Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ask Asha: Life and Death of Our Pets

[You can ask your own question here.]


We lost our house in the economic downturn and are now in an apartment. It was a stressful process, but I never questioned God or felt anger over what happened. In fact, when it was all over, I felt relieved. My one sadness is that I had to give up my dogs. One was adopted into a good home. For the other, a Great Dane, it didn’t work out. I had rescued her when she was two years old and we were very close. I thought about putting her to sleep but in the end a rescue group found a home for her in another state. I drove her to Los Angeles to give her to her new owners. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and they put her to sleep, then accused me of unloading on them a sick dog. I feel so bad about the pain and stress I caused her and the family who took her. I don’t know how to deal with the grief I feel over this dog.

From M.


Dear M:

I commend you for facing your challenges so courageously. You were very fortunate to have had such a close and happy relationship with your Great Dane. And she was fortunate to have had so much of her life with you.

The life span of most animals is shorter than that of the humans who care for them, so loving a pet often means living through its death. The whole question of the life and death decisions we make for our pets is quite complex and important to many people. I am taking the opportunity your question provides to write at some length. I hope something here will be of help to you.

Part of the “dowry” David brought to our marriage (in 1982) was a black female cat named Huey. He had adopted Huey when she was small enough to fit into his cupped hands and fifteen years later they had been through a lot together. Moving several times, starting a number of successful enterprises, finding Master, coming to Ananda.

To say that Huey was a disciple would be an overstatement, no matter how sentimentally we might regard her spiritual advancement. She was, after all, just a cat. The only cat, however, allowed into Crystal Hermitage -- the spiritual center of Ananda Village where Swamiji has his home. We lived next door and when Swamiji gave satsang Huey would sometimes join the group.

I didn’t grow up with pets and had never lived with a cat, but I conscientiously cultivated Huey as a friend. Her relationship to David predated mine and I didn’t want to put him in the awkward position of having to choose between us. Fortunately Huey was gracious and we lived together in harmony.

One day I came home to find the David and Huey sitting on the floor sharing quality time. Like any cat, Huey was acutely aware of her surroundings and registered my arrival with a slightly tense look. Petting her gently, David spoke to the cat about me, saying, “Don’t worry, she is one of us.”

About two years after we got married, we were on a lecture tour and, not for the first time, left our house and cat in the care of friends. We were in Houston, Texas when the call came. “Huey has disappeared,” our friend told us. She was always regular in her habits, even when David was away. “It has been three days and nights since she last came home. We’ve searched every crevice of the house, and walked all around calling her name. We think she is gone.”

She was seventeen years old. Either she went away to die by herself, as cats often do, or was eaten by something larger than herself. I believe she stayed around long enough to be sure I wasn’t going anywhere. Knowing that David would be taken care of she felt free to leave.

Even though I have never experienced the kind of bond with an animal that you had with your Great Dane, I have seen it between David and Huey. No matter how close the bond, though, animals -- like all living creatures -- have their own destiny. We no more “own” our pets than we do our children. We are all in God’s hands.

Swamiji remarked to me once that he sees all beings, even animals, as just “Egos on a spectrum between bondage and freedom, striving to be free.” We manifest the body -- whether human or animal -- that allows us to express the full development of our present consciousness. For this reason, once we reach the human level it is rare to go back to being an animal. And even then, if as punishment for particularly egregious behavior, or longing for a less conscious life, it is usually for only one incarnation.

When we have reached the limits of each body’s ability to serve our consciousness, we shed it with no more consequence to our ultimate well being than taking off a heavy jacket when the weather turns warm. Of course humans become attached to the body they are in and often view its impending loss with more concern than is warranted.

