Lessons of Leo: Leash Training the Mind

leoLeo is my dog. He’s an almost three year old, medium golden doodle. Before him, I was not a dog lover, which probably stemmed from a subconscious memory of a serious dog attack when I was 18 months old, or that cats are just more my vibe. But when my husband was in a car accident in December 2012 and laid up for a while, he smooth talked me into getting a puppy whom he claimed would grow to be about 15 pounds, snuggle on the couch, and whom he would train while he was at home recovering. I’m convinced those were the pain killers talking. The actual picture is a bit different. Leo is now full grown at 40 pounds. For a good year, there was less snuggling and more pillow chewing. And he still isn’t fully trained. But this is not a rant, just a little back story.

This series of posts on the “Lessons of Leo” are about what Leo has taught me and the often hidden blessings he has brought to my life. Oh, how the lessons are many. I think I started to look for these lessons as a way to make my experience with Leo more positive. There have been many tears shed on my part over the trials of puppyhood. This particular lesson is about leash training Leo, which by the way is about 80 percent complete, and how I realized the similarities of leash training to training the mind to stay in the present moment, which for me is about 10 percent complete.

leo dog walkingWhen walking Leo, the command I use when he pulls ahead on the leash is “right here”. The command I use when he lags behind, often to sniff something gross, is “come on”. Both are accompanied by a gentle tug on the leash and a praise of the positive once he comes back in line (which is another whole lesson in itself). I love our walks. I get to move my body, breathe fresh air, notice nature and have a little time to myself. He seems pretty happy too.

One day as we’re walking and my mind is wandering around in the past and future, I notice how I’m constantly being snapped back into the present moment as I say these commands to Leo. (Like I said, he’s not totally trained.) It’s then I realize how similar walking Leo is to meditating, or rather, training the mind to rest in the present moment. When meditating, we really get a chance to look at our thoughts and notice when they are pulling ahead to a future scenario or toiling around with a past memory. Once we notice these wanderings, there are a variety of ways we can gently tug ourselves back into “right here”.

We can use our greatest tool, the breath, to bring us back to center. We can gently say “thinking”, or any mantra, when we notice a thought has taken over. The “command” is yours to choose. Like with Leo, I could use any word to correct him. It makes no difference to him. What matters is the consistency, the repetition. The practice is in showing up and noticing, over and over and over. And we meditate or “practice” to be able to notice our thoughts and be in the present moment, every moment of the day. I believe it was Thich Nhat Hanh who said, “I don’t mediate for the 30 minutes on the cushion. I meditate for the other 23.5 hours of the day.”

Leo and I have walked almost daily for nearly three years. I know he knows how to walk next to me. I’ve seen him do it well many times. But he’s still so easily distracted by blowing leaves and poop smells. Same with us. We know what to do to stay present, but when sitting on that cushion we will cling to the first thought that distracts us from any uncomfortable silence or emotions that rise to the surface. Same as off the cushion. And that’s ok. Even though Leo is still easily distracted, I’m not giving up on him. We’re still going on walks. I’m still going to sit for meditation. I’m not giving up on myself, because you know what, someday we’ll both “get it” and walking/present moment awareness will be effortless.

Some days our walks are better than others if you want to judge a “good” or “bad” walk on how well he listens. I’ve noticed the judgment really only has to do with my state of mind. My energy that day. Depending on my mood, I can be gentle, easy and patient with Leo. Other times, I’m a bit more annoyed and perhaps a little harsher than I need to be. It’s the same way with how we treat ourselves when sitting for meditation. Each day is different. Sometimes we’re more agitated and harsher with ourselves when we notice our mind has pulled us on a tangent. Yanking ourselves back with a stern “come on”. Other days it’s effortless to let the thoughts float away and come peacefully back to our center. Your mood doesn’t matter. The practice is in the noticing and using your tools to come back to your center as gently as you can in the moment. Don’t give up on yourself. Just keep showing up. I’ll be right here with you.

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