve used metta as a core of my practice for years.

Considering I was grieving from the minute I heard the prognosis “euthanize,” I did not bother with altering my phrases for this specific occasion. I did not want to worry about remembering new phrases. Intention is everything, and I believe my “go-to metta” (from Bhante Gunaratana) were more than adequate:

“May you be well, happy, and peaceful.
May no harm come to you.
May you always meet with spiritual success.
May you have patience, courage, understanding, and determination, to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.
May you always rise above them with morality, integrity, forgiveness, compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom.”

By the time I finished my metta phrases, Albin had clearly slipped away. It was time for the second meditation: tonglen. This proved to be the most difficult part. Tonglen is the practice of transforming suffering into love and compassion. The practitioner softens their heart, breathes in suffering, and exhales love and peace. I quickly took my posture, placed my hands on Albin and began to breathe. I tried to inhale his suffering, and exhale serenity for him. I lasted about three breaths before caving to grief.

I was not as skillful in the tonglen meditation as I would have liked in that moment, but through meditation you learn to be kind to yourself and let go of self-judgment. I moved seamlessly into the final practice of phowa. Of the three practices I intended for Albin’s passing, this was the most important to me. I wanted Albin to find his way “onward.” I intended to calm Albin with the metta phrases, and ease his pain with tonglen. Now, with phowa, I wished to usher his energy back to its cosmic source. Sogyal Rinpoche describes several phowa practices in his book, but the general idea is to visualize the transference of the soul:

“Visualize the Buddha or spiritual presence above the head of the dying person. Imagine that the rays of light pour down onto the dying person, purifying his or her whole being, and then he or she dissolves into light and merges into the spiritual presence.”

I kept my hands on Albin’s body and refocused my energy on visualizing his transformation. I wanted him to be free. I wanted him to feel safe and secure to move on. I sat and watched him dissolve into a beautiful light, travelling onward and back into the boundless universe. And he was so fast! I couldn’t hold myself together after this point, but it was worth it to release him into the cosmos. I felt him go. He wasn’t scared and he didn’t hold back. He knew he was free, and he flew. Albin was incredibly brave through the very end, as he had been throughout his life.

I couldn’t be prouder of him. I’ll miss him terribly, and I’m grateful for these practices which helped ground me and find a sense of direction in a time of loss.

 

Resources:

Bodhipaksa. Guided Meditations: For Calmness, Awareness, and Love. Wildmind ISBN 0-9724414-0-9, 2002. CD
Das, Lama Surya. Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Gunaratana, Bhante. Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications, 2011.

Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper, 2012.

 

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Author: Benjamin Irons

Image: Provided by Author

Editors: Travis May; Emily Bartran

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Benjamin Irons