An animal has an individual ego, or, perhaps more accurately, an animal has the full potential of what will become its individual ego as it advances up the spectrum. Animals, however, have not yet developed the self-awareness that human beings have and for this reason relate to their own bodies more impersonally than we relate to our bodies and theirs. My cat, dog, parakeet, or goldfish becomes a specific relationship as far as we are concerned. Because we know that individual through a particular form, we make the obvious mistake of thinking that the form is the individual that inhabits it. When the form changes, we feel that the love we have shared is also gone. This is not true. Form changes. Love is eternal.

Animals sometimes manifest to an amazing degree a capacity for loyalty, love, and self-sacrifice -- more than some humans do. But animals still lack the self-awareness required to make conscious spiritual progress. That is what distinguishes all animals -- no matter how advanced -- from all humans -- no matter how primitive. Humans can influence their own development, for good or for ill, by the conscious use of free will.

Animals progress more or less automatically through lower stages of development. They live through the karma that goes with each stage until their consciousness has reached the point that no animal body is sufficient to express it. A human body is needed. Master says that dogs, horses, and monkeys are the most advanced animal forms. (Sorry to say that to all you cat lovers.)

It is very good karma for an animal to come into contact with human beings. Even on the animal level, environment is stronger than will power. Being always in the company of more evolved beings, i.e. human beings, helps speed the animal’s evolution.

Animals don’t have sufficient awareness to reflect abstractly about their condition. They can’t speculate about how their species is treated in emerging economies where dogs, for example, often live on the streets by their wits alone, as opposed to the secure, luxurious life the average American dog enjoys.

I recall how amused a visiting friend from India was by our dog grooming studios. He worked as a travel guide and pointed out that the towels used on the dogs were bigger and thicker than you find in most Indian hotels. In a country like India where so many people barely have enough to eat, it is impossible on a national scale to lavish such resources on mere pets.

Your dog couldn’t contemplate the contrast between her life with you and where her littermates may have ended up. No doubt she was highly intelligent, with a loving heart, but to think in that way requires an awareness she simply did not have.

As a result, animals are more accepting of their destiny, less attached to specific outcomes. They don’t identify with their own bodies in the way humans do. Therefore the loss of it doesn’t grieve them in the way we imagine. They experience both positive and negative emotions, but a great deal of suffering is caused by the thought that things ought to be different than they are. This requires the ability to compare one situation to other actual or possible outcomes. To think about what might have happened if is a skill only humans have.

Humans often project onto animals the level of suffering they themselves would experience if as human beings we had to live through the conditions the animals face. Even though we may feel very close to our animals, their consciousness is different. Speaking of David’s cat, since there was no sign of sickness, or even much sign of old age, most likely she was eaten. Out in the woods where we lived that happened all the time. Huey wasn’t much of a hunter, but occasionally she brought to David the loving gift of a dead bird or mouse she had killed herself. She showed no remorse. It was her nature to hunt.

A larger creature sustains itself on the flesh of those that are smaller or weaker. Huey may have given her life for another, just as those birds and mice died to feed her. We may think it horrifying, but it is the appropriate expression of consciousness for most animals. It is all part of God’s plan. When the animal grows beyond that consciousness, it no longer incarnates as an animal. Although many people still kill to eat, but they no longer do it with claws and teeth. Often they just buy the animal when it is already dead.

As humans we can weep over the seeming cruelty of Nature or the loss of a beloved creature. But if we rebel against what is, and choose to grieve over such a fundamental aspect of creation there will be, literally, no end to our sorrow.

Master saw it all impersonally. He said to Swamiji once, “God eats people,” illustrating his point with a kind of gobbling sound as he lifted imaginary people to his own mouth as the mouth of God. Almost no one on this planet now will be here in a hundred years. The soul is eternal but the form changes. Constantly changes.

Looking at it from another point of view, do you think the soul of your dog wanted to be a Great Dane forever? It was nice while it lasted, but really, when you think about it, how much fun could it be? Would you actually condemn her to stay in that body a moment longer than she wanted to? Or a moment longer than being a Great Dane would serve her evolution toward spiritual freedom?

