Loose leashes–Who’s walking whom?

I watch my dogs. They throw themselves into everything they do; even their sleeping is wholehearted. They aren’t waiting for a better tomorrow or looking back at their glory days.

Abigail Thomas, A Three Dog Life

As the dark pall of the Corona Virus continues, forcing us into isolation, uncertainty, and fear, I am continuing to pursue and to share methods of self-care. In this post, I talk about how to turn a mundane dog walk into an oasis of mindful calm.

I figure that dogs enjoy taking walks about ninety percent more than do the people who walk them. Few dog-owners I know run around and bark for joy when a walk comes up on the agenda. When straws are drawn to see who has to get off the couch, the loser may be as resentful as Mo (our yellow lab) is ecstatic. Why is she so excited to light out? For starters, she is better equipped:

— The canine sense of smell is far superior. Humans have around six million olfactory receptors compared to the average pooch’s 300 million. Hence, Mo has so many interesting (to her at least) things to pay mindful attention to.

— Dogs seem to enjoy doing almost anything outside. After performing four or five lumbering pirouettes, they will use the alfresco restroom anywhere and in front of anyone, unless you rudely drag them away from that painstakingly chosen spot.

— A lot of dogs, especially labs, live to eat and to walk in that order. During a walk, Mo thinks that there is a snack around every corner. A Labrador Retriever’s opinion of what makes for good eating is very broad.

Yet, we humans need and are capable of enjoying a dog walk too, especially when mindfulness is gently folded into the adventure. (Added bonus: Walking a dog has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety significantly.) Here are some ideas on how to follow Fido to the gates of Nirvana:

Become the walked. Whenever the leash describes a gentle inverted parabola, the dog is walking you.

There are some exceptions to letting the leash hang loose. First, you have to maximize your dog’s and your own safety, and guard the well-being of others, especially toddlers. Second, you may have to pull your pooch away from a particularly redolent “treat.” Finally, I guess you need to keep your dawg away from someone who is easily annoyed by them. (That is a thing.)

Otherwise, just follow the dog. It knows where it wants to go. If Mo goes high, you go high. If Mo goes low, you go low. Right Bo?

Now that you are being walked, you can start practicing a little mindfulness. Despite the hype, this simple practice is hardly mystical or complex. Its “founder,” John Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as:

Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience, moment to moment.

Once you are rolling along with the mutt, you will see that there is plenty to pay attention to:

— Watch the sidewalk flow beneath you, and notice what comes along.

— Look up at the trees or buildings you have never seen before because you were aggravating your recently diagnosed Text Neck staring at Facebook, while you cut off your dog’s airway.

— Notice the patterns the muscles make under your dog’s fur.

— Pay attention to how your body feels as you walk.

— Attend to your breathing. Say a mantra. My newest is to say “faith” when I breath in, and “fear” when I exhale. While less spiritual, I sometimes count breaths. I have managed to get to twenty before my attention wanders. That is not a “failure,” my success-oriented Western friends.

— That’s because everyone’s mind plunges into the swamp of regret about the past, and the thicket of anxiety about the future. No worries. Thoughts bubble up unbidden all the time during a mindfulness exercise. You will come back to your breathing and mantra after a bit.

— Think about bringing a hand weight with you. Breathe out as you do a curl, and breathe in as you relax your arm. Pay attention to how your bicep feels as the reps increase. Even if you don’t feel particularly mindful, at least you will get a workout.

Last but not least, focus on what you feel grateful for. In a curious way, there is room for gratitude during the days of Covid. On this last point, I am not saying you should channel Pollyanna. While each day usually brings at least something good, it may have some crap in store for you. But each day is still a gift. Most mornings I say, “Good morning day. Thank you for this day. May I do good things well today, with a light heart and focused mind.” Naturally, Mo won’t be joining me in that little prayer; she lives what I seek every blessed day.

Becoming the walked

Copyright, Cameron G. Stout, 2020