When I first committed myself to my own mental well-being, one of the first things I researched was mindfulness practices. There are tons of them: mindful eating, mindful showering, mindful walking. Basically, put the word “mindful” in front of any -ing verb, and there is a exercise for it. It can be daunting, and a huge question for people when they are just beginning mindfully living is, “Why?”
Why do any of this? Why think about what my toes feel like while I eat? Why pay attention to my breath while I’m showering?
Think about your consciousness like a kennel full of dogs, dogs that you want to form into a sled team. Each pup is an emotion, and you lash up all these dogs for the first time to see how they run. It’s madness. It’s chaos. The fear chihuahua won’t even move other than in terrified trembles. The joy husky is dragging the sadness beagle around. The anger poodle is biting his own leg. Yeah, they are all hooked and harnessed, but boy is it a shit show. There is no telling where your “thought sled” will end up.
Many of us work our dogs like this for our entire life. We see this huge pack of emotion-dogs fighting, and we sure as hell aren’t going to risk getting hurt while trying to break them up. We let them do their own thing and hope that things shake out on the wash. In a way, this works. The more dominant dogs lord over the naturally weaker ones, and the sled (generally) is oriented in a stable position for the most part. This is far from efficient though, and you are stuck with them whether you like it or not. No matter how unruly, unwieldy, or vicious, those dogs will be around.
Meditation in this sense is an expert dog trainer, even if you haven’t met them before. Meditation actually really likes dogs, because they know that the dogs will be happier if they work together using their various strengths. The best dog sledders in the world don’t necessarily have the best dogs in the world. They have the best dog team.
I like that analogy a lot, because emotions are actually really terrifying at times, and slapping the image of a dog on them can help make them a bit more approachable. I actually still use that idea on myself when I begin to feel overwhelmed or misdirected.
So, now that we know what meditation is for, what is it? How do we start getting these dogs in line?
Let them run. Starting off really is as easy as that. Find somewhere comfortable and just ask yourself what emotion you are feeling. Sit with that thought. Maybe close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. If a thought pops up, inspect it objectively, trying your best to accept it for what it is. Then once the dog(s) shows up, ask yourself why the dog is there and what the dog is doing. In that moment, we aren’t going to list the dog as good or bad; we are simply observing the dog patiently and curiously.
“What is this dog actually trying to do, and how can I help it?” is a thought that I often have now myself, as silly as it sounds.
The dog might try to intimidate you, and that fine. Ask yourself why it intimidates you. The dog might make you feel safe; again, ask yourself why. Some other dogs may show up, and some dogs may just leave during a single meditation session. Let them; we are training them to feel accepted and comfortable. Try watching your dogs throughout the day for just a couple moments at a time if you find yourself getting easily distracted when sitting for a longer period of time.
I’m going to be really honest, some dogs take some getting used to. Some dogs lash out unexpectedly or fight non-stop with the others. If that is the case, that dog might require some extra attention, but you don’t need to force yourself to get along with it right now. It can wait. That dog isn’t going anywhere.
Once you are relatively comfortable letting dogs in and out of your head on a regular basis, it’s time to start looking for the skills they have to offer. All dogs are valid, but not all dogs are the same. I’ll use a personal anecdote just in case the metaphor is losing you.
I got a lot of my dogs behaving after personal meditation and meditative practices done with my therapist. In fact, I thought I had all of my dogs trained at least a little bit, but little did I realize that the anger poodle had been quietly napping in the corner. Anger, real rage started to bubble up for the first time in my life. I’m just not an angry person; the anger poodle didn’t even get hooked up to the sled half the time. With all the other emotion dogs playing nicely, the anger poodle really stood out as a bad egg. I tried making it look more like the sadness beagle, who I had personally grown very attached too, but that definitely didn’t work.
I had to take anger on its own terms, and instead of writing it off as hostile or dangerous, I worked to find a fit for that black sheep of the bunch. Turns out, anger is super useful in many healthy, productive ways. Anger helps you stand up for injustice. Anger can fuel you to push your limits and remove toxic barriers from your life. Anger is, at its core, a guard dog. It’s not meant to be gentle or patient. It is meant to be utilized clearly, quickly, and effectively.
It’s no wonder I had the spine of a wet noodle for basically my entire life, wondering why I was so easily taken advantage of. I was terrified of the very thing that was designed to protect me and give me the courage to stick up for myself. In my former religion, angry thoughts were equivocated with murder, and I wasn’t a murderer! When I started meditating, though, and when the other dogs had quieted down enough, I met with the anger poodle on its own terms. It wasn’t a mean dog by any stretch of the imagination; it just has a highly specific role. Anger warns us of oncoming danger and acts quickly to resolve time sensitive issues. If it does miss something, it will often hunt it down and drag it back for us, an action that can lead to grudges and unnecessary bridge burning if not kept in check.
Meditation lets us meet with seemingly troublesome emotions regularly in a safe space. Your emotions and thoughts exist in your head until you act upon them obviously, and a huge hurdle in the early stages of meditation can be fostering the belief that you (and your dogs) are safe in there.
So, here is the secret to meditation if I can even call it a “secret.” Meditation is not forcing your mind to behave. It is learning what your mind can do well so that you trust it enough to let it do its job well. Yes, sometimes this will mean changes, but each feeling that we have plays a vital role in the context of a team. I have found time and time again that the dogs that were the hardest to understand tend to have some of the most overlooked strengths.
At the end of the day, a complex dog like the anger poodle tends to be really content when it knows its position and purpose. The anger poodle is now one of the dogs that I am most comfortable with letting off the leash. Meditation facilitated that relationship, that trust. When I hear the anger poodle start to growl I let it out of the cage, hook it up to the sled, and let it do its job. The more I give it room to work with the other dogs and provide a conducive environment for cooperation, the less I have to worry about any one dog acting up. Slowly but surely the sled begins to right itself until eventually the only thing left to do is reward yourself and your winning team for all their continued hard work.
Meditation essentially lays out a substrate in our minds where emotions can be articulated and observed in a judgment free zone. Again, emotions and complicated feelings aren’t bad; they aren’t inherently good either. They just exist, and they need to be assigned a purpose by the only person that matters to them: you. That is what meditation is. It is the continued validation that the parts which compose who you truly are exist presently as the best tools to live a happy and mentally healthy life.
We know what meditation is now, and in the next Dog’s Guide to Mindfulness post we will start introducing actual meditation exercises and how you can start getting those dogs to work together!