Sit, stay. How your pet can teach you mindfulness.

Most everyone has heard about the importance of being more mindful. “I need to live in the present moment” is something that many clients say when they start therapy. What if I were to tell you your best teacher is likely lying under your chair (or in your lap) at this very moment?

Mindfulness means focusing the attention on something in the present moment. Mindfulness is always “of” something. So mindful breathing is focusing attention fully on breathing. Mindful sadness is focusing attention fully on the experience and expression of sadness. Some things are easier to be mindful of than others. For example, it is often easier to be mindful of your morning cup of coffee, drinking it slowly and savoring it, than it is to be mindful of your intense anxiety right before giving a speech. However, mindfulness is a skill that can be brought to bear on anything, any activity that we experience. And in bringing mindfulness to our daily lives we enhance and deepen our experiences of our lives. So for most, mindfulness requires practice, and here is where our pets can really aid us. They offer a doorway into mindfulness training and practice.

One way to use our pets to learn about mindfulness is by watching them. Notice your cat as you play with him. See the intensity, the single-mindedness that he brings to his game of stalk and pounce. Or watch your dog chewing a bone. See how her entire attention is on that bone, working it and savoring it. In both cases you can see that nothing else is going on in that pet’s mind. There is no thought of “oh, I hope he doesn’t stop playing with me, I love this game so!” and no thought of “I probably should be doing something more productive than chewing right now.” They are simply doing what they are doing with their full attention. So next time you are doing something you love, try to emulate this single-mindedness. Think of what you’ve observed your pet doing and try to stop the thoughts that bring you out of the moment. When you notice yourself having a thought, bring yourself back to the full experience of the situation, whatever it is. If you can hold your attention there, even for a second, you have collected a pearl of peace that you can keep. Enough of those pearls in a day and you’ve lived a fine day, full of moments of deeply experiencing the here and now.

Our pets can also provide us with a doorway into mindfulness practice through our interactions with them. During our daily walks or grooming, try to be totally focused on the pet and what you are doing. As your attention wavers, simply notice it and bring it back to your pet. For a more formal practice of mindfulness try this exercise: As you stroke your pet, bring your full mindfulness to that activity. You can use four of the five senses (skipping taste for obvious reasons), switching between them as you practice. You might start out with touch. As you stroke your pet, focus your full attention on the texture and the warmth of their coat. Then switch to sight and notice the many colors that make up their hair, the color of their eyes, the pads of their feet. Then switch to sound and notice the sound that petting them makes, the sound of their breathing and of yours. Then switch to smell. Nuzzle your pet and notice their smell (hopefully this will be a pleasant experience!). Go through these senses a few times for a total of 5 to 10 minutes of practice. Done daily you will increase your ability to harness your full attention at will. Then you will be able to bring it to other, more difficult or trying situations. And the practice is worthwhile in and of itself as it will deepen your connection to and appreciate of your pet.

By Dr. Kristin Anderson |

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