Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Lynne Donnelly
    May 24, 2021 5:56 pm

    Lovely. Thank you for sharing this. Pets are fur-covered love, pure and simple. And they are always in the present … so Never Better!

    Reply
    • Sunada Takagi
      May 24, 2021 7:38 pm

      Thank you Lynne. “Fur-covered love” is a delightful description. I think Rusty was one of a kind. But I suppose all pet owners feel that way.

      Reply
  • Thank you for this beautiful tribute. As my elderly dog, Izzy moves along her path of impermanence, I will keep your words in mind.

    Reply
  • Thank you for this Sunada. It’s just what I needed this morning, after losing my Ziggy one month and two days ago. She didn’t meditate with me, that would be Izzy, but she stuck very close to me as I moved about my day. XOXO

    Reply
    • Sunada Takagi
      May 25, 2021 12:40 pm

      Ah LeAnne, I know losing Ziggy still cuts deep. Our fur family is so precious. Love to you and all your four-legged friends.

      Reply
  • Cheryl McMillan
    May 25, 2021 5:17 pm

    Sunada, thank you for your lovely tribute to Rusty..I think I understand your feelings well, having experienced the loss of a beloved border collie, Maddie.. just today, 11 years after her death, I found a picture I sketched of her that brought tears to my eyes, as well as gratitude for the live she lived with me… thanks for sharing!00xx, Tejavani

    Reply
    • Sunada Takagi
      May 26, 2021 10:15 am

      Thank you Tejavani. I suspect I will still be tearing up over Rusty as well 11 years from now. They are such special beings, aren’t they?

      Reply
    • Big hugs to you, Tejavani.

      This seems to be the time for Order members pets to pass away. Utpaladhi just got back from her ordination retreat on Monday and the next day had to put down her beloved dog, Lucy, who was dying of cancer.

      Reply

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