I was on a meditation retreat on an isolated property west of Sydney. It was the evening of day 5 when I first heard it.
Somewhere out past the dull yellow splash of light thrown from the meditation hall. Out in the bush. Past the grey shadow trees and tangled ink black scrub beyond. But not too far out.
A dog. Barking now and again. It sounded young. Sad. Hopless.
Now I shouldn’t be thinking about dogs on a meditation retreat way out in the wild. At least I shouldn’t be attached to my thinking about dogs. The sound of the dog should come and go like a cloud. Just this. Nothing added.
But it sounded distressed, and I ruminated on it. I felt sad for it, a sadness that folded over into anxiety and then mixed with missing my own dog. This was bad. Perhaps it was trapped somehow, or injured. It was a long way from home. Perhaps it had been dumped.
First thing next morning I went out to the place I thought the sound had come from. I looked around for some time calling out quietly ”Puppy! Hey pup!…where are you?” This was a silent retreat and talking to each other, unless the matter was urgent, was discouraged. But there you go, this was a little bit urgent after all, so here I was bashing around in the thick scrub calling out quietly. But I found nothing.
Later that evening I heard it again. We were sitting facing outwards, and lifting my eyes I could look out from the open hall, across the wooden verandah and out to the sound. It was further across to the left than last night. A little further away. It sounded, weak or sick or thirsty. It sounded all of those things. And I sat there feeling them too.
The next morning I went searching again. A somewhat more serious gridded search pattern this time, that swept from behind the bush toilet across to the car park and all the way back until breakfast. Again I turned up a big fat zero.
The final evening of the retreat and there was nothing. To be honest I felt kinda relieved to not be exposed to the distress of the dog, and pushed any thoughts of why it might have gone silent out of my mind. You know, like clouds.
Morning. It had been an amazing retreat. With the end of formal silence a scramble of chatter rushed in to fill the space as fellow attendees and I stacked cushions and swept floors and packed up our belongings.
As I stuffed my sleeping bag into its compression bag, Jane one of the senior practitioners stepped up out of the blue and: ”Ian did you hear the wonderful barking owls the other night. There are a family living just across the valley. If you are lucky you might spot one of them in that stand of old eucalyptus on your drive out. Magnificent.”
I felt a little stupid. I had built up this entire story. Joining it’s dots and colouring it in until it had become my anxiety inducing reality. It could have been a dog. In distress. And I might have saved it. But it was something else all together. Something I hadn’t even imagined.
It seemed like an important lesson was hanging there somewhere between the dog, the owl, and me.
Jane smiled at me as if she knew….and was that the hint of a wink?
But that would be impossible now wouldn’t it.