What do your dog and a meditation exercise have in common?

Stupid question right. However, they both have the potential to be a tool to offer a moment of mental peace and awareness, where you don’t have to be caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings. A moment without judgment. A moment with purpose. A moment of peace. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But the real question is, how can a dog make you feel that way? Bear with me for a moment, while I explain.

The key concept I’m referring to is the concept of mindfulness meditation. I’ve always adored people who have the discipline to meditate regularly. I didn’t, despite knowing it worked. I did courses on it and I had read many studies about it, and yet…still didn’t do it regularly enough.  Every time I contemplated doing it, I thought to myself “Well, let’s be honest, I’m not that organized. I love sleeping in. I’m too lazy for it, despite it’s amazing benefits”.  And believe me, I was ashamed to admit that, as well….I’m a clinical psychologist and coach, and knew what a powerful tool mindfulness can be, and still I didn’t do it. And neither did a lot of my clients. They all told me, “I can see it work, but I’m just not sticking with it. I struggle to do it regularly.”

But what if I told you that there is a way to make this easier? What if I told you, that you could get the benefits of mindfully meditating through engaging with your dog in a certain way? What if I told you, engaging with your dog can have similar effects to doing a 10-minute breathing meditation? Wouldn’t that make the concept of meditating more attractive? To me, it would. 100%.

What do I mean when I talk about mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an ancient Eastern practice, which is very relevant for our lives today. It’s a very simple concept, and means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Many people use meditation as a tool to get to a place of awareness, and as a tool to gain resilience and wellbeing in their daily life. People use it as technique to reduce stress, improve their mood, ground themselves to notice what is really important to them, and overall stay resilient in this crazy thing called life. Life isn’t fair, so how do you make it work?

Mindfulness is simply a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, smells - anything we might not normally notice. The actual skills might be simple, but because it is so different to how our minds normally behave, it takes a lot of practice.

Have you ever been on “automatic pilot” while driving? You get out of the car but you can’t remember much about the trip there?

In the same way, we may not really be “present”, moment-for-moment, for much of our lives: We can often be “miles away” without knowing it.  And this state of mind is a threat to our wellbeing, as we engage in bad habits of thinking that may lead to unhelpful actions and a worsening mood. This is how we become stuck in life. Scientific studies have shown numerous times how beneficial mindfulness is to our mind’s health and overall physical health,  so we know it works.

By becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, from moment to moment, we give ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice; we do not have to follow the same old “mental ruts” that may have caused problems in the past. Mindfulness is a tool that many may find helpful to stop self- sabotaging themselves.

And your dog is, in my opinion, the best way to practice mindfulness. It’s a crazy idea. True. But it works.

Why? Dog lovers (aka you, as let’s be honest, only dog lovers read my posts) looooove engaging with their dog. If the dog likes being touched and patted, the dog owner treasures these moments of engagement and company, and many people look forward to it after a long day at work. We love patting and engaging with our dogs. So why not combine something you love doing with something that is amazing for your health?

So here is how you use your dog’s company as a way to mindfully meditate. This is a win-win situation: You get to hang out with your dog AND you are meditating and working on your wellbeing. Isn’t that awesome? So here are the guidelines:

10 Mindful Pats

1.    This is a VERY important rule. Never force yourself onto your dog. You are not paying the dog a yoga studio membership, so it has the right to decline your invitation for company.  Although we are aiming for 10 pats, this exercise only lasts as long as your dog enjoys it.

2.    Assume a comfortable position for you and your dog.

3.    Place your hand on a part of your dog’s body where it enjoys being patted

4.    Direct your attention towards the sensation of the touch of your dog’s fur.  Close your eyes. Become curious: What does it feel like? What is the temperature and texture like? How would you describe this sensation in detail?

5.    Start patting the dog. Use slow, gentle and long strokes. Stay curious about each single sensation you are experiencing.

6.    With all of your attention, try to stay in the present moment of touching your dog’s fur, without being critical. For instance, don’t use words associated with good or bad. For example, if your dog is wet from the rain outside, don’t describe it as “this feels yucky”. “Yucky” is a composition of sensation. Which ones? Maybe cold? Maybe sticky? Maybe smelly?

7.    When thoughts (e.g. work, difficult situations, etc.), emotions, physical feelings or external sounds occur, simply accept them.  Just notice them, without getting caught up. It is a big difference in “I notice I’m having a thought about work” or “Oh bother, how am I going to fix that problem at work?” Don’t get caught up in your thoughts. Let them pass like moving clouds in the sky. Even if the same thought keeps coming back, just try to notice it, without needing to follow the urge to think about it in detail. Re-direct your attention to patting your dog.

8.    It is okay and natural for thoughts to arise, and for your attention to follow them. No matter how many times this happens, just keep bringing your attention back to patting your dog. Do this in a compassionate, non-critical way. It is normal that our mind tries to sidetrack us.

9.    Stop after 10 pats and stay kind and compassionate with yourself. IT TAKES PRACTICE. ;)

Now I’m mediating every day, and I love it.  And so does my dog Luna. :) Please share this article if you know a person who could benefit from this.  It is such a simple, yet effective way of doing something good for yourself. And that’s what the mission of Paws In Life Coaching is all about: Strengthening the human-canine bond with evidence-based methods to improve your wellbeing.

We’d love to hear from your experience, Birdy & Luna.

Resources:

http://www.mindfulnet.org/index.htm

http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/

http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/10.MindfulnessinEverydayLife.pdf

https://www.thehappinesstrap.com/mindfulness

http://au.reachout.com/what-is-mindfulness

http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACF3C5B.pdf