Autobiography of a Yogi is one of the most influential spiritual books of our time. Almost everyone who veers away from traditional religion looking for a more personal spiritual path reads that book. For many, it is their introduction to the whole idea of meditation and Self-realization.

Master knew the role this book would play for generations to come and certainly considered carefully what to include. I’ve always found it interesting that he wrote such a moving story about his own pet fawn.

At his school for boys in Ranchi, India, Master said, “We had many pets, including a young deer who was fairly idolized by the children. I too loved the fawn so much that I allowed it to sleep in my room.”

He goes on to tell the story of the unfortunate accident that caused the death of the baby deer. Master went away for the day and, despite his strict instructions to the contrary, in his absence the deer was fed a large quantity of milk. So much that it died of overfeeding.

Before the deer passed, however, Master tells of the tussle he had with God, as he prayed mightily that the life of the animal be spared. Master’s prayers were winning, and the deer was beginning to recover, when the spirit of the deer came to Master in a dream.

“You are holding me back,” the deer said. “Please let me go; let me go!” Its time on earth was over and Master’s love for it, and his intense prayers that it live on as a deer was actually hindering its spiritual progress. Realizing his error, Master released the deer and a few moments later it died.

I believe Master included this story because so many people love animals and need to understand how to relate to them in the context of a greater spiritual reality.

Early on in my life at Ananda, I was in a position sometimes to offer spiritual counsel to people. Unfortunately, I lacked the maturity always to speak appropriately. On one occasion I remember vividly, someone I tried to help complained to Swamiji about the terrible things I had said.

It was frustrating for me because I knew the advice I had given was true. Swamiji agreed, but, he went on to explain, even truth should only be offered when the person is ready to receive it. If you speak too soon, the person will reject the advice in the moment and be less open to hearing it later when the time might be more auspicious. “You already said that!” is the common response.

I felt terrible. I was trying to be helpful but seemingly had caused more harm than good. I wanted to resign from the ministry but Swamiji wouldn’t let me.

“We are responsible for our intentions,” Swamiji told me. “We cannot always predict, and we certainly can’t control how our good intentions will be received by others.”

Then he added, “God reads the heart. He alone never misunderstands. It is the intention of the heart that matters most.”

It was a great comfort to me at the time and has been a guiding principle ever since, helping to extricate me from distress sometimes at the actual result of my well-intentioned actions.

In your case with your dog you behaved as conscientiously as you possibly could. You drove all the way to Los Angeles to give the dog to what you thought would be the right home. That it did not turn out the way you intended is not a sign of your failure. It is certainly nothing for you to feel guilty about. The mere fact that those people blame you for giving them a dog that didn’t turn out to be what they hoped is unfortunate, but has nothing to do with the truth of the matter. It is a sign only that your dog had her own karma. Yes, you played a part in her destiny, but her destiny was never in your hands. It was always in her hands (or paws, in this case) and in the hands of God.

We give ourselves too much credit -- or in your case, too much blame. We think that our little decisions actually determine the course of the lives of other beings. If you take a snapshot of a certain moment in time it may look that way, but in fact we are always acting as part of a greater whole. We are instruments, merely, not the source of what happens.

The trajectory of the spark of divinity that lived side by side with you as your dog, you neither created nor destroyed. You merely accompanied it for a time.

Talking once about children, Swamiji said, “Parents create the physical body, which is to say the vehicle through which the soul of the child can express its destiny. The parents do not, however, create either the soul or its destiny.”

Even more is this true in the case of a pet.

Your dog needed to have one more experience before it was done with that form. Merely because that experience was less than pleasant for your dog -- or so you imagine -- it does not mean that it wasn’t a necessary, even an important experience for your dog to go through. Would you have wanted to prevent her from learning what she needed to learn to progress?

Think about it in terms of your children. Certainly you have a natural instinct to protect them. But when does “protection” turn into something actually detrimental to their wellbeing? Each soul -- whether human or animal -- must learn its own lessons in its own way. Sometimes we have to discipline our love, resist the desire to “protect” when such protection would actually hinder or weaken the one we love.

