The Mindfulness of a Dog
Part I of III: What I learned from my dog, Freya.
Posted Jan 16, 2021
Mindfulness can generally be defined as:
“The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. [It is] a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Harvard professor, psychologist, and mindfulness expert Dr. Ronald D. Siegel takes the definition a little further explaining that, “Mindfulness is an attitude toward experience [italics mine]—approaching any moment of our lives with both awareness and acceptance.” In the upper levels of our culinary medicine program, we use food as the focus to explore utilizing mindfulness as part of the overall food experience. The beautiful thing about mindfulness, is that it is personally experiential. It is unique to you. Like a meal, no one can taste it for you. Two people getting exactly the same meal have two totally different experiences. Like mindfulness, the food experience is uniquely, personally experiential.
Such evidence-based approaches are known as mindfulness-based eating awareness techniques, or MBE for short. My experience in mindfulness goes back several decades when I began my martial arts training in my teens. Back then there really wasn’t any trendy term like mindfulness, the exercise and practices were simply part of a program to develop focus, awareness, and spiritual growth. By experiencing and accepting the moments and the realities of the day, we learned to treasure and appreciate life in and at the moment. Research suggests that most people spend about 47 percent of their waking time rehashing past events or worrying about future ones. In other words, most people spend almost half their life totally disengaged from the present moment they are living.
As the saying and common sense go, anyone that tells you that they’re a mindfulness master probably isn’t. That certainly applies to me. Decades later even with regular practice, I struggle with a mind that frequently resembles an untrained puppy, often dropping a mental turd at the most inopportune time.
This is the section in the usual column where we discuss recent studies or published insights or perhaps share how we integrate and use culinary techniques to reach our objectives. But today, I’d simply like to share what I learned from Freya.
Freya was an adopted pound puppy. After many years and a number of tremendous adventures together, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage tumor. At that point, she was given a few weeks left to live. As usual, her stubbornness and vivaciousness ruled the day, and she embarrassed all the experts by living another four months.
And that’s exactly the point. She lived those four months. Fortunately, she wasn’t in pain and she wasn’t aware she had a tumor or that she was supposed to pass in a matter of weeks. She simply lived and enjoyed each moment of each day, the essence of carpe diem. On the other hand, knowing all the information I often found myself transported into the future; already suffering an eventuality that had not yet come. I had, as Mark Twain observed, “experienced a great deal of pain and suffering.... most of which has never happened.”
What I learned from Freya was to simply enjoy the moment. When I found myself focusing on pain and sorrow and causing suffering that had not yet materialized, I could look over to her and come back to the moment. By simply being, she helped bring my focus back into the moment and enjoy the present with her whilst she was here. And now that she’s not, I thank her because otherwise, I would have missed those days. And those were days of pure pleasure. Her last lesson to me was The Mindfulness of Carpe Diem.
But as I try to honor her now in her passing, I realize that she taught me many valuable mindfulness lessons. I’d like to share a few of them now. She was a gregarious soul and no doubt part attention hound. She took care of everyone in her pack and enthusiastically and authentically welcome those who wanted to join – even the cats. If these help you in any small way, I know that would bring that familiar warmhearted grin to her face.