I began meditating because of pain. I’d injured my shoulder and somehow managed to strain the connection between my collar bone and sternum. For over a year I was in the kind of pain that sucks the energy out of you, and makes it a victory to get through the day without collapsing into a limp pile of defeat. Extensive physical therapy and medications did not help. In desperation I joined a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and discovered that acknowledging and describing the pain really did make it less aversive.
My shoulder healed and I stopped meditating until I began the therapy I describe in The Education of Will. Since then, I’ve meditated off and on for years. I describe myself as a “lazy meditator”–my sessions often lasting no more 10-15 minutes, with plenty of days of good intentions but no practice. And practice it is–meditating is not having your mind go blank or breathing your way to bliss. It is focusing your brain intentionally, rather than letting it sputter around from thought to thought, as is typical for most of us, most of the time. “Monkey mind” it’s called, and we all know exactly what that feels like. Did I remember to water the orchids? we think as we’re watching a movie. Should I feed a different food to my dogs? as we chat with friends at a restaurant.
Being in the present isn’t part of our skill set, we humans. It actually takes a lot of energy to focus our brains and stay with it for any length of time. It gets easier and easier the more you do it (thus, it’s called a “practice”) but it goes against our nature. No doubt that is one of the reasons we love our dogs and cats and horses so much–there is no doubt that they are better than we are at living in the moment.
How interesting then, I thought, when I read in the magazine Mindful about Elisabeth Paige, who coined the term “petitate”, after learning that petting her dogs allowed her to meditate with the dogs as her anchor. She had tried closing herself in a room to avoid distractions, but her Schipperkes kept whining at the door. When she finally let them in, she realized that focusing on the dogs vastly improved her practice. Eventually she wrote a book and created Mindful Petitations, which includes a website with some short, guided meditations and the book she wrote about how to meditate with your pet.
A few thoughts here, from someone with virtually no qualifications to provide meditation advice except to convey my own experience and reactions. One–it can be very helpful to give your brain a specific focus. Many of the woman in the meditation class I just finished (run by the amazing Mare Chapman) especially liked doing the “body scan,” in which you direct your attention to each area of your body, usually starting at the top of your head or at the tip of your big toe. That’s easier than “focusing on your breath” for a long period of time. (Aside, for those who have never meditated: Of course you have thoughts, like “I’m bored” or “What should I make for dinner tonight?” You simply note them, and then refocus your mind back to your intention.)
Why not focus on your dog or cat while petting them? You could focus on the feel of their fur, the sound of their breathing, the scent of their belly. How this goes will no doubt depend on the pet. My Maggie and I have an unstructured meditation session every evening, when she sprawls onto my lap and I lose myself in the silk of her belly, the curve of her forehead. Willie and Tootse are equally happy to oblige. I can imagine other animals who squirm and fidget and would make the kind of quiet focus required into more, not less, of a challenge. But why not try?
I do have a few quibbles with Dr. Paige’s website. For example, she says “If you stroke your pet or hold your pet in your lap, you are Petitating.” Well, okay, she gets to define it, but you are not necessarily meditating. If you stroke your pet and focus on the feel of their fur, and refocus your monkey mind each time it says “I should feed the dogs soon” or “I wish I was a better dog trainer”, you are indeed meditating. If you stroke your pet while letting your brain leap around like a crazed monkey, you are not.
Also, I listened to some of the short, guided meditations, and although much of the information was good, I found myself distracted by Dr. Paige’s voice. I remember being hurt when Tantor audio wanted to produce For the Love of a Dog, but read by someone rather than me. But once I heard Ellen Archer’s gorgeous voice, I was enrolled. There is a reason that some people are paid as professional “voices”.
But those are truly are quibbles. I love the idea of combining meditation with our love of our animals. There are a gazillion sources on meditation in general, but a great place to start is Mare Chapman’s book, Unshakeable Confidence. Whether you are truly interested in formal meditation practice, with your pets or without, I do hope that this week you will take time every day to focus intentionally on the color of your dog’s eyes, the feel of her nose, and the scent of his paws.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Good grief. We all are used to snow in April, but this has been ridiculous. We might get snow, even lots of it, but then it melts the next day and the daffodils pretend it never happened. What we don’t usually get is brutal cold, then super warm, then brutal cold, then super warm, and then an ice storm with a solid inch of ice covering everything, followed by several inches of snow. Our house was surrounded by desperate birds yesterday–Phoebees looking for insects on the windows, Kinglets looking for shelter, dazed warblers looking for warmth. I kept Nellie inside much of the day, she being the cat most likely to take advantage of their predicament.
On another note, want to join a Facebook contest? Right now we have a contest going on through Facebook, and I know many of you aren’t on FB, so I thought I’d mention it here. Lady Baa Baa (brilliantly named thanks to social media followers) is due to have lambs anytime between now and April 28th. Whoever correctly guesses the date, number and sex of the lambs gets a signed copy of The Education of Will. (Background info: Lady Baa Baa has always had twins, but her mother had twins for 8 years and then triplets last year. A related ewe had twins five years, then a single. Ya never know.)
Here she is with her twin lambs in 2015, soon after their delivery. (Request: Please please let this year’s lambs come before I leave on Thursday for Philly to speak at the Working Dog Conference. I’m afraid Jim is going to get stuck with all the lambing while I’m gone. And I hate missing it!)
Here’s to spring, if we can remember what that is!