Think of Master and the deer. He gave strict instructions about how the deer should be cared for, but its own destiny was stronger even than Master’s will. Someone disobeyed, probably at the inner behest of the fawn who needed to die and had to find a way to do it.

If you had been the one to put your dog to sleep, I suspect you would have felt guilt over doing that. Perhaps your dog wanted to spare you the distress of ending its life. It arranged to be far away when that moment came. Maybe she was acting out of love for you. Given that you were so close, and animals do have the capacity to be utterly selfless, that it as likely an explanation as the one you have chosen -- that you failed her.

In other words, God has His plan. When we see it unfolding before us, we need to accept with gratitude whatever He brings. What you are doing is seizing one small aspect of that Plan and claiming personal responsibility for it. Isn’t that rather egoic?

We think if we are feeling guilty and heaping blame upon our own heads that we are diminishing our ego. In fact, we are affirming it. This kind of self-blame and self-abnegation is EGO in all capital letters illuminated by a neon sign.

Master defined humility as self-honesty. It is a brilliantly clear and subtle definition. Self-honesty means seeing things as they actually are.

Let’s say, for example, that you are the best violinist on planet earth. Wow! Now that is an accomplishment worth noting. The violin is not an easy instrument to play. The ego might well cling proudly to that as evidence of its own importance.

Let’s step back a little now from that accomplishment. In a hundred years, do you think you’ll still be remembered? Maybe with recordings you will be. Two centuries from now? Three? Four? Even if they still sing your praises after all that time, compare your accomplishments as a violinist to being a Self-realized Master who directs the destiny of generations.

Now think about how many inhabited planets there might be in just this one galaxy. So, you are the best on planet Earth. What position does that give you in a galactic, or even inter-galactic context?

Now, looking at it from the other side, I read a true conversation that took place between one of the greatest violinists on the planet (whose name, notably, I can’t remember right now) and a devoted fan.

After a concert the fan said, “I would give my life to be able to play the violin the way you do.”

The violinist calmly replied, “I have.”

It is a notable achievement to develop a talent with such dedication and concentration as that violinist had. It is by no means insignificant, even spiritually, because of the beauty he shares and because of the qualities he had to develop within himself in order to do it. Qualities focused now on music will also serve him well when his aspirations expand to infinity: concentration, discipline, willpower -- to name just a few.

Humility is self-honesty. Yes, you have done something worthwhile in developing your skill to this extent and you should feel deeply gratified by your accomplishment. But in the greater scheme of things, it is only the violin, and from that point of view there is no cause for pride. Let’s just see things as they actually are.

Guilt gives us an enormously distorted view of reality. It is not the truth. It is not self-honesty. You meant well. You did your best. Your dog had a destiny that was always out of your hands. Don’t make yourself more important than you are. And don’t make yourself less either.

You were a loving human caretaker to your dog. And she returned your affection. But like all things in this world that form couldn’t last forever. Your life together was interrupted by economic changes -- the loss of your house and the yard where the dog could live. Having a Great Dane in the apartment where you now live wasn’t an option.

Even if you hadn’t lost the house, the dog was coming to the end of its incarnation. Change was inevitable. She had her destiny and she fulfilled it.

Leave room in your thinking for God to have a plan.

With children and pets there is a strong inclination to think that we are in charge of their lives. Children have a greater capacity to declare their independence. Pets seem more under our control, but that is also an illusion. We control their bodies, perhaps, just as we do the bodies of our children when there are small. Animal or human, though, everyone’s destiny is in his own hands.

Think of Master’s pet fawn appearing to him in a dream and begging to be allowed to die. He took the trouble to put that story in Autobiography of a Yogi. It behooves us to pay attention to the lesson and to follow him in this, as we do in all other ways.

Nayaswami Asha

[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of]

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