We can learn how to be good at mindfulness just by watching what our dogs do and how they live their lives.
Yes this is a parenting blog, so why would we be talking about dogs? Just bear with us!
Let’s start with ‘mindfulness’. I’m sure you have all heard of mindfulness. There has been a lot of hype around it in the past couple of years. Many news outlets and social media pages spruiking the benefits of mindfulness. There has been a surge in the number of apps offering mindfulness exercises, there is now a global ‘Mindfulness in May’ fundraising campaign, and there has been a number of reputable studies reporting the benefits of mindfulness-based practices. But what exactly is mindfulness?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about bringing our full attention to the present moment, with openness and without making judgements. It is simply about being aware of what is happening within our body and surroundings. It means that we’re not thinking about the past or worrying about the future; we’re paying attention only to the present moment.
Have you tried doing a mindfulness exercise?
If not, try this: sit comfortably, and take a couple of deep breaths. Then reach up and touch your finger to your nose—when you recognize that sensation, which happens automatically and without effort, you are mindful of it. This is different from getting wrapped up in feelings and thoughts like “I am touching my nose” or “This feels silly” or “I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.” It’s just being aware of the bare sensation of touch. That’s mindfulness of body sensation.
Seems easy, right? It is – and it isn’t.
Why mindfulness might not be working?
If you have tried doing mindfulness, did you find it helpful? If you did, great! However, many of us can find mindfulness to be hard to do, or not helpful at all. Why is that, you might ask?
First of all, it could be because it is so hard to find time in your crazy busy day to focus on doing a mindfulness exercise. Once you’ve managed to put away the dishes, do a load of washing, and find a moment in between sending emails, you might finally sit down in a peaceful, quiet spot and listen to a mindfulness audio track and start thinking to yourself “this isn’t working”, “what am I doing wrong?”, “I’ve got to organise the kids’ lunch”, “what should we have for dinner?”, “I must make sure that I send that email to Jenny”, and then you end up giving up because you are too distracted!
The other thing is you might not think it is working because you are not feeling relaxed during or after doing mindfulness. This is a misconception. People think that mindfulness should make them feel relaxed, but this is not the case. If you think about it, mindfulness is about exploring what is happening in the here and now, whether the experience that arises is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. So that makes sense, if you are feeling difficult emotions at the time, then the mindfulness session is going to make you aware of those emotions. However, a pleasing by-product of doing mindfulness is that you can feel relaxed afterwards, but it is not the aim of it. So if there is no relaxation occurring, this is another reason why people may not continue practicing mindfulness.
So, if mindfulness is not working for you, it’s not you! It can take a bit of practice to not get hooked on all of those weird and wonderful thoughts that will pop up, and to benefit from it emotionally and psychologically. You also need to remember that doing mindfulness doesn’t mean that your problems will immediately disappear. Mindfulness is not a magic pill, nor is it a “get better fast” program that provides a shortcut to wellbeing. It’s a way of seeing the world that takes practice to develop.
Why practice mindfulness?
So why would you practice mindfulness?
Because there are many benefits, such as:
- reduced ruminations (a decrease in mind churning, where you go over and over something to the nth degree),
- stress reduction,
- being able to focus better,
- it boosts your working memory,
- having less emotional reactivity (i.e. handling difficult emotions better, and feeling more stable emotionally, so not going from 0 to 100 when you are feeling angry or anxious),
- increases cognitive flexibility (not getting so caught up on something that is bothering you, and can help you make better decisions)
- and improves relationships!
What we can learn from dogs about mindfulness
So, here’s the part about dogs that you have been waiting for….
Being at home more often has meant spending more time with my dogs. Recently, I went and sat outside with my dog, and started to take notice of what she was doing. I noticed that she was doing a lot of sniffing; just sniffing the air for whatever she could smell. She would find a nice sunny spot, and stretch out on the soft grass underneath her, and soak up the warmth of the sun. She’d prick her ears, listening to all of the sounds around her; cars driving past, birds chirping, the wind in the trees. She would lick her lips from time to time. She would look around at the birds flying past, or people walking by. And I had this sudden realisation – she is doing ‘mindfulness’. She is noticing what she can see, feel, smell, touch and taste! She is simply aware!
And it made me think that dogs are forever present in the moment; living in the here and now. In fact, they could be considered masters of mindfulness! They are constantly observing what is going on around them. They have this pure awareness of their environment and their own experience. This keeps them alert and focused, and I like to think also really satisfied. My dogs don’t seem to have any worries or concerns, they just live day by day and enjoy whatever comes their way.
So, if one of your life goals is to live more mindfully, why not hang out with a dog!