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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

There is no relevant metric, but I figure that dogs enjoy taking walks about ninety percent more than do the people who walk them. No dog-owner I know runs around and screams for joy when a walk comes up on the agenda. When straws are drawn to see who has to get off the couch so Charlie the Bernese won’t soil it, the loser is generally as resentful as Charlie is ecstatic. His joy is hardly surprising. Dogs are connoisseurs of the morning constitutional, in part because they always live in the present. They are also much better equipped physiologically to enjoy a walk. Consider that:

The canine sense of smell is several orders of magnitude superior to ours. I just read that humans have around six million olfactory receptors, compared to the average pooch’s 300 million. Dogs have no pride and very little shame. I don’t get why dogs spin around several times before using the alfresco restroom, but they will do it anywhere they want and in front of anyone, unless you drag them away from their chosen spot. Once they are finished, your part of the operation is only beginning, unless you pretend it didn’t happen. That’s a bad moral choice: it almost guarantees that your karma is about to take an unpleasant turn for the worse.

A lot of dogs, particularly all three colors of Labrador Retriever (we have an English yellow lab named Mo), live to eat and to walk in that order. During a walk, they think that there is a snack around every corner. A dog’s opinion of what constitutes a tasty snack is far broader than ours.

For those of us at the other end of the leash, however, there is good news: When Zen practice is gently folded into the adventure, a walk can become a fun foray for the human into the land of mindfulness and calm. Here are some ideas on how to follow the dog into Nirvana:

Become the walked. This koan is simple. Whenever the leash describes a gentle inverted parabola, the dog is walking you.
There are three exceptions to letting the leash hang loose, however. First, you have to maximize your dog’s and your own safety, and the well-being of all sentient beings, especially toddlers (but not cats), within a 100-foot radius. Second, you may have to pull your pup away from a particularly redolent snack on Mo’s menu. Finally (although this one is optional), you may need to keep your pooch away from a person who is easily annoyed by dogs. (That is a thing.) Do not set out with a destination or time-frame in mind. Just let things unfold. Follow the dog. It knows where it wants to go. If Mo goes high, you go high. If Mo goes low, you go low. (I don’t know if Mo has talked to Bo about this last precept.)

Now that you are being walked, you are in a good space to practice mindfulness. First, turn your phone off and put it in your pocket. It is OK to listen to some classical tunes or meditation music, but if you do, put the phone in airplane mode. If you simply cannot overcome your screen addiction, stay on the soiled couch playing video games, consider rehab, and hire a dog walker.

Once you can’t see or hear your phone, find something else to pay attention to: Watch the sidewalk flow beneath you, and notice what comes along. Playfully jump into or over puddles. 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. Look at how the muscles move under your dog’s fur. Pay attention to how your body feels as you walk.

When your dog stops to attend to fascinating smells, attend to your breathing. Be a metronome by saying a mantra. My newest is to say “faith” when I breath in, and “fear” when I exhale. These words fit my mood best when Mo and I are in loose leash mode. Notice without judgment when your mind stumbles into the swamp of regret about the past, and/or the thicket of anxiety about the future. Don’t get anxious when that happens. Everyone’s mind slews around during meditation. 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 more of a workout.

Last but not least, focus on what you feel grateful for. On this last point, I am not saying you should channel Pollyanna. While each day usually brings at least something good, it may well have some bad stuff in store for you too. But each day is still a gift. Yesterday is gone and you can’t get it back. Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. 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 gratitude; she lives what I seek every blessed day. And she can’t talk (yet).

Copyright, Cameron Stout, 2018

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