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.
I don't believe in finites: that is, the use of words we use to profess an emotion or opinion we believe will never change.
I have a little trouble with the words "best" and "worst" because in reality our perspective and experience in life is always changing. It's always possible that something can be better or worse in the future than whatever's happening right now. Something I think is the best or worst ever, is really just the best or worst so far.
But possibly my least favorite finite is "never."
How can you, in all seriousness, say you'll never do this or never try that? Are you channeling a psychic that suddenly enables you to predict the future? Are you so rigid that you know even in 30 years time you'll never change your mind, your tastes won't evolve, your world won't expand.
Whatever you think you'd never do is merely a product of where you are now, and the only way that now is the be all/end all, is if you die right this second...
But you didn't die did you? You're still here, living another now. It's just a few seconds after the last now, but it's still a new now.
You're a few seconds older and a few seconds wiser, and in any given second - in any given situation, conversation, or experience - your mind could change on any number of things.
I don't pretend to know what I'll be like 30 years from now. I'll be me, of course, but I'll have 30 more years of life to draw on. 30 more years of trying new things. 30 more years of getting out of my comfort zone. 30 more years to change my mind.
Today I could say I will never skydive. I'll never climb Mount Everest. I'll never eat durian fruit. I'll never visit Antarctica. All possible "nevers" for me.
But what if somewhere down the line I change my mind? What if I hike Mount Whitney here in California and love it? So then I take on Denali in Alaska and really catch the climbing bug. Then, despite just watching the harrowing movie Everest where (spoiler alert) pretty much everyone dies, I decide my life goal is to stand at the highest peak on planet earth.
What if a series of decisions I make alters my mind on this or any number of opinions I have about things I'd "never" do?
Honestly, right now I can't see myself ever having a desire to climb Everest (take a deep breath, mom). I love hiking and I've already put together a list of mountains I want to climb, but I'm also risk averse and exceptionally uninterested in dying at a young age.
Despite that, I still can't use the word "never" here, just like I can't ever use it anywhere. My thoughts on Everest are just my current opinion. I am well aware that many of my opinions will change over time, and this could be one of them.
Rather than make bold statements of certainty, I choose to mindfully live in the present and fully acknowledge that each moment is another experience that alters my future.
I can never know if anything really is a "never," so I choose to never say never again.
I love to make plans and I'm a bit of perfectionist. Sometimes these are great attributes, like when I need to plan a big trip with a hundred moving parts (and do so expertly, I might add). Sometimes though, my perfectionist streak drives me crazy, like when one or more of those hundred moving parts starts to move in the wrong direction.
Recently, I was lucky enough to go to New Zealand. I went to sojourn with my man who was there for work, which means I was there to keep him company during his off time but I also had free time to do my favorite thing in the world... explore. I was going to learn about kiwi and Maori culture, hike over green hillsides and through rainforests, visit one of the oldest national parks in the world, see volcanoes and glaciers, get new perspectives, write lots of blog posts, and hopefully meet a few hobbits.
Boy did I have a ton of plans for this trip, but boy did life have other plans for me. And bare with me here, but boy am I glad life changed all my plans. Not because I enjoy it when all my efforts fly out the window and those plans suddenly change, and not because (spoiler alert) I enjoy being sick on the other side of the international date line, but because of the lesson in mindfulness the whole crazy experience gave me.
As soon as I arrived in New Zealand I got sick. For those of you who know me, you know I was also just sick for 2 weeks in early September. Sick sick sicky sick. Being sick is always struggle to some degree, but being sick abroad was a struggle on a whole new level.
Side note: I've been debating just how much I want to divulge on this. I don't make it a point to whine, at least publicly. I don't like to worry anyone or act needy, so I largely kept this under wraps. Aside from one semi-vague Instagram post, and texts with close friends, very few people knew I was sick out there.
But I'm trying to use this all as a lesson, one I can learn from and then one I'll tell you about so you can hopefully learn from as well. If I'm going to do that I need to let down my guard and take down the walls of privacy and vanity.
As you can imagine, I spent a lot of this time feeling frustrated - all my well thought out plans dashed, my normally active self tied to a hotel bed, my love of exploring new territories and cultures stymied, hopes of a "perfect trip" lost.
But that frustration, like any difficult time, was also an opportunity.
Difficulty presents us with a personal mindfulness challenge.
It always boils down to a choice: let the disappointment of an international exploration opportunity lost overtake me with anger and regret, OR use it as an excuse to reconnect to mindfulness and then use/enjoy every moment I do have for all its worth.
Through painstaking effort, I chose the later. When I felt well enough to go exploring for a bit, I made sure to soak in every last second of the experience. When my throat was calm enough to allow a proper dinner, I savored every bite, and let myself have a glass of wine or a beer because I was on vacation goshdarnit. When I was awake and aware I made myself ever present and shook the chains of distraction loose.
Because of the illness, I knew I'd have fewer moments of enjoyment on my trip, so I mindfully dove into any moment in had with gusto. Suddenly my time became less about the limitations of being sick, and more about the joy to be found in the random moments.
I can have a memorable time whether or not everything goes exactly the way I expect. I can make good use of my time even if plans fall through. I can have a totally new and unexpected adventure even when things don't line up as I'd hoped.
I can be frustrated and angry that this trip didn't go the way I hoped it would go, or I can accept that it changed and make the most of it... roll with the punches, go with the flow.
My attitude about it, about anything, is entirely up to me.
So make plans, set expectations, and do your best work to make sure everything goes your way - lord knows I'll never stop doing that - but make sure one of your expectations is that it's possible none of your expectations will actually come true. Life will take you where it wants, you can fight and lament and whine and cry but the change in your path will often happen whether you like it or not. It's way better for your sanity to just accept it and go with the flow.