My dog, Miel (yes, like the French word for honey. It’s a Golden Retriever, get the link?), loves to walk. He also likes playing a lot, but as soon as I put on my shoes or get near the garden gate, he starts to freak out, thinking it’s that time again. Since I have no idea what is going on in is head, I said “thinking”, because we humans associate animals with our own behavior - because that’s what we’re familiar with. Have you ever walked a dog? Have you noticed the dog’s “state of mind”? How would you notice such a thing? Pay attention to what your dog is doing and you’ll know what I mean.
Miel is not thinking. He’s walking. Sniffing. He’s present in that very moment.
On the other hand, I’m pondering something that happened to me today. I might be distracted. After a few blocks, I might think “oh wow, now where was I”. I might have missed the waving neighbor, the sunny weather or the absence of noisy cars. I am not present in that very moment at all - I’m either in the past (“why did that person say this to me”) or in the future (“I need to do this and that and that after I get back”). Why is it so hard to be in the present, if Miel can do this so easily?
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It seems that I’m not the only one with that problem. After taking an eight week long mindfulness course, it seems that I’m still practicing mind-fullness instead of mindfulness. We humans are blessed and cursed with a thinking brain but luckily Buddhists have proven that it can be temporary shut down. There’s only one way to achieve this state of mind: practice. I love reading about this subject and recently finished the extremely popular “zen mind, beginners mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. It’s a very practical book that explains the basics of Zen-Buddhism. One major recurring subject is practicing versus studying the philosophy behind Zen. The more you read and know things about Zen, the more poisoned your mind is. So start doing and stop reading.
Miel isn’t the only “person” (whoops) that loves his daily walk. Ever since we got the dog, I too started to enjoy breaking out of my comfortable living room, doing the usual nothing. Dog walking gives me an excuse to get up and walk, and to try to be in the moment, to try to notice the weather, to smell the air, to feel the raindrops and to simply walk. Failing implies getting up and doing it again. When I catch myself thinking about something or worrying, I friendly but firmly redirect myself to the present: walking. Most of the times, Miel does this for me with a pull of the leach. In that sense, it could be a bit like meditating. That’s one of the reasons I like drawing so much: I can’t do anything else but to study the subject, and start laying done line per line. Study it more closely, start seeing details within details as Tommy Kane would say. I usually need a few minutes to get myself into that (drawing-) mode and that’s one of the reasons I am having difficulties drawing in urban regions where a lot of people distract me.
In one of the lessons in the mindfulness course, we had to do a walking meditation. That implied focusing on the contact of the earth and your foot, feeling where you land each foot and concentrating on walking alone. I like to do this when I’m biking. You start to notice how your knee joints work, and where that heavy pushing on the petals is going when you cross a steep bridge. This sounds like it’s easy but it’s not: I’d say those moments are rare for me. I usually catch myself thinking stuff about my work when I’m biking to and from work a few minutes after attempting to concentrate on biking alone. But that’s alright: I’m learning from my dog.
I’m grateful for my dog reminding me I need to “take a walk”, to “clear my head”. So why don’t you clear your head when you’re walking but fill it even more?
- Does it make you feel better?
- Are the problems resolved when pondering them at that time?
- Can’t you focus on your dog instead of your “stuff”? He’d appreciate it.
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The thinking most certainly still needs to be done but you’ll make it yourself a lot easier if you think when you need to think and walk when you need to walk. It’s called single tasking and we should all do it more often. The myth of multitasking that gets more work done is a very short sighted view on economical capitalism. Context switching costs precious time - even up to 20 minutes to get back into what you were doing. That is one of the main reasons you should not check your mail every hour but once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m starting to resent people who cling to their iPhones, instead of focus sing on the person in front of them. It’s all part of the same problem.
If you’re having trouble, remember this: if your dog is playing, it’s playing, not playing and managing his backlog. If your dog is eating, it’s eating, not playing with his ball next to his supper. So keep that cellphone off the dinner table and try to mimic his behavior.
I know this sounds easy, but it takes a lifetime to fully master. I still wake up most days with too much scrambled thoughts about what happened yesterday and what will happen today, having difficulties letting go of them. It’s so easy to get lost within your own thoughts and it does have it’s purpose to do a “thought walk” and mix and mash ideas to get to another one. But it’s also vital that you have a working STOP button.
I have to stop typing and think about that for a moment now.
What was I saying?