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Puppy School For The Mind

Training ourselves and our kids with kindness and patience to really meet the “full catastrophe” of life

I was walking along the beach this morning (doing my arm exercises to rehab a dislocated shoulder – yes, I looked ridiculous) and saw a fellow coming towards me with a big dog. When the dog saw me, he stopped and started tugging on the lead and tried to get away.

We have a new puppy. Part of our learning in puppy school is that we need to introduce our pup to as many weird and wonderful things as we can, to get them used to the whole plethora of experiences they will face as life goes on for them in the world outside of their litter mates.

The trainer suggested the following:

“socialize your puppy by introducing him/her to trucks, motorbikes, scooters, people in hoods/hats/masks, bikes, bins, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, people with walkers, people from different nationalities, people waving their arms around, prams, loud kids, running kids, crawling kids, friendly kids, big dogs, small dogs. And, every time they see something new, reassure them it is OK and then give them a reward”. Makes sense I thought. Good advice.

So, seeing this guy struggling to control his big dog when it saw a crazy lady whirling her arms around, I thought about puppy school and put my arms down and pretended to be normal person (quite hard for me really). As I came up to the guy and his dog and to show some compassion (you know, all in it together), I said “we have a new puppy and it is really hard to teach them to walk on a lead isn’t it?!”. He kind of looked at me sideways (possibly able to tell that even with arms by my side I am still not a normal person!) and then said “yeah, well if you hadn’t been waving your arms around, he would not have freaked out”. And we both kept walking. “Now that is interesting” I thought. He was blaming me for his dog’s poor behaviour….

In my work at a university, we teach the students to train their minds in the same way they would train a puppy; firmly but lovingly. And after this morning’s interaction with this young fellow and his very big dog, I got thinking about how quick so many of us are to blame others for our own mind’s behaviour.

 “You made me feel….” “You made me do…..”

The truth is, no one makes us think, feel or do anything. An untrained mind, much like an untrained dog, does not realise it has a choice. The fact is, it does. We always have a choice when it comes to how we respond to a situation. We absolutely cannot choose the situations we find ourselves in and we can pretty much guarantee that we will all find ourselves in less than fabulous situations in our life, but we can all choose how we meet each and every experience.

 Mindfulness meditation is like puppy school for the mind, body and heart. We expose our full self to all sorts of weird and wonderful things: memories, worries, sadness, fear, love, self-loathing – you name it, the “full catastrophe” to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn. And we do that in a kind and patient way. Much like a new puppy, we slowly learn that these things are all just part of a colourful life and they are not to be afraid of. They are to be inquired into with an open and curious attitude. When we approach ourselves and life in this way, even the most painful experiences can become a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom.

 The same goes for the way we parent our kids. If we protect them too much and don’t let them learn to navigate fear and boredom and sadness for themselves, we are depriving them of learning that they are capable to hold all of life – right within them.

Of course, there are times when the most compassionate thing to do for ourselves is in fact to turn away, to avoid or even numb, to flick on Netflix or have another piece of chocolate. Sometimes stuff gets so big that Netflix and chocolate is actually the most appropriate response – until we are ready to turn towards it. The same goes for our kids – sometimes flicking on the television to quell the tears is the best thing to do. In much the same way, it would be negligent to leave a new small dog alone with a big untrained dog – it would simply do more damage than good. We can all deal with really big stuff, but only when we are ready and have some good resources to support us.

So, as we venture into our own minds, hearts and bodies – can we meet whatever we find there with kindness? Can we reassure ourselves that we are OK and we can in fact handle this? We can handle all of this messiness of being human. The same goes for our kids, can we teach them that yes, their pain is big but they are bigger? The trick is, we all need to get to know our pain, in much the same way my new puppy needs to get to know all of life, so she does not freak out when she comes face to face with new and possibly scary things.

And, if you see a lady walking along the beach waving her arms around like crazy, it’s possibly me. Please come and say hi.

By Liv Downing, Liv Mindfully 

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