This article is cross-posted with Elephant Journal:
Finding mindfulness isn't like flipping a switch.
Most of us can’t simply will ourselves into a state of zen like a Tibetan monk—the modern age and our overactive minds simply won’t allow it. So I look to the outside world for help. Be it through nature, exercise, apps, travel, everyday choices, or habits, we can use all sorts of methods to nudge ourselves to a more present state.
One significant piece of my own personal outside world is my dog, Rocco. To put it bluntly, I love him to death. He always makes me smile and helps me forget whatever worry has been overwhelming my mind on a given day.
I was thinking about him, and the larger infatuation many of us have with our pets, and suddenly it dawned on me—my dog is another one of the ways I nudge myself, often subconsciously, to get out of my head and live in the present.
My dog teaches me mindfulness.
The connection we have to our pets is multi-layered. No doubt, they provide us with companionship, unconditional love, snuggles and a great way to connect to other similarly passionate pet people. But there’s a deeper attachment that goes beyond the obvious. I propose a new theory—that we’re fanatically attached to our pets because they constantly teach us an important lesson about ourselves.
Our pets take us out of our complicated adult lives for a moment, and back to a more mindful time—a time of youthful exuberance, a time before we were corrupted by the modern distracted world. They remind us of how we were then, and as such, remind us to try and a be little more like that again—right now.
My dog Rocco is possibly the most zen being I know. He doesn’t worry about the future, except perhaps starting around four o’clock in the afternoon, when he knows dinner is imminent. He doesn’t stress over the decisions he makes, for instance—choosing which sunbeam to sleep in.
He doesn’t regret his mistakes, even after tearing apart one of his favorite toys. He’s always enthusiastic when I take him on his morning walk, even if he had to wait while I procrastinated on Facebook. He jumps for joy at every treat, even if he’d always rather have bacon. He accepts all the snuggles and love I give, not worried about what other thing he might be missing out on.
He’s also a big part of my favorite trick to get more mindful—nature. I hike a few times a week. The trails provide me with a level of exercise that keeps me physically fit and a level of peace and beauty that keeps me mentally fit.
I often take Rocco on these hikes, and rather than take away from the moment of zen the wild gives me, he adds a whole new layer of zen that only enhances the experience. The exuberance he displays when I untether his leash adds to the exuberance I feel when I untether from the stress of city life.
His curiosity to explore a new landscape—the trees, shrubs, vistas, wildlife and of course smells—brings me to a more mindfully aware state that bleeds into the rest of my day, on the trail and off. His consistent desire to stay close to me as we hike brings me an understanding of uncorrupted loyalty that I can carry with me into the human relationships of my everyday life.
As a hiking partner, not only is he good at keeping up with my pace, he’s good at setting the pace for a mindful existence.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Rocco is my little yogi zen master. He doesn’t tell me how to live my life, but instead, he provides an example of a simpler way to live.
Obviously, not all dogs are the same, and maybe I’m just lucky to have such an interested and present pooch. But I do think most dogs, most cats (I grew up with many) and most pets in general, have all these qualities to some degree. And it’s for those reasons we’re so drawn to them.
When I’m feeling down, angry, stressed or worried about the future, I can look at Rocco and see a better way—a more simple, honest, mindful way.
Maybe this is one of the reasons I love him so much.
We’re all complicated humans, so it’s unrealistic to expect to live our lives with the same sincerity as our pets. It’s the cross of self-awareness we have to bear as a species.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from our furry companions—that we can’t take a moment to be with them in the moment, or that we can’t take the smile they give us and carry it with us as we go about our convoluted day.
In that way, our pets are giving us the gift of mindfulness all the time. It’s up to us if we choose to accept it.