Four months ago, my beloved dog Chloe (affectionately nicknamed “Gopi”) died quite suddenly of a particularly aggressive form of cancer I didn’t even realize she’d had. Long story short: I came home from a kirtan late one night to discover that my normally exuberant, bouncy spaniel mix was disoriented, listless and unable to walk. When I knelt down to investigate (assuming rather dumbly that she had some kind of sports-related injury), Chloe–sweet friend that she was–tried to give me a reassuring kiss. That’s when I realized that her tongue was cold. And grey. Panicked, I rushed her to a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic near my house. There, the vet told me that my dog had something called “canine splenic hemangiosarcoma” and that a tumor on her spleen had ruptured. Basically, my sweet little Gopi was bleeding to death internally. After delivering this diagnosis, the vet–a youngish, tired-looking woman whom I had never met before–told me rather dispassionately that there was nothing I could do and that the “best thing” would be to put my dog down. Right then and there.
How do you react to news like that? One moment you are sitting in an artist’s loft in Soho, sipping gingery chai and chanting “Om Namah Shivaya” with your friends; the next you are in a poorly lit, eerily quiet veterinary office in some derelict section of Poughkeepsie, being told that your nine-year old dog was going to die within the next twelve hours. Needless to say I was stunned. But someone in this equation was going to have to make a decision and that someone was going to be me, whether I felt qualified to be doing so or not.
My decision took a second, and yet you could also say it took lifetimes. Lifetimes of meditation practice, of studying dharma and spiritual texts, of practicing yoga. “I’ll take her home with me,” I told the vet. I wanted–somewhat selfishly–to have the opportunity to say goodbye to Chloe. And I also believed–somewhat childishly–that maybe Chloe wouldn’t actually die; that I could take her to my “real” vet in the morning and receive a more positive diagnosis. But mostly I wanted to spend the next hours chanting for Chloe in a nurturing environment while she made her transition. As a meditator and a practitioner of both Buddhism and Kundalini Yoga, I knew that these final hours were very important.
And so, whether my decision was a wise one or not, I arranged to take my dying dog home. The vet gave Chloe a dose of strong painkillers and I watched with a sense of surreal, sorrowful determination as a technician lifted my dog into my car.
Before I go on, I should clarify that I am not an expert on death and/or dying; nor am I am expert on the nature of animal consciousness or of human consciousness for that matter. I am simply a devoted practitioner who happens to love animals and relates particularly well to dogs, and was blessed to have shared a connection with a pretty remarkable dog. She was a mood elevator and a mind reader and a happy-go-lucky-goofball, and she spent much of her short sweet life sitting next to me at churches, monasteries, spiritual retreat centers and at our weekly Woodstock kirtans. For nine years we walked the path together. Literally and figuratively. And now she was dying. And it was my duty–my privilege–to walk with her right up until the end.
I felt wholly unprepared. And yet, one could argue that our yoga and meditation practices are nothing but preparation for the moment of death. One of my first Buddhist teachers, Khandro Rinpoche, used to say: “If it doesn’t matter at the moment of death, it doesn’t matter now.” Likewise, Yogi Bhajan always said, “You and your mastery must come through at the moment of death.” They were talking about one’s own death, but still. One of the great gifts we have as humans is our own free will, to work with our minds and direct our consciousnesses.
Another great gift we have as humans is the power to help others. And as human yogis, we have even more power. In the Buddhist tradition, we place special emphasis on helping animals. To paraphrase Lama Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche, renowned for his work with animals: “the animal realm is considered to be one of more suffering and less potential than the human realm. Thus, we want to do everything in our power to help that being’s consciousness to find a higher rebirth. A very important condition for a better rebirth is for the being to have a calm mind at the time of death. Also, being in contact with holy objects (statues, stupas, holy images and mantras) purifies negative karma and accumulates merit for that being which will help in this regard. This is the biggest present you can give them: Good rebirth, finish samsara, liberation.”
So yes, I am talking about reincarnation here. But even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, you have the power to surround your loved ones with love at the time of their death. It sounds so simple–and it is so simple–but it is also easy (and natural) to lapse into feelings of powerlessness as we are faced with another’s imminent death.
I know I lapsed into feelings of powerlessness quite a few times that evening. But I am so grateful that I had a mantra practice.
When I brought Chloe home from the emergency clinic, she was too weak to climb the stairs, so we spent the night in the foyer, on the cold wooden floor. I had brought one of Chloe’s beds down for her to rest on, but for some reason she chose to stay on the floor–perhaps because the wood was more organic, more related to the Earth. In solidarity, I lay next to her, foregoing any padding so that I could stay close to her. The next few hours were and still are a blur. I know that I chanted and prayed and sang for hours, I know that I told her again and again that I loved her in so many ways, but when I look back I seem to remember only a few minutes and a few scant details. The sound of the music. The sound of her breath. The sound of recorded monks reciting mantras, and of gongs and of Snatam Kaur. And myself, crying and chanting; chanting and crying. As the hour of sunrise neared and the sky outside began to lighten, I made some phone calls: to my vet, to a neighbor, and to the Tibetan monastery where I planned to bring my dog. Even as I write this blog four months later, I am asking myself if I did the right things. If I should have tried to save Chloe’s life with risky surgery while I was at the veterinary clinic; or if I should have shortened her life with euthanasia. And yet, I know that friends of mine who chose the euthanasia route are also asking the same questions: “Did we do the right thing?” I guess the answer is: anything done with love is the right thing.
