Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Sense of Entitlement

Quick quiz: you are walking down the street and someone (a stranger to you) with a dog is walking towards you. The dog is calm and appears well-behaved, and both he and the owner are minding their own business. You love dogs, of course (yours is not with you at the moment). What should you do?

A: Start squealing in a high-pitched baby voice at the dog while moving towards it with your hands outstretched. If it's small enough, go right over and pick it up, then kiss it. If it’s a big dog, bend over it and kiss it.

B: Start cooing in a sing-song voice, stop, bend over and wait for the dog to get close, then try to pet it.

C: Squat down, talking sweetly to the dog, and wait until it comes to you, then let it sniff your hand, and pet it.

D: Ask the owner if you can pet the dog, and then do C.

E: None of the above. It's not your dog, and you don't have a right to pet it. Smile at the owner, say, "cute puppy!" and continue walking.

Did you choose (D)?

The correct answer is (E).

What? Did I just tell you to pretty much ignore a dog on the street, even though it's adorable and you clearly love dogs?

Sigh. I did.

Would you walk up to a stranger and pet their child on the head? Would you touch them? Would you walk up and grab someone's bike, or phone, or dress, and admire it? If the person with the dog was walking without his dog, would you stop him, touch his arm, and interact with him, just because? Why not?

Because it would be rude.

When you go to pet someone's dog, someone who has not explicitly asked you to interact with the dog, you are making an assumption, and you put the owner in a tough spot. If they refuse you, you will think them rude. Why is that?

Dogs are not public property, despite the apparent eagerness of many to be social. If you would feel hurt that someone wouldn't allow you—lover of all dogs--to pet their pup, you need to look at your assumptions--and your desires. 

Because wanting to pet that dog is your desire, your want. It's all about you. It doesn't take the dog, or his human, into account at all.

Just because your dog loves people, and just because you love dogs, that doesn't grant you the right to interact with others' dogs without explicit permission.

If their dog is sketchy around strangers, they don't want you to try and pet it (and you shouldn't want to!). Telling them, "It's ok! Dogs love me!" as you approach and as their dog clearly turns away from you (or growls or barks at you) is not OK. Continuing to approach a dog that is barking in a threatening manner, instead of backing off, is not OK.

If their dog is in training, they may be concentrating on that, and following the advice of a professional to prevent others from touching the dog (I give this advice a lot to my students).

If their dog is too social, and will jump all over you, they may be embarrassed about this and trying not to encourage it. Even the dog that is clearly straining to be petted belongs to someone who may not want him to be doing that.

Please don't put people in an awkward position. You would blame them if the dog bit you (or scratched you in his exuberance), when in fact it would be your fault if you invaded his space. Some dogs just are not social with strangers, and you believing yourself “good with dogs” doesn't imbue you with some magical force that makes it OK. In fact, if you are actually “good with dogs,” you’d never try to pet one you didn’t know—especially one who was clearly sending signals that he didn’t want to be petted.

(People who are “good with dogs” don’t typically announce this fact. They act in ways that dogs understand to be non-threatening. It’s not magic—it’s experience. And practice.)

I don't allow people to pet my dogs when I'm out. They don't care for attention from strangers, and often, we are in training. I never foist myself upon dogs I see in passing. I smile and compliment them, and go home to love on my dogs, because each of us knows and trusts the other. I love dogs, yes, but because I love them, I don’t have a searing need to interact with every one I see--especially uninvited. Self-control around dogs takes some practice, but you can do it.

I once entered a pet supply store with my dog, who I was training. I needed to buy something, and I wanted to work my dog around the distractions of the store while I was doing it. Everything was fine, and my dog was doing quite well, until one of the clerks spotted us. She literally started squealing and following us around the store (I started moving quickly away, on purpose) with her hands outstretched.

My dog was looking to me for help to get him away from this crazy person, and I could not shake her. I finally had to stop, put my dog in a stay behind me, and block her approach like a soccer goalie. She finally asked if she could touch him, and I said no, not rudely, but with conviction. She got her feelings hurt, sure enough (not my intention at all), and probably told her co-worker how rude I was as we left without buying anything, both of us breathing a sigh of relief upon stepping out into the sunlight.

My job was to protect my dog, and I did.

