My office desk overlooks a street on which people in the neighbourhood walk their dogs every day. In the past ten years I’ve noticed a trend that saddens me. Instead of taking their dogs for a walk as they used to, these days many people are more likely to be hunched over their phones while holding the dog’s lead.
Sure they are going through the motions of taking the dog for a walk. But it is Dog Walk Lite. The dog is no longer the focus of their attention. Sometimes the poor animal seems to be an irritating distraction. One teenage girl, forever engrossed in her screen, was always tugging her ageing Border Collie’s leash whenever he wanted to stop and sniff at something he no doubt found as arresting as whatever had her glued to her screen.
As a society, I wonder if we are forgetting how to be present with our pets? How to honour the fact that they are sentient beings too? How, just like us, they may seek happiness, excitement, new things, novelty. How, unlike us, much of the time their freedom of movement is constrained – for a dog, going for a walk may be his or her only opportunity to engage with the broader world that day.
In our homes, screens of one sort or another also distract us as never before. We are allowing virtual interactions to rob us of real interactions with sentient beings whose world is wholly dependent on ours. Beings with all too brief lifespans.
That teenage girl I mentioned has been walking the collies since she was quite young. My wife and I know her family. One of the collies died a few years ago. Last month, having not seen her out for a while, I bumped into her father who said that the remaining dog had died. I felt so sorry for the dog and the missed opportunities especially of those final, precious walks on earth. I felt sorry for the girl, and what she’d missed out on too.
For if we let them, our pets can be the most delightful reminders to be present in this moment. Here and now. To let go of whatever thoughts are preoccupying us. To focus our attention on our animal companion and, to whatever extent we are able, experience the world through them. It’s hard not to smile when watching a dog bounding across an open space of parkland with self-evident joy. Or to be touched by a sleepy cat purring appreciatively while being stroked. The image at the top of this blog was posted by someone online after a relationship break-up: it felt to them like their cat had picked up on their mood and was offering comfort. Why not be open to the love and compassion we can discover in each moment, whatever our species?
Neuro-scientists refer to ‘direct’ mode when we pay attention directly to our senses, as opposed to ‘narrative’ mode when we’re caught up in our own inner narrative or thoughts. Unsurprisingly, there is a powerful and positive correlation between being in direct mode and being happy.
You might say that our pets not only provide us with opportunities to be mindful. In so doing, they also offer us the gift of happiness. The only question is, how open are we to receiving it?
Some tips for practising mindfulness with pets:
- When you take the dog for a walk, leave the phone at home – or if you have the discipline, in your pocket.
- Set aside at least two or three ten minute sessions each day as dedicated pet time, to spend stroking the tummies, scratching the necks or otherwise enjoying the company of whatever animals you share your life with.
- When preparing food for your pet, don’t do it on autopilot. Think ‘By this practice of generosity, may I be creating the direct cause for (NAME OF PET) to be well-nourished, healthy and happy and to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings’).
- Similarly, when cleaning up any pet mess, transform it into a positive experience through mindfulness. Think ‘By this practice of purification, may I be creating the direct cause for (NAME OF PET) to be healthy, happy and to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings’).
- Never take your pet’s presence for granted. His or her life is short. Death may strike at any moment. Show your pet love and appreciation each and every day.
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