“The greatest asset you could own is an open heart.”
~ Nikki Rowe
There is a wonderful story about a young scholar who asked a Rabbi, “How should we keep the Torah?”
The Rabbi said, “You should always keep the Torah on your heart.”
“On your heart?” asked the scholar. “Why not in?”
The Rabbi replied: “Because when your heart is closed, its teachings are not available to you. It is only with an open heart that you can receive the teachings of the Torah.”
Along with my 35 years as an animal behavior consultant, I have been a mindfulness practitioner for close to 40 years, and an instructor of mindfulness practices for over 30 years. Of the many different types of mindfulness practices, the “Metta Bhavana” (Pali) or “Maitri” (Sanskrit) is one of the best ways to enrich compassion in ourselves. This is a compassion and loving-kindness meditation that opens our hearts to ourselves and to the world around us. Metta originates from Buddhist tradition and is translated as loving-kindness and friendliness. By sharing this practice with our Dogs, we can increase their levels of compassion as well. When we do this, our connection with each other will grow deeper than we could ever have imagined. Our Dog’s behavior, as well as our own behavior, becomes motivated by compassion and love, rather than greed (as what happens with typical Skinnerian reward-based training) or fear (which is what happens with dominance-based training). When we connect and merge at these deep levels of compassion for each other, we become two sides of one coin. Our focus is on helping each other to be happy, rather than looking for how we can please only ourselves. It is essential to do these practices on a regular basis to enrich our relationship with each other. Love, therefore, is not only a “noun,” but is also a “verb”- meaning we must make the effort to connect if we are to achieve the highest level of friendship with our Dogs. It is fortunately a labor of love – literally.
I returned recently to my old school in Bradford, VT to see if I can recapture my teachings. Although my school is no longer there, the spirit of those days came rushing back.
To begin, find a time where you and your Dog can both sit quietly and undisturbed. This is not a time for distractions so turn off the phone, television, computer or anything else that will be competing for your attention. This is a special time for you and your Dog to share together.
Begin by asking your Dog to sit next to you, and start to gently and calmly stroke his fur from the bridge of his nose and continue all the way down his back. By stroking directly across his eyes, you will help him to relax. Remember to do this slowly. My teacher once told me, “Go slowly enough so you can count each strand of fur beneath your hand.” If this seems to bother him, then just start from the top of his shoulders. Speak softly to him, use lots of eye contact and smile – your Dog can absolutely read your facial expressions. Continue this for a while until you feel your Dog is more relaxed, and you feel more relaxed as well.
At this point, you are going to begin the practice of Shared Mindfulness with your Dog. (To learn more about Shared Mindfulness click here.) Place your hand gently on his ribcage near his heart and notice the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. Focus all your attention on this. You may want to count his breaths, if that helps. Count “one” for each out breath up to ten, then start at one again.
As you do this, your mind will begin to wander. You may become distracted by sounds, or you will begin to have various thoughts come into your mind. Once you notice them, don’t try to push them away. Instead, gently bring your attention and awareness back to your Dog’s breath. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t try to force anything. Continue for a few minutes.
After doing this for a little while, expand your awareness to include your own breath. Notice how your breath and your Dog’s breath have begun to synchronize a little. Don’t force anything, just allow the harmonious breathing to happen without judgment or criticism. Continue with this for a while until you both are feeling relaxed and calm.
Now you are going to begin the Metta Bhavana together. Leave your hand on your Dog’s heart, and place your other hand over your own. Begin to say to your Dog, either softly out loud or to yourself:
“May you be happy.”
“May you be peaceful.”
“May you be free of suffering.”
As you say this, try to feel your love and compassion going directly to your Dog’s heart from your own. Say these phrases a few times, feeling each word as you speak them.
Next: Say these words to yourself:
“May I be happy.”
“May I be peaceful.”
“May I be free of suffering.”
This is where we practice our self-compassion, which is essential for this process. We cannot have compassion for our Dogs unless we have it for ourselves first. Continue for a few minutes.
Next, imagine your Dog saying these words to you:
“May you be happy.”
“May you be peaceful.”
“May you be free from suffering.”
I have no doubt that our Dogs feel this way about us, so although we are saying the words for them, their intentions are there. Feel the love and compassion coming from your Dog’s heart directly to your own. Repeat this several times.
Finally, say these words together:
“May we be happy.”
“May we be peaceful.”
“May we be free from suffering.”
End this session by going back to Shared Mindfulness and rest in the awareness of you both breathing together. Experience the deep connection between you and your Dog, and savor this moment as long as you both desire to.
By doing Metta meditation with your Dog at least once or twice a week, the level of compassion in both of you with grow substantially, and your hearts will become more open to receive love. This merging of your hearts will lead to a more peaceful, harmonious and stress-free relationship. Isn’t that what true friendship is all about?