NOTE: I’m not an absolutist. Life is full of shades of gray. Many dogs love people, and want to approach them, and belong to people who are trying to socialize them, and can handle your greetings properly. Many people don’t mind if you pet their dogs. In fact, some may ask you to. Some may even become offended if you don’t touch their dogs! If you meet such people with such dogs, see option D above. And enjoy!

Otherwise, please keep moving.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

A while back, I was on a dog-related forum and a member was talking about how she is taking her dog to a training class for the first time.  

She remarked, "It's amazing how the mental workout exhausts her."

This is something many dog owners don't realize. Mental stimulation provides a more lasting calm than physical exercise, especially for physical dogs.

Does that seem odd?

Physical exercise is, of course, necessary on a daily basis for all dogs. But there is a huge difference between allowing the dog to run pell-mell for an hour at the dog park and stimulating it mentally for as little as 20 minutes. The former often serves to ramp the dog up, while the latter helps him calm down.

Exercise is important, but it should be the right kind of exercise, and include a mental component. This can be obedience work, nosework, exploring new places on a walk (with structure--especially the "heel" command), or games like "find it" inside the house.

More exercise just creates a more physically fit dog, and one that requires even more exercise to tire. Ever started an exercise regimen? If you are out of shape, it doesn't take much to tire you. But keep at it, day after day, and soon you can walk or run or work out longer and farther without tiring. You hit a fat-burning plateau, and now you have to really bust your butt to keep losing weight or build muscle.

Over-exercise a dog, and you get a very fit dog who now requires 2 hours of running to tire instead of one. (This is especially true of the muscular breeds like pits, boxers, and other “bully”-type dogs.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had owners tell me “I run my dog 5 miles a day, and he is never tired!” No wonder—he’s the canine equivalent of an endurance runner.

The nice thing about mental stimulation, on the other hand, is that is has no fitness plateau. 

Think about the last time you spent an hour or more studying for an exam, or muddling over a thorny mental conundrum. I’ll bet it made your brain tired. Did you sleep well after that, especially if you figured out the problem? 

(Sometimes, going to bed before you figure out the answer, and sleeping on it, will help you solve the problem—see the link at the bottom of this post.)

Having your dog complete obedience tasks every single day, and changing those up a bit, is one way to provide mental stimulation that benefits your dog in ways beyond your relationship. Do you walk your dog every day? You should—even if he has a yard to play in. Walks are mental stimulation, even if you take the same route every day.

Philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” The smells and sights and sounds of a walk are always different for your dog, and that’s what counts (though mixing the route up and exploring new walking places is even more fun, so try it!). Throw in some sits, stays, downs, heeling, and recalls on a walk, and you are giving your dog some nice challenges.

Do you enjoy teaching your dog tricks? It's fun for both of you, and yes, it is mentally challenging. Capitalize on the things your dog already likes to do, name them, and reward them. Voila!

For instance, if your dog likes to roll over on his back and throw his legs in the air, he is already doing "play dead." Name it and reward it! Use a treat to get him to roll all the way over, and, you guessed it: you have "roll over." Does he like to stand on his hind legs and dance? Hold a treat just slightly over his mouth and tell him "dance." Now you have a new trick! One of my dogs likes to bury her face in your armpit. Call that "are you embarrassed?" and reward it when she does it. Now you have a cute parlor trick.

These things are also fun on rainy days, or when you can't get the dog out and about for regular exercise.

One final note. After a round of mentally-challenging tasks, put your dog away (in a crate, for instance) for an hour or two, with no stimulation. This allows him to "think" about what he has learned. I call it "gestating." It's good for dogs and people. 

Make the most of your day, and your dog.

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Keep Saying That Word...

Your dog sits. You go to give him a treat and he stands up to get it. You think you rewarded him for sitting.

Your dog doesn’t come when you call him. When he finally wanders over, you are angry and pop him with your hand, or shake him by the collar. You think you punished him for not coming.

You come home to find poop on the rug. You yell at, or spank the dog. You think you are punishing him for pooping in the house.

You send your dog out in the fenced yard to potty. He walks 25 feet away and pees and poops. You call him and he runs in, and you give him a treat. You think you rewarded him for pottying outside.

You walk in the room to find your puppy chewing your shoes. You yell “NO!” really loudly, and when you do, he looks up in surprise at the sound. You say nothing. You think you corrected him and he now knows not to chew your shoe.

