I could stand to learn a thing or two from our retriever, Skylar. As I read more about Zen, and try to apply Buddhist precepts of mindfulness, honesty, clarity and selflessness to my life, I realize I have a pretty good role model, down around knee-height. Skylar has been quietly Zen-ing around since we brought her into our family as a puppy, seven years ago. Here are some ways I have been trying to apply a more Zen-like perspective, with notes about how Skylar is way ahead of me.
1. Do one thing at a time. I am a multi-tasking maven, perhaps to my detriment. I have been making dinner while listening to a fave podcast while researching photo printing services, answering phone calls, and doing posture exercises. When Skylar does anything (goes for a walk, eats her meals, begs for a head scratch) she only does that thing. She focuses intently and is very clearly present.
2. Make it slow and deliberate. Skylar does nearly everything deliberately. That is to say, she is not absentminded-ly watching the squirrel run across our lawn, she is completely encompassed by one sole activity.
3. Do it completely. Skylar doesn't half-ass anything. It's all or nothing, in one shot. I, on the other hand, frequently start things, interrupt them with other demands, and forget to put away the thing from three things ago, leaving a pileup. I would like to practice this, but have a feeling the demands of three attention-deficit toddlers will impede this practice for the foreseeable future.
4. Develop rituals. Now, I am pretty regimented, but what the Zen monks mean is that everything of importance deserves a ritual, completed with 100% focus. I don't think Skylar prays before meals or sets an intention before licking Summer's face. I can tell you, though, that her biology is hardwired to anticipate certain things happening at specific times in the day. When they don't happen according to her instincts, she is relentless. Just try forgetting her 11:30 am dentastick treat. She makes time for what is important, and I must learn to do this, too. On both of our lists is a daily walk, and I am usually happy to fulfill our shared need for this ritual.
5. Devote time to sitting. I don't know if what Skylar does when she's curled up next to me on the couch is meditating, but that is one of life's greatest mysteries, (at least one of my life's greatest mysteries. What do dogs think about?). I have been committed to a daily meditation practice lately, and have noticed it helps me be more accountable, present, and deliberate in my day. Skylar does a lot of sitting and is impeccably present. I have a lot to learn.
6. Smile and serve others. So much of Skylar's existence is geared towards pleasing us, which is really quite touching and humbling, when I think about this. This practice ensures one's life is not selfish in focus, but makes a positive impact on others' as well. Parenting has been a pretty good crash-course in servitude for me, but doing it Skylar-style, selflessly and with joy, is something I need to work on.
7. Live simply. Skylar is the epitome of living simply. Her greatest joys come from belly rubs, walks, and dinner scraps left in her dish. Anything else is icing on the cake. Anything less is fine, too. Skylar does not need to have possessions. She benefits from shelter, food and water, and medicine, but does not need jewel-encrusted collars or designer chew toys. She likes the sticks she finds in the woods, uses them, and then forgets about them as soon as they are discarded. She knows the value of intangible love and loyalty.
The added benefit to having a living Zen master in the house is that I have a constant reminder and role model in my quest to live a more mindful life. She might get underfoot sometimes, and can annoy visitors with her ceaseless joy-groans, but perhaps this is just another layer of her mentorship: teaching me to live with inconveniences, to let them go with a deep exhale.