Bodhi, a pit/hound mix, didn’t have a great first six months of life. Although I will never know the full story, I do know that he developed a belief that the world is a dangerous place. Lucky for him, a great rescue organization pulled him from a high-kill shelter and placed him in a foster home, where he spent the next six months. It was a loving home and it helped Bodhi gain some confidence. He was, however, still very fearful and would shy away from new people. When I first met him, he went into a panic when I held his leash. I knew had my work cut out for me. I wanted to help him learn to self-soothe, especially since he was already equipped with the skill set to find peace of mind. You see, dogs are constant practitioners of mindfulness. That’s how they live their lives – one moment at a time. It’s their natural state of consciousness.
It’s been almost four months since I adopted Bodhi, and I already see a remarkable change in the way he interacts with the world around him. He’s more at peace with his surroundings, more willing to investigate strange sounds, and definitely more confident and comfortable around people. A major contributing factor in this was “shared mindfulness.”
I’ve been a mindfulness practitioner for about 40 years, and an instructor for almost as long. I began my interest in mindfulness because I wanted to perceive reality the way that dogs do. Mindfulness is the moment by moment awareness of everything that is happening now. That includes everything you feel, hear, see, and think about. It’s a matter of being aware of your experience without attaching a label to it. It’s connecting to the present moment, and this is how dogs live every day of their lives. It doesn’t mean that dogs don’t become stressed or anxious; saying that mindfulness is a state of eternal bliss is a myth. Far from it – mindfulness is the acceptance of now and all that this moment brings.
Mindfulness is not passivity either. It’s being actively engaged with the present moment’s reality, and accepting how we feel and choosing to act on these feelings the way we want to. Dogs know this instinctively, and we can learn so much from them.
Sharing this experience of mindfulness with our dogs can have a tremendous impact on our own and our dog’s sense of well-being and calmness. In our relationship with our dogs, when we align our consciousness with theirs, we enter into a plane of awareness that connects us at the deepest possible level. We can learn from each other how to find tranquility when we feel stress, requiring us to tune deeply into ourselves and our dogs. Engaging in practice together will help us both achieve a deeper connection where we can find comfort and security in each other, even in times of great stress. Studies have shown that our dogs are keenly tuned in to our emotional state. They know when we feel stress, joy, fear, anger, excitement and anxiety. Their empathic understanding is why sharing a mindful experience with them is beneficial for both of you. Together, you influence each other’s emotional state and guide each other to equanimity of mind.
With the arrival of the summer months comes thunderstorms and the July 4th holiday. Stress and anxiety is a common problem with our dogs. There are a million gadgets and fad “cures” for noise (thunder) anxiety in the marketplace, but the truth is that there is no quick fix. Your dog needs to first feel secure in your friendship together.
Begin when you and your dog are already relaxed. (As you both become more practiced, you can recall relaxation at any time.) It’s important that you feel at ease, because if you feel nervous, impatient or distracted, your dog will feel that as well. This is a time just for the two of you to share. Turn off the television and put down the phone. Searching for the latest Facebook or Instagram post is no way to connect with your dog or the present moment.
Start by sitting next to your dog. Take a few deep breaths. Relax and pay attention to your breath, as if it were the only thing that existed. Slowly and gently pet your dog from the bridge of the nose, across the eyes (this activates the parasympathetic nervous system) and all the way down the back. Go slowly. Repeat this four or five times. Next, gently place your hand, palm down, on your dog’s ribcage. Pay attention to your dog’s breath and the rising and falling of the chest. Sit with this for a while, and become aware of your breath along with your dog’s. Don’t judge or analyze the moment. Don’t try to count the breaths or synchronize them, just become immersed in the experience of it. Allow your eyes to see what they want, your ears to hear what they want, and your thoughts to come and go like clouds drifting past in the sky. Enjoy the ever changing symphony of this moment and feel it rise and fall with the breath. Let the barriers between you and your dog fall away. You and your dog are connected at this moment by your breath. Savor this point in time together. Continue for as long as it is comfortable for both of you.
As you practice mindfulness with your dog over the next few weeks and months, you will both experience a serenity unlike anything else. It will bring you closer together and deepen the connection between you. At times of anxiety and stress (thunderstorms, being left alone, etc.) you can call on this to help both of you through it together. When you find comfort in each other and serenity with each other, stress will lose its power over both you and your dog.
Sharing a mindful moment with your dog is a one key aspect of the Path of Friendship that brings you both closer to a deeply connected friendship, what the Japanese call “kenzoku.” By making this a daily practice, in times of stress and anxiety, you and your dog will breathe easier together.