With the help of some friends, I was able to get Chloe back into my car, and I was able to drive her up to Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, where one of the resident lamas attended to her (working with her consciousness in ways I still can’t comprehend), and then I took her to my vet, which opened at 9:00 am. Chloe died as as soon as we arrived at the vet’s office. The last word she heard before her consciousness left her body was “Om.” Or rather, I should say: the last thing she heard was my voice, singing “Om.”
After Chloe died, I posted a short announcement on my Facebook page and on my personal blog pages, and I was both humbled and floored at the amount of response I received. Hundreds of people wrote to me wanting to know which mantras I chanted. So here, finally, is the list.
From the Sikh tradition, we have the beautiful, simple mantra “Akal” to assist our animal friends at their time of transition. “Akal” means undying, and I am going to quote Spirit Voyage blogger and Marketing Director Ramdesh Kaur on the deeper definitions of the mantra because she describes it so beautifully. “Chanting ‘Akaaaaal‘ is said in the Kundalini Yoga tradition to help liberate the soul from the dense field of the earth, giving it a boost into the peace of the divine beyond. Akal means that there is no death, only liberation. It reminds both the departed and those who remain behind of our true identity as deathless souls.”
“Akal,” to me, is one of those chants that can fill the room with a white light and literally set the soul free. Many of us are aware that our intense love of and grief over a dying companion can actually hold that companion back. The soul, in other words, sticks around longer than it technically should. (Forgive my lack of eloquence here, but the topic of death somehow turns my prose to wood.) By chanting Akal, we are reminding ourselves–and our loved ones–that it is okay to make this transition, that all is well, that we are safe.
I chanted along to Snatam Kaur‘s version during my dog’s transition (available as an MP3 free download here on Spirit Voyage). There’s also a soaring version by Simrit Kaur, from her album The Sweetest Nectar). The sweetness of the mantra can bring so much comfort in times of pain and loss.
Mantra of the Medicine Buddha
Tayatha Om Bekandzay Bekandzay Maha Bekandzay Bekandzay Radza Samundgate Svaha.
From the Buddhist tradition, the Medicine Buddha mantra is an excellent mantra to recite for a sick or dying animal. As the name implies, it aids in the healing of both physical illness and emotional distress. This mantra is also used to “ripen the minds” of animals, meaning that any animal who hears this mantra will be guided toward higher rebirths, better conditions, and more positive states of mind. (Remember: mustn’t forget how powerful these ancient languages of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Gurmukhi, Hebrew, etc are. These mantras are powerful that animals and even beings from other realms can hear and understand them.)
Mantra of Chenrezig (the Buddha of Compassion)
Om Mani Padme Hum
According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the benefits of reciting the Compassion Buddha Mantra are infinite, like the limitless sky. Not only will reciting this mantra bring your animal comfort at the time of transition, the effects of this mantra will be felt for lifetimes to come. “This makes a huge difference. It has inconceivable result, unbelievable result. This practice will plant the seed of all the realizations of the path to enlightenment. That makes them have a good rebirth next life, to be born as a human being and meet the Dharma.” Rinpoche says it is best to verbally recite the mantras into our pet’s ears. You can also recite this mantra over their water and their food to increase its potency.
I sang Chloe my own version of Om Mani Padme Hum (which she seemed to like) and one by Imee Oiee.
You can download Deva Premal’s potent versions of the two aforementioned mantras, recorded with the Gyoto Monks, here:
Yod Hey Shin Vav Hey
My dog always enjoyed a CD from the Judeo-Christian tradition, called “Holy Harmony,” from master sound healer Jonathan Goldman. I used to play this hour-long chant for her whenever she was anxious, and the healing tones combined with the ancient chant would send us both into the cosmos. According to Mr. Goldman, “Holy Harmony” contains the divine frequencies of creation itself, with tones direct from the healing codes of the Bible. The mantra, YHSVH (Yod Hey Shin Vav Hey), is an ancient name of the Christ. So, as you can imagine, this mantra powerful beyond measure. It was comforting to both me and my dog to have this track and its frequencies playing in the background during her transition.
And I think, in hindsight, it was a wise decision to play something that Chloe was familiar with. Because so much of what happened that night was unfamiliar, after all. This is all the more reason to start playing healing mantras for your animals now, by the way.
I am not trying to be morbid here, or a doomsayer. I just want you to know that, if and when you ever reach that moment in your life when your beloved animal friend is critically ill, and your vet says: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do…” that there actually is something you can do. You can sing and pray and chant. You can create a vibration of love and healing and ease so that your beloved animal does not transition in a state of worry or fear.
Friends are now saying that I was “lucky” and that Chloe was lucky that she got to die with me, at home, in a sacred environment, rather than at the vet’s office. Here I have to remind people that she actually died in my mini-van, which I suppose was the dog’s home of sorts, too. But I won’t deny that Chloe was blessed to have spent her final moments at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
But I’d like to point out that any environment can be made sacred, simply by putting forth the intention, or calling upon the Gurus. When once voices reaches out to another in prayer, that is sacred. When one heart reaches out to another in love, that is sacred. No matter where you are–at home, or in a treatment room at a veterinary clinic, or (heaven forbid) at the scene of a tragic accident–remember that you can help your beloved pets on their journey with the sound of your own voice. I can’t imagine a more beautiful sound current to be carried away on. And neither can they.
May the long time sun shine upon you!
Jivan Joti Kaur Khalsa’s spectacular and profound book, Dying into Life, presents teachings on death, loss, and transformation from a Kundalini Yoga perspective. For me this book has been very therapeutic as I process the death of yet another beloved in this lifetime.
If you are interested in learning more about Buddhist practices for assisting dying animals, visit: http://www.enlightenmentforanimals.org/index.php/prayers-and-practices/death-a-dying