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Everything I know about mindfulness, I learned from my dog

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Dogs know, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. 

The practice of contemporary mindfulness offers us an alternative way of relating to our environment, while managing our internal experiences and emotions without being judgmental or overly reactive.

Human beings, unlike other animals in the animal kingdom, devote a significant amount of time to thinking about what’s NOT going on around them, contemplating incidents which happened in the past, might occur in the future, or will never occur at all. Dogs are mindful by nature.

Naturally, since our brains are wired much differently than our animal friends, when our minds spend so much time focused on things we have no control over, mindfulness takes a certain level of intention. Mindfulness means deliberately paying attention to the present moment from a position of openness, acceptance and curiosity. 

The Zen of Dogs

Misiek is wearing a sweatshirt from The Togetherness Collection

Misiek is wearing a sweatshirt from The Togetherness Collection

One of the great things about dogs is that, in addition to helping us combat stress[1], they are also fantastic mindfulness teachers. Dogs not only have an incredible ability to focus on what’s right in front of them, they also don’t really care about our plans. My dog has a habit of interrupting those random streams of thought, which I might feel are very important, but serve no purpose other than cluttering my mind with distractions.

If we are together, he instinctively wants me to focus on him, not on what’s going on in my preoccupied mind. His mind is focused on play & play is just mindfulness in action. Think about it, when you’re playing, whether it’s playing a sport or playing with your dog you’re not worried about the future and what’s happening tomorrow; you’re fully occupied in the game and engaged in what you’re doing at the present moment. 

Although, initially, this seemed like a bad thing, it actually helped release me from living in my own internal mental clutter by bringing me back to reality. Just interacting with your dog is an opportunity to purposely focus your attention on the present moment. For this reason, animals, especially dogs, can help us in learning to effectively practice mindfulness. 

At the heart of any mindfulness practice is awareness. To put it simply, the art of paying attention. We face so many distractions throughout our day, that it can be very helpful to deliberately and consciously spend a few minutes taking notice of what’s going on around us. 

Dogs are the masters of focus. My dog, Misiek, throws himself unequivocally into everything he does. His innate ability to concentrate on a single activity, whether it’s finding squirrels in the park or getting some scraps from the kitchen table, or playing fetch for two hours, while shutting out every other distraction, is seriously awe-inspiring.

This monotasking can be helpful when practicing mindfulness. When we multitask and do too many things at once, we're fragmenting our attention and the effectiveness of our output is weakened. Although accomplishing one task at a time may take longer, however when we focus on one specific task, we experience less distraction, less information overload, and feel less overwhelmed.

 Whether it’s taking notice of the details of our environment and our surroundings, or simply noticing the thoughts running through our head, you are acknowledging the present moment. This act in itself may loosen any intensity around the stress which you might be feeling. 

The Stress Factor 

It’s easy to go through life on autopilot. However, if we slowed down just a little and more deliberately reflected on why we do the things we do and how we spend our time, it could help us feel happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. 

According to Dr. Joe Dispenza, an author and researcher, animals also have the ability to exhibit a stress response. However, their memory is limited to a significantly smaller neocortex. This protects the animal from contemplating the past or worrying about the future, for example, about predators they may potentially face. Instead, the stress response only protects the animal in the moment they are threatened by a predator. Before and after, their mind and body return to a state of homeostasis (the state of maintaining stability).[2] 

In humans, stress is one of the biggest hindrances on the way to mindfulness.  Many of us live in overly stressed environments. With jam-packed schedules, people are extremely busy (some to the point of exhaustion) and anxiety levels are sky-high. When we are overly reactive and overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, it is often difficult to focus on what really matters.  

Feeling stressed and overwhelmed doesn’t just impact our mind, but our body gets a piece of the action as well. We may feel drained and incomplete and forget to appreciate all that we are and all that we have right now.  

In extreme cases, according to The National Institute of Mental Health,[3] chronic stress can lead to numerous health issues, including increased risk for depression and anxiety, difficulties with memory learning, and concentration, trouble sleeping and a lowered immune system function. All of which make it challenging to be calm, composed and grounded in the present moment. Research suggests mindfulness can enhance health and well-being in addition to helping reduce stress.

According to Marwan Sabbagh, MD[4], the Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”

By spending time with your pets and engaging in activities with them, you can let go of stress and bring your body into a more serene, calm and positive state, which is a vital part of mindfulness. 

Confidence Coach

We all know dogs provide us with unconditional, non-judgmental love. This message can prove helpful for working towards body positivity. Dogs love us no matter what we look like and when we’re with our fur babies, we can stop obsessing about our appearance. 

My dog, Misiek, is strong, confident, and insanely comfortable with being himself. But that’s normal for dogs, since they are also the masters of body positivity and radical self-acceptance. While humans obsess over their appearance and what others may think about them, dogs don’t feel remorse over things which they have no control over. Dogs are not preoccupied about their uncontrollable gas or that they drool when they smell food. 

We love all dogs, no matter what they look like and how big or small they may be. We place no judgement on their bodies or their appearance. We would never judge a mutt like Misiek for not looking like a purebred German Shepherd. So, why would we do that to ourselves?

Take a Moment 

Mindfulness not only challenges us to see, appreciate and experience each moment vividly, it offers a way of managing many issues we face on an everyday basis, so that we may achieve a healthier balance in life.  Putting our minds into a calm state is helpful in overcoming our usual tendency to dwell on negative thoughts and emotions. 

Dogs are undeniably remarkable mindfulness teachers, if we take the time to notice the lessons. The past is behind you, the future lies ahead, however, life is truly experienced in the present moment.

In addition to mindfulness, my dog has taught me to not sweat the small stuff. Sometimes bad things WILL happen, but that does not mean we have to ruminate on the event for all eternity. We need to recognize its reality, determine if it deserves our attention and act appropriately.

Take it from Misiek: If you can’t eat it, or play with it, then just pee on it and walk away.  

What mindfulness lessons have you learned from your pets?

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