You are walking your dog and he sees another dog, or a person. He starts to bark and whine, or growl. You shorten the leash and pet him soothingly. “It’s OK, Fido. That dog is friendly!” He keeps barking and straining at the leash, and you keep petting. You think you are comforting your dog.

You sit down to watch TV or read, and your dog barks at you, paws at you, or pesters you for attention. You stop what you are doing and respond to him by grabbing his favorite toy and throwing it for him to fetch. You think you are meeting the dog’s need for play appropriately.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, or lie down. He gets up and walks off. You do nothing. You think “he wasn’t interested, and that’s OK.” You think it doesn’t matter that he ignored you.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, come, or lie down. He doesn’t. You pull out a treat to entice him. You think you are rewarding the behavior itself.

You don’t want the dog on the bed, but your husband doesn’t care either way, and doesn’t make him get down when he jumps on it. You think your dog understands that it’s not OK to get on the bed.

All of these common scenarios play out in homes everywhere on a daily basis. Dogs do something, and people respond in ways they feel are appropriate. But as time passes, the dog’s behavior worsens. The owners think they are doing everything right, and cannot understand why Fido isn’t trained.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” ~Cool Hand Luke

What people need to understand that dogs don’t just “know” how to behave the way we expect. They must be taught, the same way you were taught to tie your shoes or eat with utensils. No one would expect a 4-year-old to know how to ride a bicycle without training wheels and a helpful adult. But every day, dog owners expect their puppies and dogs to read their minds and know what is expected of them.

I think this discord results from our idea of what dogs are capable of knowing. They fit so well socially into our lives and homes that we assume they already know the rules. But the only rules they know instinctively that pertain to living with humans are the ones that bond them to us, not the ones governing proper home behavior. It’s instinctual for dogs to eat anything (or try to) that is in front of them, to chew things, to poop and pee when the need arises, to chase things that move, to bark at novel things or beings, to protect their territory, to seek out things that are fun, and avoid things that are uncomfortable. Some of these things they are born knowing how to do. Others they learn before they leave the mother dog and littermates.

If you want them to do other things instead of these, you need to show them what you want, clearly, using well-timed, appropriate rewards and corrections. You need to prevent them being able to practice the behaviors they know and love that you don’t love. The job of this education is yours. It doesn’t happen by accident.

When your dog sits, then gets up and gets a treat, he thinks that “sit” means “put your bottom down, then get up.” Is that what you meant?

When your dog ignores your call and you get mad when he finally arrives, your dog thinks that “Come!” means “Avoid the human, because she’s a little crazy.”

When your dog poops in the house and you punish him after-the fact, your dog thinks “don’t be in the same room with a pile of poop if a human is coming. Better hide!”

When you treat your dog after he comes back in the house after a potty break, your dog learns that coming in the house is good. He doesn’t learn to only potty outside.

When you yell at the puppy who is chewing your shoes, and he looks up and you do nothing, he learns that chewing shoes is fun and paying attention to humans gets you... nothing.

When your dog is stressed or upset and vocalizing, and you pet him, he thinks, “My human must like it when I do this. I’ll do it some more!”*

When you respond to your dog’s obnoxious attempts to get your attention, you teach him that he needs only to demand something, and he will get it.

When you allow your dog to ignore a command, he learns that he can ignore you.

When you produce a treat (to entice a behavior) after the dog has ignored your command, your dog learns to ignore you until he sees “the goods.”

When you allow your husband to let the dog remain on the bed, your dog learns that he can get on the bed. “Occasionally” and “sometimes” are meaningless words to dogs.

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” ~Daniel Heath

Be clear. Be concise. Be a communicator. Don’t make your dog guess about behaviors that really matter. Do you know of any meaningful, lasting relationships that thrive without clear communication? I don't.

All behaviors matter. Help your dog succeed. If you won’t do it, who will?

FINAL NOTE: You, presumably, are a human being. You make mistakes. Dogs are exceedingly open to changing their ways if you want to make changes. Don't beat yourself up if every "you" in the above post actually applies to you. It doesn't have to. I am not beating you up, and you shouldn't beat you up, either. 

Now you know better, so you can do better. Take a deep breath, and get started.

