The Dog’s Guide To Being Present

My dog, probably like many dogs you know, lives inside, but lives for any opportunity to go outside. As he starts to detect signs that a walk might be imminent, he paces around the room, tail wagging, front paws tap-dancing on the floor, sometimes panting. This builds until he has a leash around his neck and gets his nose out the door, and then his whole body, and he doesn’t calm down until he has sniffed several dozen spots around the neighborhood and walked about a mile.

hand-drawn chart titled "Is My Dog Ready To Go For A Walk?"

Many times, I have wondered how I could tap into Rowlf’s enthusiasm for being outside and exercising. I mean, I never regret exercising, even when it sucks. I always feel better after I exercise, getting outside, moving my body, getting my face out of my laptop and newsfeeds and into nature, whether it’s forested singletrack or just around my neighborhood. But many days, it’s hard to drag myself out the door. I procrastinate for minutes or hours, then put on exercise clothes, then procrastinate while wearing exercise clothes, then eventually get out the door.

hand-drawn chart titled "I should probably go for a run today"

And it’s often great, but plenty of times it’s about as fun as scrubbing the shower or doing my taxes, at least for the first few minutes. I run, or bike, but worry about my inbox, or bills, or my parents, or every news article I read that morning, my to-do list, whatever. If Rowlf is a 10/10 at enjoying being outside, some days I am a 2/10—at least for the first few minutes, before I get out of my head and realize, Hey, this is way better than sitting inside answering emails. Unlike Rowlf, I do not experience pure joy, or at least joy that is as pure, or as sustained.

In the early months of the Covid-19 lockdown this year, I had an unrelated health issue that required me to take two months completely off running. I had been running about 40 miles per week at that point, which at my pace, is about six hours of running every week. So there was a big hole in my life for a while. After two months, I finally went out for a two-mile run around my neighborhood, and it may have been the most fun I’ve ever had moving two miles—it was slow, not particularly scenic, or notable, but I was running again.

As people around the world in cities endured lockdowns, some unable to leave their apartments for a month or more, I was able to get out and run—just in my neighborhood, then later I ventured to the park near our house, and eventually, I slowly started running on trails again. I would love to say I recaptured the joy and spent every minute of every mile smiling and wagging my metaphorical tail, but of course sometimes it became a slog. I reminded myself, at least I can run again, and at least I can exercise outdoors, and at least, during a pandemic, I am healthy enough to breathe on my own, and those are reasons to be grateful. One day, maybe a long time from now, maybe much sooner than I expect, I won’t be able to do some of those things, and I’ll wish I could do just one slog of a run that feels like a chore, one more time. So be happy now. I didn’t achieve Rowlf-like enlightenment, but I am trying.

A couple months ago, I started using the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, and in one of the interview segments, teacher Joseph Goldstein describes the difference between being present and being mindful:

“Being in the present is an essential component of being mindful, but it’s not enough. Being mindful is something a bit broader than that. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. You’re probably familiar with dogs like black Labs, or golden retrievers. I like those particular dogs because they’re really friendly and happy, and they seem to be having a good time. They seem completely in the present moment. They’re in the moment, very much involved in the world of smell and scent and what they’re seeing, but when you look at them, it would be a stretch to think that they’re actually being mindful. They’re just totally caught up in the momentary experience, being in the present, but without that added dimension we might call a self-reflective kind of knowing.”

I’m working on being mindful—being aware in the moment and paying attention to my thoughts, without judgment. Because that’s the point of practicing mindfulness meditation; not just being in the moment, like my dog, who perhaps has an easier path to being present because he doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have to pay rent, among other things.

I’d love to be mindful, or at least more mindful, and I think that’s something to work toward. But honestly, some days, I’d take being in the present, just like my dog, who is living his best life in the minutes he is outside, wagging his tail with his nose buried in a patch of grass, sniffing the hell out of something, deciding whether or not he’s going to roll in it.

Thanks for reading.

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