Mindfulness is a Dog’s Specialty. Want Some?

Mindfulness is this ‘buzz word’ these days, but it really isn’t a fad.  Fads are dumb.  This mindfulness stuff, though?  It’s actually a real thing.

If humans would ask their animal friends about mindfulness, we would help them understand it so much better.  We try to show you folks mindfulness all the time.  It’s just that very few of you pause to listen.

Mindfulness is “being here, now.”

Which seems like it would be simple, only, it isn’t.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.  – John Kabat-Zinn

The human brain is special, in that it is equipped to be able to be able to “travel” to three different places.  The lands of Past, Present, and Future are all possible places for you to visit.  It’s like having your own DVD remote controller inside of your head!  You can and do hit rewind, fast-forward, or play—-all on the television screen of your own imagination.  You, because you are a human, can project yourself back into the (imagined) past, or off into the (imagined) future—all inside the invisible (but oh-so-real-feeling) walls of your mind.

It will even seem as if you are really there, and your body will even physically respond as if it is real (even though, technically speaking, your body can only be in the present moment).  Even your body forgets where it is when your mind is telling a story.

In short, your mind is POWERFUL.

Just hanging out on the floor, minding my own business, innocently waiting for the humans to leave…

And that’s been a real tool for humans.  Because humans could look at the past and look towards the future, people could learn from past mistakes and build amazing things to improve their futures.  This has benefited humans in innumerable ways and has also benefited the dog family, because I can’t plan very well for tomorrow.  Someone with a brain-that-thinks-ahead was able to build this house and bring in these comfy couches (that I’m not supposed to lay on, but no one can tell me no if they leave me here all alone, now can they?)…

Good thing someone around here can think ahead!

Dog life is simple.  Let me sum up my current thoughts:

  • Am I hungry?  YES!
  • Are you fixing my breakfast right now?  YES!
  • So, do I feel happy?  YES!

Life is fairly uncomplicated when you are a dog.  We make a good team, my sidekick and I, because her human ability to think both forward and backwards has a lot of nice perks.  For example, my human sidekick could use her time-traveling brain to plan ahead and stock me up on treats for a month (cough)…

Your amazing time-traveling brain is a wonderful tool, too, but only as long as you are in charge of it.  Because, for most humans, your brain tends to focus more on the negative than it does on the positive.  It was wired to help you survive in harsh conditions, after all, right?  So, just because you live in a cozy apartment right now doesn’t mean that your survival-level brain programming knows to lay off the problem-focused thinking already.  It’s still living in the world of caves and saber-tooth tigers

This means, perhaps late at night while you are falling asleep, your brain is more likely to travel back in time to think depressingly about what it thinks went wrong, or anxiously muse itself into a projected future full of what will go wrong.  And that sort of time-travel doesn’t add anything helpful to your life.

“Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”  —-Jesus Christ

It’s not that you want to get rid of your time-traveling brain.  It’s an amazing tool and it does you a lot of favors.  You just don’t want the time-traveling brain to be the boss of you.  Because, when it tends to wax negative, critical, and hopeless (which then gets you all depressed and/or anxious), you need to be able to pop out of that mind-story-world and into the world that actually exists.

You want to be the boss of your story-telling mind, and not the other way around.   So, take charge of the remote!  But how do you establish boss-hood with your mind?  You learn how to make contact with the present moment.  You teach yourself how to mindfully visit the present moment whenever you desire.

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” –– James Baraz

You aren’t actually in the past.  You aren’t in the future, either.  Those things are just stories that your mind is telling you.

Sure, some of the difficult memories might even be helpful to mull over, as maybe there are lessons to be learned from them (and you certainly can’t learn from things unless you thoughtfully reflect on them), but that’s different than getting stuck in them.  That’s different from beating yourself up about them, mired down in depression, with nowhere to turn but yet another story about the awfulness of everything.

No one learns from beating themselves up.  You want to be able to mull over painful experiences constructively and when you choose to, not when your story-telling brain says you have to.

