If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
When I take dogs out for a walk, I always try to find a place where we can be surrounded by Nature. It’s good for them and it’s good for me. A park, or the bank of a river, is the ideal setting for what I call “living in the here and now” or hic at nunc. This is one of the cornerstones of my strategy for building productive relationships with dogs.
The first step is to take a good, deep breath, to blow away any disturbing thoughts in my mind and ask myself if I’m truly present in the moment, or if there’s anything bothering me. I turn off my phone or put it on silent. If I feel I’m “in the zone”, then I know I’m ready. If not, I take five minutes to unwind first and clear my mind. It’s important that I’m calm and open when dealing with the dog. Only after I’ve gone through this process do I put the leash on the animal and start out.
I spend the first ten minutes of our walk learning how best to manage the animal. Each dog has its own particular needs and habits, so it’s important to understand what I can do to meet them from the outset. If a dog is very strong and forceful, I make it run for 5 minutes right away. If the dog is used to relieving himself as soon as he’s out, I find a suitable place and lead him to it. If the dog likes to take his time, I wait and let him dawdle. If a dog that I’m looking after sits down when we go out, that’s not a problem – I stop and I wait until he feels ready to go. After a few minutes he’ll start to walk and so will I. I call this the “warm up period”. After that I take the dog to our special place in Nature. Whenever I can I choose a safe, quiet place, where I can let him off the lead.
I call this is the “freedom period”. In this phase I follow the dog and I observe him. If he wants me to, I run with him. If he feels playful. I play with him. I am completely at his disposal because we are both living in the moment with no other distractions, simply focused on enjoying the here and now. He knows I’m his “alpha dog”, his leader, but that this part of the walk is his moment. From my point of view too it’s usually the most enjoyable part of the walk!
Some dogs hardly lift their noses from the ground at all, they seem so very busy! I call them “the odour eaters”! Others look for contact with other dogs: some of them shyly reserved in their approach to their kind (very British!), some of them full of passionate enthusiasm (very Italian!). I find it’s in these special moments that the true personalities of the animals emerge and their individual traits and eccentricities are revealed. For me it’s always enchanting to discover the characteristics which make each dog unique. The more I observe and understand, the more I forget myself and savour being in the moment with my four-footed companion. This is the real magic of dog-walking for me – I have a chance to live completely in the here and now for a while every day, thanks to my four-footed companion!
After half an hour or so the dog is completely relaxed, with the right level of energy, and he’s free to do what he feels. His immediate needs are met and he can follow his inclinations. It’s often at these times that truly magical connections happen between dogs and people. Recently I was taking care of a dog named Sweeney. At a certain point during the “freedom phase” he always ran off out of sight. I would stopped walking and call him but although he was aware of me, he would just kept running, obliging me to follow. In the early days of my relationship with Sweeney I got a lot of exercise, often ending our walks hot, “glowing” and totally out of breath! The things was, I hadn’t yet found the connection with this dog. But on this particular day I asked myself what would happen if this time I didn’t follow Sweeney? So I waited, quiet, still. At a certain point Sweeney finished his mad dash and he looked back over his shoulder, searching for me. He turned around, scanning the area, sniffing the air. Suddenly he sensed me, pointed his nose in my direction, jumped forward and started rocketing back towards me. Laughing, I hunkered down and waited for him. At the last minute he jumped up and straight into my arms, wagging his tail as if it he would wag right off! It was a moment of pure joy, a connection between human and dog that was so very special.
How did this magic occur, you may ask? Simple – I was completely absorbed in the moment. I forgot everything outside my relationship with that beautiful animal, I stepped aside from my life, my problems, my regrets and uncertainties, forgot about decisions that I couldn’t make, losses that I couldn’t make good, fears and frustrations. And in doing this I opened myself to the discovery of something beautiful, a connection that I would not otherwise have been able to experience.
In my life I have taken care of people suffering from anxiety, phobias and depression. The common denominator of all these conditions is an inability to exist in the present. These people cannot live in the “here and now” and, turned in on themselves, live perpetually focused on the painful disappointments of the dead past, or terrified of the potential disappointments of the non-existent future. While not everyone suffers from such extreme disorders of course, it is certainly true that we live in an age beset by unhappiness, tension and stress. I often notice people lost while they walk, catch the bus, buy groceries, their expression is distant, disengaged, preoccupied, their eyes are focused, not on the here and now, but on the past or the future. What do the eyes represent? In the words of Blake, they are “the windows of the soul”, which can only shine fully if focused on the present. If the mind is clogged by parasitic thoughts, the soul suffocates. In trying to control every moment of your life, you leave no freedom for your soul.
Disorders like depression are our mind’s way of reminding us that we are allowing a stereotypical side of ourselves too much influence, we are thinking too much, over-analysing everything, that we are not listening any more to the needs of our soul. The most serious consequence of this tendency is the loss of our ability to live in the present. We no longer find wonder in the things before us, or take pleasure in the small things happening around us, we no longer see the flowers. And gradually we lose the ability to fantasise, dream, play.
What does all this have to do with the simple act of walking a dog, you may be asking? It’s simple to connect with an animal is one of the most direct ways to re-connect with the child’s world of the “here and now”, to close the door on parasitic thoughts and open the windows to let our soul fly. That’s why I’m thankful to my doggy companions – walking with them allows me to experience this freedom every day.
All the Best,
Translation by Audrey E. Cowan
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