Your Dog as Your Teacher
Tuesday January 3, 2012
The thinking mind often misbehaves, with unworkable results. A client brought a cartoon to me recently that was the perfect example of a misbehaving thinking mind.
Let’s imagine these two characters as thinking mind and as observing mind.
The thinking mind is conditioned to react based on past experiences. This mind, for good evolutionary reason, is hyper-attuned to threats to survival. As a consequence the attention of the thinking mind can become absorbed in catastrophizing, reviewing past traumas, ruminating on present threat cues (usually only tangentially related to past catastrophes and traumas), affirming negative beliefs about the self, and planning for future scenarios involving catastrophe and trauma. The problem is, all of the activities of the thinking mind tend to cause us to do the following unhelpful things: miss positive cues that could disconfirm our inflexible beliefs, leave the present moment, stay bound to past ineffective strategies, and become blind aspects of our selves, the world, and the future that could provide helpful and workable resources.
The observing mind or Being is one simple alternative to many of the unhelpful activities of the thinking mind. When we notice ourselves in thinking mind, we can shift to observing mind. Said another way, we can shift out of being lost in thought into finding ourselves in a state of being, or Awareness. Awareness is being with an experience rather than thinking about the experience.
Awareness is shifting out of evaluating, weighing, monetizing, measuring, and anticipating or reviewing, into opening our attention to what is.
Awareness can be cultivated through practice. You can develop awareness by bringing expanded open attention to the present moment, without judgment, noticing what is there. Start with the breath as an anchor to focus your awareness, then expand out to other foci over time. The practice of cultivating awareness is noticing when you have shifted back into thinking mind, and then returning attention to observing and being.
Want to cultivate being? Watch a dog. A dog is fully present, in a doggy way, unburdened with thinking or evaluation. A dog just is. One client of mind talked about shifting out of self criticism into “puppy mind”. Many of my clients find that their own dogs (or horses or cats) are great supports in learning how to view experience with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a puppy out on a walk. Animals are, as Eckhart Tolle describes, “guardians of being”. We have an important lesson to learn from animals: being trumps thinking.
Awareness is a way to be your own guardian of your own being. Awareness can be an effective pathway to creating psychological flexibility in many painful situations. Awareness is not passivity, it is returning to your own being in the present moment. Returning to your own being often means slowing down and accepting what is; however returning to your own being may also mean that you encounter a call to action. You may find that as your awareness grows, your being needs to take action on some important value in your life that your thinking mind has been ignoring. You may find that your being even needs to fight. However, when action is connected to being and to your deepest values through awareness, you may find that you have more psychological flexibility and that your chosen actions are more workable for you.
Try being, and discover for yourself what is true for you.
(Images from Guardians of Being by Eckhart Tolle & Patrick McDonnell)