And, sure, you need to be able to put yourself into possible future scenarios, because that’s a requirement in order to make and set goals, to delay instant gratification, to get organized, and enjoy the fruits of your labors.  But that’s different from getting stuck “future-casting” some negative hell-story of your brain’s own making.  Isn’t that what anxiety is?  Imagining scenarios where everything goes wrong, where you are wrong, where they are wrong, where everything is a disaster…?  No, thank you.  Get out of that imaginary scene!

How can you do that?  Establish contact with the present moment.

You are here.  Right now.  Breath.  Because, right now, everything is okay.

How do I know this?  Well, what is happening where you are right now in this big wide world?  Look around you with your eyes and notice what you see.  Take a deep breath with your nose and notice what you smell.  Reach out with your hand and touch what you are sitting on and notice how it feels.  Listen with your ears and notice what you hear.

You are right here, right now.  And, right now, everything is okay.

And that, my human friends, is the essence of mindfulness.  To be able to get yourself out of your time-traveling brain’s story, because you are actually here, right now.  Just here.  Not telling stories about what is here, not analyzing what is here, and not judging what is here (that’s all your mind, chattering away, and we’re ignoring it right now). Just be here.

Strategic Sunbeaming.
Maltese: Level Boss

Watch me and my little Maltese buddy whenever a sunbeam shines through the window.  Do you know what we do?  We go lay in it.  We don’t worry that the sunbeam will move or disappear soon.  We don’t gloom over the fact that the sunbeam wasn’t there yesterday.  We live in the present moment and, because of that, we rock that sunbeam.

So, if you need extra tutoring, check in with your pet.  We are experts on this.

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

Right now is a good place.  You are a good person to be here with.  There are a lot of things going right for you, here, in the right now of this moment.

“Mindfulness is loving all the details of our lives, and awareness is the natural thing that happens: life begins to open up, and you realize that you’re always standing at the center of the world.”  —Pema Chodron

Even in the midst of whatever messes you may be struggling with from your past or for your future, beautiful things are still all around you.  Right now, you are okay.  All you have to do is enter into Right Now, being here in this present moment, and you can see it for yourself.

Your five senses are your guide to getting here.  Let those amazing five senses tell you all about what it happening, right here, right now.

I don’t know where you live, but Spring is here in the great Far North, and being outside is a fantastic place to practice being mindful.  Some people call this “grounding,” which I like, as I am a big fan of the ground.  There is mud to romp in, now that the snow is melting down (which is especially fun right after a nice bath, because it makes my sidekick emit these hilarious noises).  Birds are singing, worms are crawling, and there are all sorts of things to taste, such as a few bones that I buried last summer that are probably perfectly ripe now!  Somewhere…  (That’s the one problem with being so good at having a “present-moment” mind).

No worries, because digging is fun in its own right.  I think I’ll start in that one spot that my sidekick’s calls, “the Flow Er Gar Den.”  Something about that spot just inspires me.  Green stuff is coming up there, so if I can’t find my bones, at least I can enjoy munching on some tasty bulbs.  And if I can’t find the bulbs, it’s thrilling just to bury my nose in the earth and use my powerful legs to spray that dirt all over the yard.  That’s my kind of “grounding.”

Whatever it is I’m doing, I’m fully present while I’m doing it.  Because there are so many wonderful things everywhere.

Join me.  Be here, now.  Delicious moments of bliss abound.

“Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance.”   ― Amit Ray

The Myth of “Bad” Feelings, Morality Isn’t For Emotions, and Soul Gardening

POPULAR MYTH:  Some Feelings are “Bad.”

ACTUAL FACT:  It’s impossible for feelings to be ‘bad.’

Feelings are just feelings.  They aren’t moral.  To moralize something means to decide that it’s an issue of goodness or badness.  If something is a moral issue, it requires you to decide what side it’s on.  Is it good?  Is it evil?  Better get it right!

But feelings aren’t moral.  They just are.  Dogs know this, but it’s something that humans can sure struggle with, especially when they come from communities or families that moralize feelings.  I call that “Good/Badding.”  That’s when you can’t feel anything without having to decide whether that feeling is good or bad.  What a pain in the rump.