*This doesn't necessarily pertain to situations in which a dog is truly in a panic, such as during a thunderstorm or fireworks. Sometimes, hands calmly on a dog can calm them. But this is rarely the case with a dog barking at people, dogs, or objects.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Having Second Thoughts

Our brains process tens of thousands of separate thoughts per day, about 70,000, to be more precise. In the span of 1 minute, people generally have between 35 and 48 distinct thoughts.

Some of these thoughts will germinate into great ideas. Some will simply help us get through the day. Most will bounce off around our brains and fade into nothingness, never to be acted upon, or even remembered seconds later.

Most of these thoughts seem disparate and disjointed as we think them, and many of them are. It seems like we cannot control our thoughts most of the time, at least not unless we try pretty hard. But science has shown us that we can control them. Then why don’t many of us even try?

We think the way we do most often out of habit. But habits can be broken, and changed. It’s easy to fall into patterns of thought, and eventually to believe our thoughts are true, even when they may not be. Then, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, read only like-minded websites, watch like-minded TV, read like-minded books. We can change our thoughts, but most of us choose not to. It’s comfortable to be in that cocoon, thinking you are right about pretty much everything. People don’t like to have their beliefs questioned, and often get defensive when they are. Asking them to voluntarily change their thinking, to question what they’ve always known, usually gets one rebuffed--soundly.

But I want to challenge you to do just that. Because voluntarily changing how you think can change your world, and could possibly change the world. Being able to open your mind to the possibility that there could be more than one answer to some of the biggest questions of life will strain your brain, and make you smarter and more empathetic.

Critical Thinking:  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Here is the challenge I make to you. It’s very, very difficult to control the initial, immediate thought you have when you meet a new person, or hear of an emotional event, or experience something out of your comfort zone. That initial thought springs up unbidden, and generally mirrors past thoughts on like events or people. Those initial thoughts are very difficult to control.

But the thought that immediately follows that one? Oh, that one you can change. And you should.

Let me give you an example. You are perusing Facebook and see a story about a skinny dog that was tied outside of a shelter during the night, and was found the next morning cold and wet by the shelter staff, who took the dog in and are now caring for it.

You love animals. You are incensed by this wanton act of cruelty. Your first thought is, “How could anyone leave a dog tied up in the rain, tossed away like trash?”

If you don’t try to change your next thoughts, they will sound an awful lot like the first one. And what good does that do you? Or the dog?

Try stopping the cavalcade of negative thoughts about this situation and attempt to see it from another perspective. After you acknowledge your anger and frustration, have a different thought.

Here are some possibilities:

“At least they left him at a shelter, instead of dumping him along the side of the road.”

“Maybe they had been evicted and were at the end of their rope, and had nowhere else to turn.”

“Maybe he bit their child, and they were scared of him.”

“Maybe he is very sick, and they panicked.”

“Maybe they actually loved him very much.”

Wait, WHAT? Do you think that I think that tying a dog to a shelter fence in the rain is a good way of showing love?

I do not.

Why, then, would I ask you to even entertain that thought, ridiculous as it sounds?

Because it could actually be true. Yes. It could.

Regardless of whether it is actually true (because, let’s face it, you will likely never know much more about this situation that this story tells you), you believing it could be true does no one any harm.

That’s right. It could be true. Why not acknowledge that, instead of just jumping right to the negativity and anger at the Whole Human Race? Having some empathy for the dog’s previous owners empowers you to act differently. You can still feel sadness for the dog’s plight, and thankfulness for the shelter staff rescuing him. You can still be angry if you want to, but why not direct that anger in a positive way? Be angry that there are no low-cost veterinary clinics in your area, or that people have misconceptions about shelters and what kinds of dogs can be found there for adoption. Be angry that existing laws don’t do enough to keep animals safer. Then, do something positive with that anger.

Assuming the worst of people in every situation doesn’t improve anyone. And the media and social media serve up tons of stories designed to evoke anger, disgust, and negativity. Sure, there are some news outlets that try to counter this trend with feel-good journalism, and that’s a welcome sight. But the negative stories always outweigh the positive. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative.

When you start to change your Second Thought, you begin to strengthen your empathy muscle. Anger can indeed drive us, but empathy can drive us to more positive change. Be angry at systems and bureaucracies and gridlock and partisanship. Heck, be angry at some individuals, if you must. But try to stretch your brain around the idea that most everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. You are free to disagree with their choices. You are free to place blame, even.

