PETS AND THE POWER OF AWARENESS
Posted on September 19 2019
By Karen McInerney
Our pets provide us with opportunities to be mindful, and they also offer us the gift of happiness. The question is, how open are we to receiving them?
Until you’ve been greeted by a slobbery, smooching, cold-nosed, tail-wagging dog, you haven’t experienced the purity of unconditional love. Talk about being mindful—these moments are the epitome of living in the here and now.
Our furry creatures are very much focused on right here, right now. They don’t sit around and ruminate about the past. They don’t stay awake at night tied in knots with worry and anxiety. Instead, they tend to concentrate on what is happening at this exact moment in time.
How often do we worry unnecessarily about what is awaiting us down the road or go over and over something that happened earlier in the week? Let the past go, and the future unfolds as it happens. “Right now” feels pretty good to our pets—even if living moment to moment sometimes means begging for food and working us till we toss them a treat.
Sure, the trip to the vet can come with fear. But once the moment has passed, there’s no harboring resentment, and they don’t live in fear of their next encounter. And this attention to the present moment isn’t interrupted by negative self-talk, such as, “I’m wasting my life lying at the front window all day….”
We humans, by contrast, have a tendency to judge, often on autopilot. We usually judge experiences as not being quite right in some way, thinking that this is not exactly what should be happening or what we should be feeling. These observations can go off on many tangents, into thoughts about blame and what could or should be different—“I shouldn’t be feeling like this,” “I’m always getting things wrong,” “Things are always going to be like this.”
Sound familiar? We get sucked into ruminating and end up in those well-worn grooves of negative thoughts. If one of your life goals is to live more mindfully, I suggest you hang out with your dog. He’ll keep you on the straight and narrow.
Pet Speak: Everything Is as It Should Be
We must remember that animals rely on their instincts, which leaves them ready to jump at the chance to be playful. We, on the other hand, tend to feel guilty when we shut down our thinking and problem-solving mechanism. Observe how your dog will stick her nose in everything, interested in this new discovery. She busily gives every new place a once-over with her nose, checking each corner for smells that tell stories of what’s been there before.
Mindfulness encourages us to approach our body and mood with a gentle curiosity. This means taking time to sniff out our feelings and emotions—even the more negative ones—instead of immediately trying to push them away.
Pet Speak: Life Is a Curious Place
Our pets can remind us that the world is out there to be explored. Learning and discovery give us pleasure and boost our sense of well-being and achievement. Take time for yourself to master something new. Expand your horizons beyond your usual circles and routines. Stop to take pleasure in small things—chasing a squirrel or giving a stick a good chew, perhaps?
Things don’t have to have a point in the world. Sometimes just run and run for the pure joy of running. Watch how your pet will fetch a ball for hours and hours because each time it’s thrown, he’s newly excited. You’ll see him leaping in the water and leaping out again, jumping over fences and jumping back again because it’s fun to swim and jump.
Make sure you do things that give you pleasure, whether they have a “point” or not. Try carrying an enormous stick for miles because it’s fun to do—even if everyone else in the park thinks you’re silly.
Pet Speak: Living Simply for the Pure Joy of It
If you’re in tune, you’ll realize that your animals are a constant reminder to take a break and relax throughout the day. If they’re focused on a spot on the floor, their attention stays on it until something takes their mind off it. We, as humans, can certainly focus on something intently for long periods of time, but eventually our thoughts will begin to wander. While we tend to start thinking about the past or the future, a dog or cat will only turn its attention when it hears a noise or sees something moving across its field of vision.
Use the sound of your pet’s bark or meow as a mindfulness bell. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh devised this idea of a mindfulness bell. On retreats, a temple bell is struck every hour. When people hear it, they stop and take three conscious breaths to bring themselves into the present moment. So when you hear your pet’s sound, stop what you are doing and take a few conscious breaths, feel the sensation of the breath going in and out of your body.
Dogs share a universal ability to sense the emotions of their owners. If you own a dog, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. When you are happy, they amplify your state of joy. When you are sad, they come around more frequently to help cheer you up. When you are irritable or angry, they know how to keep a healthy distance.
Their awareness of your emotional state is not a function of some supernatural force. Instead, dogs have “tuned into” you through observation and mindfulness. They get us outside—literally, and also outside of our thoughts, guiding us firmly back to the present.