At the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, we sponsor a monthly film series that focuses on a discussion of movies that address the intersection of psychology and mindfulness. We recently viewed performance artist Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, a reflection on love, loss, and death. It is as much a guided meditation as a movie. I find that weeks later, I’m still thinking of it.
Accessible and unpretentious, it has the raw immediacy of a home movie. Anderson frames the film with a quote from Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” In Anderson’s attempt to make sense of her life, she draws on original music, animation, stories, Buddhist psychology, and dreams. And this is a home movie of a type—Anderson shot much of it herself. Like therapy, it is a personal and confessional narrative. And, like therapy, it is not linear, but follows the unruly, fragmented quality of our lives. Done with voice over, and reminiscent of her performance pieces of decades past, her melodious voice structures the film and guides us through the difficult terrain of life, and how we try to find meaning, “you tell your story, you hold onto it, and every time you forget it more and more.”
Her insights on the passage of time, impermanence, the stories we choose to tell or don’t tell, what we remember and what we forget are profound. Freud, as well as Jung, would have been fascinated. Like life, this film is drizzled in sadness. Images of rain splattered on glass connect the narrative. Anderson weaves in the words of a Tibetan lama who talks to her about “feeling sad without being sad.”
In her contemplation on death, she draws on the writing of the late David Foster Wallace, who noted that “every love story is a ghost story.” The film is bookended by a few ghost stories—her maternal attachment to her dog Lolabelle, a love she didn’t know could happen; the death of her mother, who she was unable to love; and her love for musician Lou Reed, her husband.
As we enter Anderson’s world, we become co-creators as well, forging parallels with our own lives and losses, our own traumas, memories, and impressions. While the film appears to be fluid and lyrical, it is in fact carefully constructed and astute, an insightful meditation on our political as well as psychological reality. An observation about the limited color spectrum of dogs (mostly green and blue hues), cuts seamlessly to green-hued drone footage post 9/11. While the film was released in 2015, the scenes of surveillance are increasingly frightening, as we become aware of how we are losing more and more privacy.
Images of NYC after 9/11 yield to other images of dangers from the sky, predatory hawks circling the dog Lolabelle on a peaceful walk. Frequent shots of the sky at first seem like artistic studies of clouds, until we realize that Anderson is reflecting on the multilayered meaning of the Cloud, which is bursting with data on all of us.
Heart of a Dog holds out the hope of redemption. Stuck in her mourning of her mother, and unable to escape memories of her mother’s self-absorption, pre-occupation, and neglect, Anderson reveals that through Tibetan Buddhist Compassion meditation her view of her mother could expand, and she is able to recall a memory that is deeply healing and transformative.
In researching the film, I came across an interview with Anderson that appeared in Rolling Stone on November 21, 2013. It is one of the most profound, loving, and inspiring descriptions of death I have encountered:
“I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died…His eyes were wide-open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life—so beautiful, painful and dazzling—does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”
Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., is co-author of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, where she has taught and supervised for over 20 years.