But what if you first acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, and that, in and of itself, should stop you from continuing your initial train of thought.

I’m not telling you that you must always think the best of people. People often make crappy decisions; rotten ones, even. People act stupidly, and selfishly. I’m not telling you that positive thinking can erase all the bad in the world, because it can’t.

What I am saying is that you can hold opposing thoughts in your head about people and situations without your brain exploding. You can alter your initial perception of events and the people involved, and you should at least try. What will it hurt?

Instead of believing that bad things happen because people are evil, or stupid, or ignorant, why not blame the situation? The person who just cut you off in traffic could be a sociopath, but what is more likely is that he or she is dealing with a situation (about which you know zilch) that caused him to act that way, in that moment. Have you never driven recklessly? Does the fact that you have, even just once, make you stupid?

What if just 10% of the population tried this? What do you think would happen? Maybe the course of events might not change, but could the aftermath?

Start a trend. Change your Second Thought.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”  ~William James

Friday, October 24, 2014

Want Happiness? Flex Your Gratitude Muscle

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
                                                                                                   ~Max Planck

When was the last time you said “thank you”?

Was it earlier today, when your spouse handed you a bagel as you ran out the door? Was it said to your child because they got dressed on time, or picked up a toy? Did you say it to the barista at your favorite coffee shop, to a customer who dropped a dog off for training, or grooming; or within the confines of your car, sarcastically, of course, when another driver finally hit the gas?

If you had any interaction with other human beings today, you probably said “thank you” at least once.

But I’ll bet you didn’t really mean it.

Okay, I take that back. Maybe you really did. Maybe you weren’t just saying it as a friendly rejoinder, or making small talk. Maybe you really were thankful for your customer, your spouse, your coffee.

If so, you are probably a happier person than most. If you actually write down those incidences where you felt grateful, you’d be even happier.

In one study on gratitude (Emmons and McCullough), participants kept weekly journals, and were told to write down five things that made them grateful the previous week. Other participants wrote five things they considered hassles, and the last group wrote about things that had affected them, but were not told to focus on the positive or the negative.

After 10 weeks, the first group reported significantly more happiness than the other two (25%), fewer health complaints, and more desire to exercise.

That’s a positive finding, but a later study by Emmons revealed something even better: different participants were told to write down daily (instead of weekly) what they were grateful for. This activity led to greater increases in gratitude than the weekly journals had, but it got better. These participants also reported offering others more assistance with a personal problem, or emotional support, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others.  A third study, conducted on patients with physical disabilities, revealed the same conclusion, and its participants also reported that they slept better, had more optimism in general, more life satisfaction, and more connectivity to people in their lives.

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.” ~Anonymous

Gratitude helps lower depression, and keeps marriages from crumbling, too. Those who practice it consistently and truthfully report higher levels of life satisfaction.

And why not? To be grateful means to acknowledge that you are rich—if not in monetary wealth, in personal happiness wealth. The idea that we are the product of our thoughts and feelings, and that we can steer our own outcomes with those thoughts, is no longer considered "New Age." If you have been fortunate in any way, you increase your wealth by being grateful for what you have. This, in turn, makes you happier.

Expressing real gratitude doesn’t just make your life better, either. It enriches those around you. You know how it feels to be warmly thanked, right? Spread that feeling around. Don’t be stingy with it. It costs you virtually nothing in time or energy, but it gives back multi-fold.

While I was putting myself through graduate school, I worked a series of retail jobs as Cashier Supervisor or Customer Service Manager. I’d always said that if you want to learn to hate people, work in retail—you’ll get a great education in the worst aspects of the human race, and get paid for it. But I was surprised that my own retail experiences did not, in fact, teach me to hate people.

When I started at a large humane society, I just knew that the work there would seal the “people are horrible” deal. I waited for the anger to come, to make me wary, even bitter (the sheltering/rescue field is one of the “top” fields for compassion fatigue). But it didn’t happen as I expected.

Sure, people made me angry, but instead of holding on to that, I tried to see things from their point of view. Much as I do when working with dogs, I decided to assume that resistance and poor behavior were due to a lack of clarity, not a personality flaw. A lack of clarity is a problem that can be rectified! And once I embraced that idea, my anger dissipated. I actually gained an empathy for people that I had never had before. Most were not bad people at all. They were just struggling, trying to cope with limited information, and unable to distance themselves emotionally from their pets.