We dogs just feel what we feel.  And it’s okay.

Are some feelings uncomfortable or unpleasant?  Of course.

But the feelings aren’t morally wrong.  Because feelings aren’t bad.  Some just aren’t very fun to experience.  That’s quite different from being bad.

Moralizing feelings creates all sorts of problems for humans.  Once you moralize something, you have to act on what you’ve moralized.  If it’s bad, you’d better defend yourself against it (or attack it, or RUN).  This is why the human brain, having decided that some feelings are bad, will then do all sorts of wild things in an attempt to get rid of the “bad” feelings.  Because “bad” is something that you naturally want to protect yourself from.

Examples of the natural protective urges include rage, defensiveness, self-righteousness, silence, sarcasm, stuffing, denial, self-sabotage, condemnation, shame, avoidance, contempt, and so much more.  These are all things that harm our relationships with others and with our own selves.  Ugh.  Interestingly, while these things are all done in order to avoid those big “bad” feelings, the attempts all end up causing even more difficult feelings in the end.

In actuality, the problem isn’t the difficult feeling.

The problem is how the human is relating to the feeling.

If you are alive, then you’ve felt an unpleasant feeling a time or two.  Emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, shame, anxiousness, terror, disgust—those can all be so difficult to experience, especially when they are intense.  But they aren’t bad.  Emotions aren’t right or wrong.  They just are, so please do stop good/badding them.  Why?  Because how we think about our emotions makes a big difference in how we can then choose to handle them.  If you aren’t wasting your energy making an emotion bad (which then makes it a threat to you), you will then have energy to relate to the emotion in a healthy way.

This one time, my human buddy took me to a hockey rink to sit in the stands with her and, I swear, I thought that the bleachers were going to swallow me whole!  She kept telling me that I was safe, but I was having big feelings and they were NOT fun to feel.  My whole body was shaking and I just wanted to run away.

She just kept petting me and reassuring me that I was going to be fine.  That was nice.  I’ve noticed that when humans get mean (or scared) about their unpleasant emotions because they mistakenly think the emotion is bad, they never make it through to the other side of them.  So do try to pet your poor anxious self when you are feeling the feels.  Especially focus around the ears.  Oh, yeah.  That spot right there.

The Holy Book of Animal Wisdom, written into my DNA code, says,

“Be nice to yourself when you are having difficult emotions.”

I do wish humans would read from that book more often.

It can be hard to not be afraid of your unpleasant emotions if no one ever taught you how to be nice to yourself way back when you were a little pup.  But you can still learn how to take care of your feelings now.  It’s never too late.

If you think about this scientifically, emotions are part of our built-in survival network.  That’s not a bad or good thing.  It’s just biological.  I have anxiety about some things for a reason.  My body and brain are wired to keep me safe.  When I encounter a new thing that I don’t yet have information about, such as (big, loud, bright, populated!) hockey rinks, my wonderful and amazing brain logs it as something that might be a threat.  The surge of anxiety it sends helps me stay alert and ready to respond, if needed, to a problem.

That emotional response of anxiety is there to help me to stay safe.  It’s natural.  I don’t create it or think about it or cause it.  It’s a feeling.  It just happens to me.

I don’t have to obey it.  But I also don’t have to discount it, run from it, or stuff it.

I can just notice it.

“Hm.  I’m feeling anxiety.  Would ya look at that…”

My body wasn’t sure if this was safe, so it filled me up with a feeling so that I could be ready to run or fight if needed.  Makes sense.  In this case, though, I was safe.  (Or so my sidekick says.  I’m still working on this one).  She is the soothing voice that helps me learn that it’s okay to be in this bright loud place.  As I slowly learn that the rink is not a threat to me, I can gradually relax and then can adjust my worldview to incorporate hockey rinks as yet one more fun place to spend time with my humans.

I can look at my emotions kindly, with curiosity, just noticing them, and then I can decide what to do with them.

