When we think about mindfulness practices, we probably think of doing a seated meditation or taking a yoga class. What would you think if I said that taking care of a pet could be a mindfulness practice?
Having a pet builds in a routine to our lives. For instance, if you have a dog and you live in the city, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to take your dog out to do its business at regular intervals. When I had a dog, no matter what the weather was, I had to go outside with the dog each morning and evening and another couple of times in between as well. No matter how I was feeling, I still had to take the dog out. That’s what a good meditation or yoga practice is like – no matter how we’re feeling, we do it anyway.
Not all pets get to be taken for walks, but there’s something especially mindful about walking a dog. Depending on where you’re walking, you may notice your pet getting signs from the environment, letting us know they are picking up information that we’re missing out on. Dogs obviously have a greater sense of smell and are able to perceive things that seem invisible or non-existent to us. Having to stop and let our dog sniff or take care of business, gives us a chance to notice our own desires to keep walking, or resistance to having to stoop and scoop. What an opportunity to observe our own mind!
Pets are not usually caught up in their lives to the point that they stop interacting with us. Coming home to cats, dogs, even birds and some fish, will elicit some sort of response from them. A “hello,” an “it’s dinner time,” or some kind of greeting will let us know they recognize our presence. They seem to be able to let go of what they were doing and be present to our arrival in a way that is so envious that master teachers throughout the ages have used happy animals as examples to live in the present moment or live without fear.
By being in tune with your pet, you’ll notice their attempts to communicate with us. These are opportunities to be aware of our own bodies and signals we’re sending, chances to tune into not only ourselves, but the creatures around us.
Not only do pets need proper exercise, we need to be mindful to feed them and take care of their living spaces. More chances to consider our own diets and chances to consider our own environments and how tidy they are, how much they support us in living our lives fully.
Pets also can provide us with unexpected surprises and interruptions. These often innocent but inconvenient interruptions give us a chance to notice our reactions and choose to be present rather than be upset.
In addition to giving us a chance to observe their actions and reflect on our own, many pets give us physical contact, we can pet them or interact with them, which can help reduce stress, so much so that we recognize service animals who do more than assist blind people, but are there to reduce stress in people who suffer from anxiety or PTSD.
So the next time your kid asks if you can get a puppy, rather than saying no right away, consider that it might be a mindfulness practice disguised in fur or feathers waiting to be brought into your life.
These are pictures of Hattie, my seeing eye dog puppy in training last year.
Jamine Ackert is a yoga teacher in Ottawa, Canada. @capitalyoga