Open Heart “Mergery”

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“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 can 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 only please ourselves.  It is essential to do these practices on a regular basis in order 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.  

To begin, find a time where you and your Dog can sit both 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 you facial expressions.  Continue this for a while until you feel your Dog 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 judgements or criticism.  Continue with this for a while until the both of you 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, your 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 friendships are all about?

 

One Size Does Not Fit All

 

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“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our Dogs are distinct, one-of-a-kind individuals, not one can ever be duplicated in the history of the universe.  They are as unique as snowflakes – no two are ever alike. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to our relationship with them would be unfair and disrespectful.  Then how is it that so many “professional” trainers and behaviorists try to fit our Dogs into specific categories and boxes, and subscribe to“canned” answers to behavior problems?  A single technique is applied because they are not seeing our Dogs as friends and equals that we need to connect with, only as pets and property that need to be managed and controlled.

We live in a culture that expects instant gratification and immediate solutions to problems.  We “google” our way through troubles and difficulties, usually settling for lowest common denominator solutions and quick-fixes.  Many Dogs are abandoned, surrendered to shelters, abused and neglected because we attempt this pre-packaged approach with them.  We create expectations based on pages in a random book, or what some “expert”, who often only only sees our Dogs in specific situations and for a very brief period of time, says we should.  These expectations not only blur our vision, but they often prevent us from seeing all the great things about our Dogs, because we filter our vision through these limited expectations.  Our Dogs, as with other living creatures, must be seen for who they are – without prejudging them on their breed, gender or history.  If we are to achieve the connection with them that we really want – as friends – then we have to have an open mind, be flexible in our approach with them, and understand completely that the Dog in front of us is not just a statistic in some book, but a living, breathing, thinking and feeling miracle.

It all begins with appreciating, accepting and loving our dogs for who they are, not just what we want them to be.  It means seeing them as an “objet trouvé”, (art that is found as it is) as opposed to “objet d’art” (created art).  This defines unconditional love and acceptance – not contingent upon any behavior or action that we desire.  This is the root of any meaningful and deep friendship, what Aristotle called “friendship of the good”, the highest form of friendship as opposed to friendship based on contingencies and conditions.

True friendship continues by allowing our Dogs to be themselves as we support their autonomy so they can grow to their fullest potential – what true friends would want for each other, as opposed to a “what-can-you-do-for-me” attitude.

This also requires effective and compassionate communication, what I call the “effectiveness zone”, which is different for every Dog, and in every situation.  Here’s how it works:

Picture two horizontal lines, one above the other.  The top line represents the upper limit of effective communication and the bottom line represents the lower limit.  In between the lines is where our communication with our Dogs is most effective and most compassionate.  It’s like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  We want to find what’s “just right”.   Here’s an example:

If our Dog was about to run into the street when a car was approaching, obviously we would need to communicate to her that this would be a dangerous thing to do.  If we become too emotional and too extreme, (above the upper line), then she may not get the message and become panicky and fearful, possibly running into the path of the car.  If we are too laid-back with our communication, (below the line), then she wouldn’t get the message either and might run into the road.  We need to be somewhere right in between.  This is also true for positive communication, not just negative ones.  If we have asked our Dog to “sit” instead of jumping on us when we walk through the door, then too little praise, (below the line), will not be enough to tell him we appreciate his action.  If we over-praise and get him too excited and worked-up, (above the line), then he will likely jump up again.  

So how do we know when we are communicating in our Dog’s effectiveness zone?  We need to be sensitive to the feedback they give us at that moment, and not blindly follow some technique or method we read in a book or a “professional” trainer told us.  We need to connect and look at our Dogs and see if they understood what we were trying to tell them.  It’s the same thing we would do with a friend.  If we communicated with our friend, we might ask, “Did you understand?”, in order to know if we need to say it in a different way.  If we see that our Dogs did not get the message in the way we intended, we must change our approach.  This is how friends act with each other, an organic and not a mechanical process.

I always begin work with my clients by helping them understand that working with their Dog is a dialog and a conversation – not a monologue and a lecture.  It’s a respectful and compassionate back and forth “dance” where each partner has a say and where we share the role of leadership.  If we want a deep and vibrant connection with our Dogs; if we want to live with them in harmonious resonance, then we must treat each other as friends and equals, not as owner/pet.  We must see beyond the artificial and one-dimensional labels and boxes we put them in.  Only when we have removed the barriers of inequality and categorization can we effectively communicate with our Dogs, and fully connect with each other.  This requires us to appreciate each other for the individuals we are, and therefore “custom make” our friendship.  We can’t find that on the “one-size-fits-all” rack.

Stop Texting Your Dog!

EE366B26-8BE1-4BF9-A6B4-42401496982C“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

Schweitzer’s words, written over 60 years ago, ring truer today than at any other time in our history.  In our age of endless social media, texting, Skype, and emails, we have lost the art of physical and intimate connection.  We’ve replaced genuine laughter with “LOL”, a pat on the back with a “thumbs up” symbol, and our authentic emotional responses with smiley faces, sad faces, and a cacophony of emojis.  Symbolism is beginning to overtake reality as we become more and more separated from each other.