Because I am willing to endure the feelings, walking through my anxiety, I will get to move out to the other side of it and get more of what I want out of my life, which happens to be to accompany my humans EVERYWHERE they go.  Maybe next they will let me try going to that ska-oool place.  It looks amazing.  All those kids just sitting around with no dog to pet.  And so many pencils to chew on.  Mmmmm.

Being sentient beings on this planet means that we will have unpleasant emotions.  Making peace with this is an important part of embracing life.  And learning what in the world to do with the emotions, once we’ve made peace with the fact that they will be there, is where gaining wisdom comes in.

As I mentioned earlier, some people ascribe to the method of getting rid of The “Bad” Feelz.  But when you say no to one sort of emotions, you also say no to all of the other ones.  There is no such thing as only shutting down the “bad” emotions.

Think about all of the things that you might feel during a typical day.  There are a lot of emotions happening, aren’t there?  Unpleasant emotions often come all mixed together with enjoyable emotions.  Emotions can be a lot like a big ball of yarn.  Yes, I said that especially for my cat loving fans.  Even if cats are mostly unpleasant.  But I digress.

If you run around moralizing the unpleasant emotions, calling them bad and trying to get rid of them, you will have to throw out the whole ball of yarn and end up missing out on the lovely emotions that were there for you to experience!  What a bummer that would be.  Especially if you have a cat.

Fortunately, there is a simple fix for this.  It’s found in not good/badding your feelings.  Because feelings, in and of themselves, aren’t moral.  They just happen.  You don’t choose them.  They instantly and naturally arise.  They just pop up, like bubbles from the bottom of a spring pond.  It’s what you do with the feelings that can become an issue of good or bad (or healthy versus unhealthy).

Adulting is hard. Frequent naps are recommended.

Though, yes, it’s hard work to handle feelings in a healthy way, especially if you haven’t learned how to do it yet.  It takes some effort and practice (and a lot of compassion for yourself while you’re trying to grow yourself up).

It’s a lot like planting a garden, only this one is in your soul.  You have to dig around a lot in the dirt.  Your back might get sore.  You will probably need to consult books and expert gardeners for help from time to time.  Your fingernails will definitely get gross.  You will put in a huge effort and then it will just look like nothing is happening for awhile.  When (finally!) some evidence of your hard work starts becoming visible, it will be only be in the form of little baby shoots of green.  Tender.  Delicate.  Looking nothing like a mature plant.  Ugh.  You will then have to carefully weed on a regular basis, because unwanted things might try to grow in all that nice fresh soil.  And there still won’t be any actual fruit for a while.  You will have to trust the process.   But it’s worth it.

There is a really nice harvest, for those who are willing to get their hands dirty.

Feelings aren’t bad.  They are part of who you are.  And you aren’t bad.  If you doubt me, consult your Holy Book of Animal Wisdom.  It says that you are precious and definitely worthy of love.  Trust me.  I’m a dog.  I know stuff.

My Girlfriend Wants to Check My Phone. Am I Wrong for Feeling Uncomfortable About It?

Dear Hagrid,

My girlfriend’s last boyfriend cheated on her.  I don’t do that kind of thing, being a faithful kind of guy, but she says that she now has trust issues and the only way that she will feel better is to check my phone all the time.  I feel bad for her…but I also feel invaded by this.  Otherwise, the relationship is great.  What do I do?

Faithful Dude

Yes.  As a dog, I get this.  There are certain things that are for everybody to sniff, like the beautifully-yellow-hued snowbanks at the entrance of my favorite walking trail. There are other things that aren’t, such as my breakfast.  Key word, my.

Some things belong to the group (whether that’s a family, community, or couple) and some things belong only to the individual. It’s the process of figuring out “what’s what” that can get complicated, and this is especially a problem for humans, because the nuances of your social lives are so much more knotty than snowbanks and my morning meal.

My psychotherapist friend calls these things, “boundaries.”  Boundaries are the lines, visible and invisible, that tell people who is responsible to take care of what.  And some boundaries are really basic.  Physical boundaries, like fences, walls, and even bodies, are easy to see and therefore fairly easy to respect.  You don’t walk into your neighbor’s house without being invited, because if you did, it would be trespassing.  Trespassing is a violation of boundaries.