Not only did I not hate them, I began to thank them for giving me the opportunity to serve them. I started to see what they were presenting as a gift, and when I expressed true gratitude for it, my mindset changed.

Do people still do dumb things when it comes to pets? You bet. Can I reach all of them? No. Do I thank the ones I cannot reach? Not to their faces. But I do thank them. I would not be who I am right this minute if it weren’t for them, and everyone in my life who has helped me in some way.

Gratitude is like a muscle: if you don’t use it, it atrophies. I’ll bet you can think of no fewer than 5 people right now who have helped you, molded you, made you better, or improved your life—just today, or for a while now. Why not reach out and thank them? Write them. Call them. Text them, or thank them on Facebook if you must (the best way to express gratitude is through the means with which your recipient, not you, is most comfortable), but do it sincerely, and with feeling. Don’t allow them to brush it off; push on with it until they’ve truly heard you, and they believe you.

Lather, rinse, repeat—daily, weekly, or monthly, make it a habit to express gratitude.

It just may change your life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Do You Mind? Part II

Mindfulness: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. This is the definition I like the best (I'm pretty sure I got it from Sarah Wilson). The “without judgment” part can get a little hairy, as we humans are masters at narrating our lives as we go, and focusing more on the negative than the positive.

It’s a very satisfying concept at its core. And I’ve been studying it for years in some form or another, through lots of reading, through my successful 15-year dog (and people) training business, through my work at the Atlanta Humane Society, and through my consistent need for alone time and silence.

In 1986, at the know-it-all age of 20, I went to a 2-day Transcendental Meditation (TM) seminar with my girlfriend. I don’t recall whose idea it was (probably hers). What did I know about TM? Not much; at the time I don’t even think I knew it was a fad popularized by the Beatles. I was sort of in a spiritual “woo” phase at the time, having thrown off the shackles of a Catholic school educational upbringing but not quite ready to dismiss the idea that “there might be something out there.” (The more people I meet, the more I’m convinced that the best way to turn people agnostic/atheist is to send children to Catholic school.)

So, we went to this seminar, and they taught us how to do TM, not as a group, but individually. I actually practiced it, albeit spottily, for a few years before giving up on it. But I still remember my mantra to this day (I can never tell you; it’s a secret for me only and it is not to be shared--I take that spiritual shit SERIOUSLY). I never gave it enough of a shot to get good at it, so I can’t really say how well it would have worked for me if I’d worked it. It has mostly fallen out of favor, from what I can tell, probably because of a lack of science showing it was the miracle many expected it to be.

So when I signed up for the MBSR course, I wasn’t a complete stranger to meditation. I was happy to learn, however, that there really isn’t a “woo” aspect to MBSR. I specifically wanted a secular experience, and that’s exactly what I got. I also got reacquainted with yoga practice, if only the basics, because 10-15 minutes of basic yoga moves is a really good way to prime yourself for 45 minutes of sitting and meditating. It makes one a lot less fidgety.

I hadn’t done a lot of research into MBSR before deciding to take the course, partly on purpose. I made sure my teachers were qualified to teach it, but that was about it. Of course, it’s like buying a car: after you own the one you buy, you see the same make and model everywhere (the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). After I started taking the class, I started seeing news reports of the efficacy of mindfulness all over the place.

Luckily for me, the venue shifted the second week of class to a more open space with properly-working heat. (See my problems with hot, small spaces in Part 1.) By week 3, we were doing mostly sitting meditations, which was pretty helpful in keeping me awake (but not foolproof).

To be honest, I didn’t really feel stressed by life. I didn’t take the course to reduce stress, specifically, but to learn more about being mindful and living in the moment. It’s something we can all learn to access, but we rarely do—probably because it’s not simple. We are so used to living in a “want it now, get it now” world that many of us have forgotten what it’s like to wait for things, to become proficient at a skill, to enjoy the journey.

Our meditation practice started out with instructions. The very first meditation we did was a “body scan,” where the instructor guides you through focusing on every part of your body for what seems an almost agonizing period of time. Our instructions were to make note of how each part was feeling, nonjudgmentally, and then move on.

