My sweet Savannah’s been gone almost four months now. She’s still a treasured part of my life. There are times when I feel I’m walking in her light, filled with the sweetness of her spirit, my heart beating with the love she brought to the world. I can see her face clearly, and I hold her as a model for the way I’d like to live my life.

We humans strive to live our lives according to our spiritual values, and often devote time and energy to spiritual practices that help us do that. We strive to live in compassion, truth, and joy, without judgment, and to go about our busy-ness with an awareness of the present moment. I haven’t met any humans who embody those things better than most animals I’ve known.

One summer afternoon Savannah and I stopped at the park in town, and she was drawn to a woman sitting at a nearby picnic bench. My sweetheart was always happy to visit with people, but her interest in this woman was exceptional. She was giddy with joy as the woman greeted her and they interacted. Moments later I learned this was the woman with whom Savannah had lived for three years—in the backyard, mostly—and who had one day left her at the county pound. My own reaction to the woman was filled with judgment. Savannah’s was filled with joy. She was able to let go of the bad, remember the good, and interact with that place in this woman’s heart where love is alive.

Animals live in the place of truth. Look into the eyes of a dog or a cat or a horse or a raven, and you see the soul of integrity. They say what’s true (whether we can hear them is another matter), they see what’s most real in our hearts, understand what we think and feel, and recognize our true nature. Those who share our homes have learned we don’t want to hear the bad news—no snarls, hisses, or snaps to express discomfort or frustration. Among others of their own kind they’re more free to express it all, but once a disagreement is over it’s over. Everyone says what’s true, and understands one another, so holding grudges is rarely necessary.

No one excels at “be here now” quite like animals do. Perhaps that’s because it’s so important for their survival. (If only we could remember how important it is for ours.) Or maybe it’s because they’re so close to their own spiritual nature that they inherently know that the present moment is all there really is. Never mind that your dog has been home alone all day. You’re home now? Hooray! You want to play? Ecstasy! Take him for a walk in the woods and he’ll teach you the real meaning of living in a state of pure awareness. I can get to that state—sometimes—if I sit on a grassy spot and remain very still, empty my mind, breathe…then a new thought arises and I’m gone again. But when my wise elder mare Tess wiggles her lip against my hand, or the resident quail family marches across the yard—wearing their little hats—I’m there. Or here. Now. They help me turn off the running commentary in my brain and find my way to me.

Savannah’s last months included a progression of disability. She’d outlived the expectations we have for most giant-sized dogs, and the expectations of those of us who’d thought she had an aggressive cancer a year and a half before. But her age and arthritis had left her with little strength in her hind legs. She walked with the help of a sling under her belly, and needed support for even the most basic activities. Her favorite days had been those that included trips to town. She’d loved to stand peering out the car window, her floppy ears blowing in the breeze, her nose twitching at all the delicious  smells. She’d eagerly wander through the many shops that welcomed her, and when she visited with strangers she’d glance back at me and say, “See how wonderful this is!”

As her body grew weaker, together we made the rounds between her various beds in the living room and dining room, on the front deck by the horses then over where she could see the llamas grazing on the neighbor’s pasture, and on the back deck where it was shady in the afternoon. The trips to town became scarce; getting in and out of the car was a struggle, and a walk across the vast linoleum floor at Staples was out of the question. Even the car ride changed, as she was unable to stand at the window or even change position in her giant car bed.

But still, as the external experiences that brought her joy became few and far between—and then came only with great effort—she was joyful. I’d open my eyes each morning to see her lying beside me, gazing out the window and looking back at me with radiant, peaceful happiness. I can only believe she knew the inner bliss that comes from understanding we are not the victims of the events that come our way, nor do we have a great attachment to them. Her face those mornings showed me the inner radiance of one connected to the beauty of spirit, and the joy that is not dependent on anything in this physical world.

I believe that animals are closer to spirit than most humans are. They live with a connection to their true nature that we’ve lost in our industrial, technological world. We crave their company for a million reasons, one of which is that their spiritual presence helps us reconnect with our own. Among the many gifts they offer us is the opportunity to watch compassion, truth, nonjudgment, and presence in action. We have models—gurus, if you will—around us everywhere, in the birds and lizards, coyotes and salmon, and certainly in the dogs, cats, horses, and other animals with whom we share our homes. The more we pay attention to the opportunity to learn from them, the more we can reconnect with our own true nature, and live the life of spirit we seek. Savannah opened my heart to the experience of her joy and her light. I can see it now, feel it resonate through my body and take me closer to my own spiritual essence. I have lived with a master. I know, now, how I want to live my own life.