Boundaries tell us where something starts and stops.  The physical boundaries of this vehicle are keeping me from busting a move into the busy parking lot, where I would have had SO MUCH FUN. Ugh.  Submitting to boundaries can be tough sometimes…

My human sidekick had to explain this whole concept to her daughter’s little chihuahua.  Coco, who can squeeze through anything, thought it would be totally cool to visit the neighbor’s garage and help herself to a most exquisite smelling bag of kitchen trash.  I barked to tell Coco to stop, but she wouldn’t listen to me.  (Okay, so, actually, I barked out of jealousy and then I tried to dig a gigantic hole under the fence so that I could fit through it and go join her, but that’s besides the point).

The point is, this isn’t just a human problem.  But it’s a whole lot trickier for humans than it is for dogs.  You folks are complex.

You’d think that physical boundaries would be so simple that no one would violate them, but humans have trouble with this kind of stuff.  Even when the lines are clear cut, some folks struggle.  Humans always have.  (Think of some of the earliest stories and myths—most of them involve stealing this, taking that, fighting over who gets what)…

If people have trouble with physical boundaries, it goes without saying that humans will have all sorts of confusion surrounding the invisible boundaries of human relationships.  Consider, for a moment, the personal boundary of inner belief.  In a healthy boundary system, what a person believes is their individual business. But other humans have created whole entire wars, and still do, all because they don’t understand that it is a boundary violation to try to force someone to believe something that they simply don’t.

So how do you know when a thing is within your sphere or not?  A really good way to figure out where the invisible boundaries are is to ask, “Who is responsible for what?”

Who is responsible for taking care of your phone?   That’s a pretty easy question.  You are.  It’s your phone.

Who is responsible for taking care of your emotions? That is a trickier question (and a key sticking spot in co-dependent relationships as well as in abusive ones).  Often, a humans will mistakenly think that someone else is responsible for taking care of one’s own feelings.  And, um, no.

The people around you will ideally be sensitive to your feelings.  They will be understanding, kind, and supportive.  As sidekicks.  Not as the people in charge of your feelings.  Why?  Because each person is in charge of their own feelings.

Your feelings are yours.  That means you are responsible for them and for how you want to manage them.   That means your girlfriend’s feelings are hers.  That means you aren’t responsible for managing them.

Yes, your girlfriend got hurt.  That’s a very real thing.  It’s traumatizing to be in a committed relationship and find out that the other person isn’t as committed as they claimed to be.  She felt betrayed.  She felt deeply wounded.  She felt shocked.  She felt confused.  She thought she was safe to trust, but she wasn’t.  Those are some big feelings going on, there.

Here is the complicated part and something that is her responsibility to work through.  In situations where a deep boundary violation occurred, a lot of people also turn to type of self-blame.   It is their well-intentioned brain’s way of helping them figure out how to be safe next time.

It’s just a mind-story, and it’s not even rational, but it feeeeels so reassuring to the emotion center of the brain that it’s really hard to think it through more carefully.  (Once something feels good, a lot of humans tend to just go with it).

“What?  There is something that I can do to ensure that this will never happen again?  Yes!  I’ll get right on it!”  It feels so handy, so practical, so relieving.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I bet that your girlfriend is probably thinking things like, “If only I had been paying better attention, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”  And, since she thinks that there is something that she could do to prevent this from happening to her again, she’s going to do it. Which includes constantly reading your phone.

But, wait.  Let’s say you aren’t a nice guy.  Just being hypothetical here.  What if you are flirting with other women or planning to cheat on her?  Let’s say that you are the kind of guy who won’t respect her boundaries because he will view his wants and needs as more important than hers, and he isn’t interested in changing that.  Will reading through your phone solve that problem for her?

No.

You would just figure out ways to hide it better.  Because her checking her partner’s phone religiously does not make her any safer.  Why not?  Because the problem isn’t her level of vigilance.