Doing it this way made it easier for us newbies to block out the “chatter” that courses through our brains constantly. Every time we started thinking of anything other than the body part the instructor was talking about, we were to direct our thoughts back to the assignment. That generally occurred about, oh, I’d say once a second. It was exhausting.

But it was also liberating in a way. When you don’t really try to control your thoughts consciously, it seems to you as if you cannot—it is impossible. But it isn’t. And once you start doing it, you get better at it. The brain is a muscle, after all.

Dog trainers have long known that mental stimulation for dogs is a powerful tool for keeping them out of trouble and out of shelters. It tires dogs out in positive ways, and makes them think. Unlike physical exercise, it has no fitness plateau, either, so it can be used daily (as long as it remains interesting and requires the dog to work at a solution).

Practicing mindfulness is mental stimulation for humans. But it doesn’t tire you out when you do it correctly—it sharpens you, awakens you, pokes you in the solar plexus and changes your brain. It also enables you to confront things about yourself that may have been buried a bit beneath the surface.

And that is where the journey starts to get interesting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Do You Mind?

I recently attended an 8-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which I have noticed since the course began is becoming pretty popular around the country.

Several compelling studies are arriving that show that focused meditation improves our minds in a myriad of ways. (Don’tcha love that word, “myriad”?) Once thought to be the sole bastion of “woo-woo” New-Age practitioners, meditation is now “hip,” and even buttoned-up workplaces are adopting it as a way to reduce stress and improve functionality and creativity. Doctors are prescribing it to treat ADD and ADHD in children and adults.  They are also prescribing it for chronic pain, high blood pressure, IBS, and other ailments. What about therapists? More and more, therapists and psychiatrists are recommending mindfulness as a treatment for depression.

Mindfulness Meditation, as it is also called, could apparently be the Thing That Saves Humanity From All Evil. (Then again, probably not. But does it hurt to try?)

Meditation itself comes in several forms. It can be religious, spiritual, or entirely secular. It can range from simply sitting with oneself in silence, or even contemplative silence, for a few minutes a day to 3-day retreats full of little but eating, sleeping and purposeful meditating. It often conjures up a vision of patchouli-soaked rooms full of hipsters chanting and bending their bodies into various painful poses, but that shouldn’t define it.

MBSR isn’t just any meditation. The key is mindfulness, and if you think it’s a simple thing to turn off your brain for 10, 20, or 45 minutes at a stretch and focus solely on your breath, you will find out soon enough that It. Is. Not . That. Simple.

And that, my friends, is what makes it awesome.

Yes, one of the greatest things about Mindfulness Meditation is that the idea—turning off distractions and focusing on one thing—is simple, but the practice is deliciously difficult.

The first night of class, I fell asleep. And snored. And I wasn’t the only one.

C’mon, give me a break. It was evening, it was winter, and it was very, very cold outside, so the heat was up higher than I’m used to in a room that was slightly too small for the number of students present. Also, the meditation part came at the end of a 2-hour lecture, and we were instructed to lie on the floor.

You’d have sawed some logs, too.

(Thinking back on it, I am reminded of the scene in the movie G.I. Jane—an oddly entertaining/eye-rollingly bad flick mostly due to the acting chops of Anne Bancroft and Viggo Mortensen—wherein our Navy S.E.A.L. trainees have been awake for almost 24 hours and are given a “break” from their nonstop physical travails in the form of a sit-down in a classroom. They are dog-tired, starving, chafing in wet, sandy clothes, and nearly beaten down, and Mortensen tells them to “write an essay, no less than 500 words, on ‘Why I Love the U.S. Navy.’” The heat is turned up, the lights are dimmed, classical music begins playing, and it’s pouring rain outside--and they are ordered not to fall asleep.)

The MBSR presenters are savvy, though, and they knew this would happen, and warned us about it playfully. It takes time to train your brain to do this, they said. You will fail at it constantly, but you will get better over time. And I did. And I still am.

Oh, it’s a journey. I get slack. I don’t make time for it like I should (45 minutes a day, 6 days a week, is the prescription). The trick is not to start judging yourself for skipping it, though. That’s difficult, seeing as we humans spend a great deal of time judging ourselves harshly.

Stay tuned. I need to go meditate now.