Dogs, Walks, and Mindfulness

A Facebook friend posted this image the other day … one of those “wise thoughts” that looks great until you start to over-analyze it.

It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? Ah, animals, they are so wise in their simple ability to focus on the here and now. Our human minds are cluttered with distractions and to-do lists, while the dog is entirely in the moment.

Except, has the person who drew this cartoon ever actually taken a live dog for a walk?

I can tell you, when Max and I go walking, my brain is exactly like the brain of the human in the cartoon — full of a crazy tangle of thoughts, ideas, worries and trivia. But Max’s brain is full too. Instead of trotting placidily by my side like the dog in the cartoon (OFF-LEASH might I add — is this dog well-trained or lobotomized? Max wouldn’t even be in the cartoon without a leash!), Max is sniffing every plant, rock and blade of grass (or, if we’re walking in our neighbourhood as is more usual, every car tire and fencepost). I assume his thought bubble would be saying something like “Oooh, someone peed here! Who peed here? Can I pee here? Or over there? Yes, I’ll pee there! Wait, who peed here? What was that? WHAT WAS THAT?! Should I chase it? Will it chase me? Am I predator or prey? I can’t remember!!! Oooh, someone peed here!”

My dog is, in fact, a lot more like Allie Brosh’s “simple dog” (please, please read her Hyperbole and a Half cartoon about the simple dog if you haven’t already) than like the Zen dog in the cartoon — he’s “simple” but not in the “mindfulness” sense.

simpledogMy dog’s brain is full of thoughts that are presumably useful for canines in the wild, where it’s important to know what’s prey, who’s a predator, and whether this is your territory or has been marked by another animal. All this information is completely useless (though, I hope, entertaining) to Max. No matter whose territory we walk through or how many bushes he pees on, he’s coming home with me. He can bark at the neighbour’s cat and scare it up a tree, but when we get home he’s still getting dry dog food for his supper despite his best attempts at hunting behavior. His mind is chock-full of utterly pointless information.

My brain, on the other hand, is 99.5% full of useless information, but it’s worth having it there for the sake of the other 0.5% percent. This is where I kind of part ways with the “mindfulness” thing. As a person with a counselling psych degree, and as Christian who tries to be open to and learn from other traditions, I do think there’s a lot of wisdom in this whole mindfulness, “Be Here Now” kind of philosophy that (some) Buddhists and (some) therapists talk about. If I’m constantly caught up in worrying over the future or regretting the past I’m not living fully in the present or fully connecting with the people I’m present with. I get that, and I strive to improve it.

But some people who are into mindfulness take it to the point of saying that when you wash a dish, you should focus only on the dish and the act of washing. Be completely in the moment, not distracted by your thoughts. When you walk, be totally absorbed in the walk: quiet your mind. Now, that’s nice sometimes, and I do think it’s a shame if you’re so locked into your own crazy head that you don’t even notice the landscape or the cityscape you’re walking through, or take time to enjoy the beauty of the day. But to be 100% focused on just the walk, everytime I go for a walk? That’d be such a waste, because going for a walk is some of my most productive thinking time.

Yes, when I’m going for a walk, 99.5% of what goes through my head is pointless trivia or useless worry or inane observations. But somewhere amidst all that is the other 0.5% where I might unlock the secret to a knotty problem that’s been bothering me … or have a great inspiration … or figure out what to do next in my novel. Many of my best ideas (as well as some of my worst ones) have come to me while walking. I wrote half this blog entry in my head while walking this morning … and other half while washing dishes. Too much mindfulness, and there wouldn’t have been a blog today. Which might not be a great loss to literature, but I’m glad I had those thoughts while walking, and wrote them down.

Max wasn’t with me on this morning’s walk. But if he had been, as he usually is — well, I doubt he’d have come up a great blog post. I wouldn’t trade my frantic human brain for his canine one, even if I did believe it would bring me inner peace. On the other hand, if he could respond, Max might say:



(Note: cartoon credits to Alex Gregory for “pointless incessant barking” and to the inimitable Allie Brosh for “the simple dog.” Cartoon credits AND apologies to Henck van Bilsen, from whose blog the “Mind Full or Mindful” cartoon comes. If Mr. van Bilsen ever reads this I hope he isn’t offended … I actually do get the point he’s making and he may well have a dog and know lots about dog behavior! I’ve just used his cartoon in a teasing sort of way to unravel some thoughts of my own … and Max’s). 



4 Replies to “Dogs, Walks, and Mindfulness”

  1. Hello Trudy, We (ms Bella) and I are not offended by your comments on the ‘Mindfulness’ cartoon. Ms Bella is Mr Percy’s successor (he is the dog in the cartoon). Percy was a Labrador and Bella is a Rotweiler (of the very cuddly sort). The way you describe a dogs ‘thinking’ process is very accurate, but at each of these moments, they are fully focussed on what they are focussed on AND they don’t mind their mind drifting from places to pee to delicious morsels of mouldy bread to running after a ball, chasing a cat etc. Dogs and many other animals don’t feel ashamed, guilty or any of those feelings as a result of too much irrational thinking….

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