Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Zen and the Art of Meditating with your Dog.

So I've discovered something kind of odd.

Some background:
I'm a Quaker.  But we're a weird, sort of hippie-ish people, so I occasionally enjoy worshipping with other faith traditions and experiencing spirituality through others' eyes.  This spring, I was honored with the opportunity to worship with a group of Buddhists and with a combined group of Wiccans and Druids. Both were incredibly inspirational and while I'm not planning on converting any time soon, I picked up a number helpful practices from both worship services.  Translation: I've started spending an awful whole lot of time burning incense and meditating on my balcony overlooking the woods. The neighbors seem completely unfazed.  Theres a very long list of weird things that happen in those woods, so I guess by comparison this is pretty tame.

More background:
My cocker spaniel, Theo, is a rescue dog and its pretty obvious he's been through some rough treatment in the past. Cockers can already be kind of neurotic, but Theo goes way beyond that. The jury is still out on whether dogs can get PTSD, but if they can, my puppy would be a classic case study.  And unfortunately, the balcony is kind of one of his triggers. Its like he's convinced the sliding glass door is the main security weakness in our apartment.  If I'd let him, Theo would spend hours  sitting in front of that door barking at the woods. Even if there was nothing visible to bark at. Its somehow his solemn duty to keep barking so that anything out there within hearing range knows that THIS HOME HAS A DOG IN IT.

This kind of became a problem when I started meditating on the balcony. As far as Theo was concerned, I was foolishly making myself a prime target for attack by marauding bands of ninja deer. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly finding my happy place with a manic cocker spaniel on the other side of the sliding glass door.

On a whim, I started letting Theo come sit with me while I meditated. At first it went about as you'd expect (hint: there was lots of barking). But its very quickly evolved into something very different. As long as I'm there meditating, Theo will happily sit still next to me and gaze placidly into the woods. He might woof quietly occasionally at a weird noise.  But for the most part he's just content to sit there.

I really don't have the words to express how weird this is.  Theo is not a "content to sit there" kind of dog. He's either defending our lives (aka barking), demanding cuddles, or sleeping. The absolute worst thing that can happen to Theo is for him to only have 50% of a human's attention. We can ignore him, or we can completely focus on him - but anything in between and he'll start nosing at our hands to remind us that hands are for petting. But as long as I'm kneeling there meditating, he's perfectly happy to just sit there next to me.  And if I pet him from time to time, that's fine, but it certainly doesn't have to be constant.

I've never heard of any studies on this, but as far as I can tell, Theo's getting a lot of the same things out of meditation time that I am.  When you think about it, dogs should have an intuitive understanding of Zen.  They live and focus completely in the moment because they don't really have any concept of the flow of time. (Being born without a prefrontal cortex will do that for you). But the quintessential nature of trauma is that until you process it, it traps you in the past. Abuse rewires your brain to survive it without any sort of assumption of an end date. And it takes time and work, and assurance of safety to rewire your brain for living in a world without abuse. I can't imagine how confusing it must be to be a creature without a concept of the past trying to put his past behind him.

But apparently that's what meditation does for us. It gives me the time to relax and focus and live in the moment (something humans are not naturally very good at - thanks, prefrontal cortex.); and it gives Theo the time to just be a dog.

I've also noticed that the cat likes the lay on the other side of the glass door and watch us while we're meditating.  But I'm not planning on inviting him to join us any time soon.  Gilly seems much more interested in the philosophy of Sun Tzu, and I can't imagine that would help Theo in his quest to achieve Zen.

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