That wasn’t ever the problem.  The problem is that she was with someone who chooses not to respect the mutually agreed-upon boundary of commitment.

(Sidenote: as a dog, here, when that is the case, I’d then recommend considering the ultimate “safety” plan, which is to talk to some healthy people, get support, and then figure out how to safely remove yourself from that relationship.  Your time on this planet is precious.  Why spend it with someone who is isn’t interested in respecting you?  Ain’t nobody got no time for that)…

But, assuming you are a nice guy who wants to respect your partner’s boundaries and works to treat her with love and kindness, you are now struggling, hence your letter to me, because you have a girlfriend who wants to “stay safe” from your potential choice to cheat on her.  She has an idea in her head that you might cheat.  And she is treating you as if.

As if you will.  Because now she knows, first-hand, that some people do.  She thinks that unless she is vigilant, she will be cheated on again, so she decides that she will set up boundaries that act as if it is a high risk relationship where her safety is ever in doubt.  And that, unfortunately, doesn’t work so well in a healthy relationship.

Who is responsible for your phone and for your communications on it?

You.  So that’s your business.  Not hers. If she doesn’t trust you, or doesn’t like some of your communications, it is her job to discuss this with you, make her preferences known, and then make a decision about what she wants to do with your choices.  That part is her business.  Not to manage your communications, but to decide what to do about how you manage your communications.

Who is responsible for your girlfriend’s need to feel safe after being cheated on?

Her.  That’s her business.  She has to figure out how she is going to do the work to heal her heart.  She can’t figure that out at your expense.  The answer to solving her sense of betrayal is not going to be found in her demanding that she violate your boundaries.  That is solving one problem by doing the same underlying thing, albeit on a much lesser scale.  So, while it might make her feel better in the moment, it’s problematic in terms of growing healthy boundaries.  It’s simply not the kind of behavior that will nurture and grow a healthy love.

Does she need to figure out how she is going to emotionally navigate serious relationships, now that she knows that a partner could potentially betray her?  Yes.  But, in ways that respect you both.

If your girlfriend wants to have a healthy relationship, she has got to step back and let you be responsible for you (and she can then take a load off and only be responsible for herself).

Which might not be safe.  You might betray her.  She might get hurt again.

But, she can’t know that for sure.  That’s only a “might.”  A maybe.  A possibility.

That’s the tough thing about love.  It always comes with risk.  Because we can’t control other people or the things that may or may not happen.  We can only do our best to make the wisest choices we know to make at the time.  Part of having an open heart towards someone is accepting that it may include the pain of loss.

Based on all of the facts available, it sounds like you are interested in being a good boyfriend to her.  It sounds like you place a high value on commitment and trust.  It sounds like you want to treat her well.  You show concern for her traumatic experience and you want to handle it with sensitivity, while also showing concern for her violation of your privacy.  In short, you sound like a guy who is interested in respecting her and respecting yourself.  This is a good thing.

And, I’m guessing that you probably feel compassion for her, given that it is a terrible thing to experience relational betrayal.  Just because she is responsible for her emotions doesn’t mean that you can’t care about her emotions.  Of course you will care.  Your girlfriend went through a really tough thing.

Because of this, you might choose to allow her to read through your phone from time to time.  Only if you want to.  Not because she demands to.  Not because she has to.  But because it is yours and you are willing to invite her in as a guest.  That generous invitation might help her feel a little bit better, too.  And you won’t resent it, that way, because it’s your choice.

That action, when it comes from your own free will, will feel bonding and connective to you both.  Because your boundaries are respected, you are free to reassure her in ways that are healthy for you both.

My beautiful morning (fence-free!) run.

As for me, that’s enough human boundary talk for one day.  I’ve got work to do out in the backyard.

The psychology of dog boundaries is a lot more simple, which makes things easier for those of us who live in the canine family.  Like, if the food is out, it’s fair game.  And whoever is the biggest and gets to the food first, gets it. I try to respect those human boundaries, because I do dearly enjoy you people, but you still might not want to leave any bags of trash out on the ground by your front door.  Because I am really good at digging holes.  Just saying.