Photo of a dog licking a woman's face while she's on a yoga mat.
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When I signed up to care for a 10-month-old Jack Russell mix, Becca, I watched and rewatched the videos we had of her from the shelter, imagining all the neighborhood spots I’d take her, and cozy nights snuggling on the couch. Becca, once a stray in California, was my first charge as a volunteer foster for a dog rescue near my home in Portland, Oregon.

Instead, I found fostering for the first time to be an emotional roller coaster I’d experienced in only one other situation: intense, 10-day, Goenka meditation courses. Outsiders call them “retreats,” intended to allow attendees to relax and refocus, but it turns out that the path to enlightenment is paved with a few tears, too.

Instead, I found fostering for the first time to be an emotional roller coaster I’d experienced in only one other situation: intense, 10-day, Goenka meditation courses.

I took my first Goenka meditation course in 2015 in Illinois, hoping to find myself again after leaving a long-term relationship. During the retreat, each day includes 10 hours of seated meditation that begins at 4:30 a.m. The courses are held across the globe, typically in rural areas just outside large cities. At a center outside Chicago, I discovered a newly Spartan existence: no phones, eye contact, speech, reading material, music or even scented toiletries, to prevent distractions. My first time felt like being strapped into a roller coaster as it chugs uphill. During silent meals, I mulled the question: Why was I doing this to myself?

On Becca’s first morning with me in January 2021, I asked that same question. Still tired from her whimpering descent into sleep and an early wake-up, I yanked on dark sweatpants and a hooded shirt still covered with hair from the evening before. Creeping to the kitchen in the dark, I tried to silently leash a wriggling, furry being who, having already peed, licked my face eagerly. (Rule No. 1 of potty training: Dog must go outside within 30 seconds of leaving her crate.)

As part of the Goenka course, I had buried myself deeper in my sleeping bag before reluctantly, noiselessly preparing for the day’s first “sit” at 4:30 a.m. (Rule No. 1 of group meditation: Limit the noise created by your everyday movements.)

I had done my best to ignore a growling stomach through a two-hour meditation, just as I now tried not to mind that our adorable puppy had a nagging habit of refusing to go outside in Portland’s constant rain, and fearfully putting on the brakes near puddles. Sniffing relieves stress, I told myself. And calm morning hours are supposedly best for meditation.

Long hours of sitting had brought moments of calm, yes, but also waves of shame, rage and grief, as I sifted through the memories, doubts and physical discomforts that arose. Was I making progress that would translate to real-world happiness or just torturing my knees? In dog-land, Becca, too, was not exactly what she seemed; as my friends crowed over Becca’s adorable photos online, she cowered in my lap, shaking, and refused to let me out of sight for three days.

a cute Jack Russell puppy
Photo by Robin Donovan

One day, Becca peed our laundry room floor just as I was washing our dog towels. I plucked one from the washer, mopped up the mess and tried, in vain, to tell myself that the cold concrete of the unfinished basement counted as “inside” for potty purposes.

During the retreat, there had been the self-questioning. Was I the only one who noticed the meditation teacher’s slight sniffle? Was that a stray hair or a gnat crawling into my ear? Wasn’t I doing so well not being distracted by anything … shoot!

With Becca, I questioned whether my own anxieties were bleeding over onto her, or vice versa. Should I leave her alone (and potentially torture our neighbors with nonstop barking) so she could learn that I’d soon return, or did she need more time to decompress? Where, exactly, is the line between caving to the whims of a 14-pound creature unnecessarily and allowing her to feel safe and secure?

When Becca made a great first impression at her first “meet and greet” with potential adopters after an anxious week in my care, I knew her confident trot, relaxed demeanor and ability to quickly bond with a new family were partially my doing. Wrapped up in that moment of pride, I underestimated how hard it would be to let her go, even though dozens of families had expressed interest in adopting her.

Wrapped up in that moment of pride, I underestimated how hard it would be to let her go, even though dozens of families had expressed interest in adopting her.

a woman with arms up facing a body of water
Photo by Robin Donovan

After my retreat, I had underestimated how hard it would be to return to my normal life after 10 days of contemplation. Stopping for gas on the drive home, I was assaulted by cigarette smoke, gasoline fumes, music blaring and engines rumbling. I shut off my phone and drove home in silence.

Becca, with a little encouragement, charmed her first potential family at a park near my home; they decided to adopt her that day. The walk home without her, minus my tears, was quieter, too.

About the Author

Robin Donovan is a writer and consultant living in Portland, Oregon.

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