  Our Dogs can be the antidote for for this disconnected and lonely way of living.  By connecting with our Dogs, we can relearn how to better connect with each other.  

When was the last time you sat next to your Dog and pet her?  I’ll bet it was rather recent.  When was the last time you recall sitting and petting your Dog, without the television playing in the background, or your smart phone turned on?  Probably a lot longer.   In fact, I’m willing to wager that more often than not, we physically engage with our Dogs while we are distracted by other things such as watching television, checking our emails, or seeing how many “likes” we got on our photo of last night’s dinner plate we that just posted.  When we do this, we are missing one of life’s most precious gifts: the ability for two living beings to connect with each other.   

The benefits of a one-to-one connection are too numerous to count.  Touching helps our brains produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin, with is a natural antidote to stress.  Physical contact allows for the bi-directional flow of feelings. We get immediate feedback from another living being when we touch, as opposed to a one-way output via a smiley face emoticon and a “thumb’s up” response.  Even talking to our Dogs and having a conversation with them where we can look into each other’s eyes is more engaging, more satisfying, and more complete than typing on a plastic keyboard and staring at a glass or plastic screen.  (Recent studies have shown that talking to our Dogs is a sign of intelligence.)

There is an an art to this, and it is fast becoming a lost art.  We can use the the acronym A.R.T. To help guide us through the process and help us remember what we knew when we were children. A time when a “tweet” was the song of a bird in a tree.  

A.R.T. Stands for:   Awareness/Appreciation — Respect — Trust

Awareness/Appreciation:

If we remember that our dogs are constantly changing, dynamic individuals like us, then awareness and appreciation will come naturally.  Living things are not static.  Our dogs are different moment to moment, and to look away is to miss the miracle of the moment.  Einstein said:  “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”   This is exactly the way we must look at our Dogs.  If we are to fully connect with them, we must see them as a miracle in each moment.  The practice of Mindfulness is a great way to enhance our view.  Mindfulness is simply experiencing and engaging with the present moment without judging or evaluating.  It is not a “means to an ends”, but the ends themselves.  When we are with our Dogs, our attention should not always be on what to achieve with them.  It should be pure awareness of them right now. This will allow us to appreciate the miracle.  It’s like listening to a symphony — there is no goal but the enjoyment of the music itself.

The next time you are with your Dog, be aware of all the little things you may have missed because you were distracted.  Notice how their fur feels under your touch.  Pet them slowly so you can, as one of my teaches used to say, “feel each individual strand of fur.” Look into their eyes when you talk to them.  Do their eyes change?   As you touch them, notice any spots that make them tense up, or that make them melt into relaxation.  Listen to the sounds they make, smell their scent, feel their feelings.  A great exercise to do is Shared Mindfulness, and you can learn more about that here.

Respect:

As Aretha Franklin said, a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T goes a long way in creating a solid connection.  This means we are never going to force our dogs to sit with us and engage with us.  Dogs are self-determined beings and must be treated with the same respect we would want for ourselves.  If our Dogs do not want to be touched, then we don’t touch them.  If our Dogs want to chew their bone, nap, or get involved in another activity rather than sitting with us, that is their right and we are not to interfere.  When we are with them, we must be sensitive to the places they are not happy being handled.  If they don’t want their feet or face or ears, etc. touched, then we avoid doing that.  We should always ask the question, “Do we have our Dog’s consent?”  This respect is the foundation of trust. 

Trust:

As we become more present with our Dogs, and connect deeper, then trust will grow.  Trust is not something that can be forced, it is an organic process, and any forcing will surely kill it.  We wouldn’t pull on the stem of a flower to force it to grow faster.  The more we are aware and appreciate our Dogs in each moment, the more they will feel appreciated and validated.  Like us, they have the desire to be recognized and accepted.  The greater our respect is for them, and the less we act as owners and more like friends by allowing them their freedom and space, the closer they will get to us.  Trust is something sacred to all life.  The greater the trust, their deeper the connection.  It should never be taken for granted.  We must always be honest with our Dogs.  We should never use our moments of connection as a “training” exercise, or to try to cut their nails, etc.  Connection is never to be used for the purposes of control.

Trust, once broken, is difficult to repair.  Fortunately, our Dogs are much wiser than we are when it comes to trust, and are pretty forgiving.  That is a truly amazing gift they have, and one we must cherish and never abuse.

Modern technology has been a great benefit to us in so many ways, but it is a double-edged sword.  And as with anything, extremes can be damaging. We have to balance the digital world of instant gratification with the intimacy of a one-to-one connection.  Our Dogs are a great way to help us find this middle way.  We all know how to do this, we just need to be reminded.  Our Dogs are willing teachers.  We must make the time every day to truly connect with our Dogs, our Human friends, and the world around us.  This way, the next time we hear a “tweet”, maybe instead of staring at our phones, we’ll close our eyes and listen to the birds.