Mindfulness, Counseling, and Dogs

Mindfulness_Day-700x300

 

“A MONK ASKED JOSHU IN ALL EARNESTNESS,

‘DOES A DOG HAVE BUDDHA NATURE OR NOT?’

JOSHU SAID, ‘MU!'”

Preface

At the request of Dr. Jean Marie Thompson, Team Leader for the Indiana K-9 Assisted Crisis Response Team, I give my thoughts and opinions on mindfulness and counseling and how it may apply to dogs.

 

Introduction

I do not pretend to be an enlightened being, at least in the sense that I do not profess to have all the answers. I apologize in advance for my poetic, philosophical, and even sometimes spiritual prose, but I promise to sound as academic as possible. Indeed, I am being sarcastic and I thank you for at least smiling at my humor and allowing me to be a bit informal here. So let’s step back and look at some things I will be covering: mindfulness practice, where it comes from, how I have used it in psychotherapy, and my attempt to connect it to dog training and living with dogs in general.

Mindfulness

I finished grad school in 2007 and I don’t know where the time went. I was fresh as a mental health counselor, hoping to save the world through cognitive-behavioral therapy, one client at a time – I can dream right? It was by working with other people that I began to further explore the approach of my practice. In the field of psychology we have so many different theories on why humans beings think and act and feel and it all sometimes seems like a hodgepodge of psychobabble and theory. I liken it to the many dog training theories out there: so many claim to have the answer when they are based solely on a theory of mind. That is why I fell in love with Natural Dog Training because it actually implements a complete model to training, encompassing the whole dog. You might say there’s a method to the madness! Anyway, it wasn’t until I started working as a therapist in one of our state prisons that I began to study this idea of mindfulness. Within the last 15-20 years there has been an influx mindfulness-based therapeutic models that have been integrated into the ever-popular “evidence-based treatment” paradigm. Some tend to be a bit more cookie-cutter in their approach and still, many have mindfulness at least as the base of their methods.

 

So what is, mindfulness? People often throw around the concept like it’s this new-age, brand-spankin’-new idea. Its a lot like when people misinterpret the idea of energy found in Natural Dog Training. Point being: mindfulness, and energy alike, are not new to us. Energy we know from physics and mindfulness in particular, has been a concept known to humans beings for about a few thousand years. Technically, mindfulness comes from the noble eight-fold path to enlightenment, as taught by the Buddha. In short, mindfulness is being fully aware of the present moment, here and now, without judgement or attachment, using all of the senses available to us. It is sheer consciousness of everything within and around without entanglement with thoughts, feelings, ego, impulses and so forth. Mindfulness can be practiced as a precept for mediation, prayer, walking, hiking, living in general, and dare I say dog training – more on that below. Essentially, over the past two millenia, mindfulness, and really Buddhism for that matter, has spread rapidly from the east to the west. And, no, you don’t have to practice Buddhism if you want to practice mindfulness. In our Western culture, especially in America where psychotherapy has boomed in the last century, mindfulness practice has been integrated into not only the therapy room, but into the business sector, education and athletics, to name a few.

A Brief Account of Mindfulness in Current Psychotherapies and Counseling

The more recent mindfulness-based therapy approaches fall under what they call the “third wave,” following the first and second waves respectively of behaviorism and then cognitive-behavioral theory. I first trained and practiced under Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, designed primarily for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. At the time I was working as a therapist at the women’s prison, counseling offenders in my office, upstairs in a dorm with a prison cell next to me separated only by a wall made of cinder-block. I had a nice nice view of the golden Indiana countryside,  although I had to get right up to the window as to avoid the steel bars blocking my view. An inordinary experience amidst a chaotic setting. We hear horrific stories about what it is like to work in a correctional setting, let alone live in one. While I certainly have a number of interesting stories, I grew a lot from that experience and I owe a lot of that to learning and practicing mindfulness. People often asked me, “how could you stand working in a place like that?” My answer: because I could. Mindfulness opens you up to the idea that most of what your mind tries to convince you of isn’t always real or true – dare I say we are lying to ourselves from time to time. I worked with offenders who committed murder, theft, burglary, and many who had lived a life entangled by drug and alcohol abuse. A good majority of these women had been stricken by a history of trauma, abuse, and other emotional turmoil. So there I was, a young, naive male therapist working in a women’s prison: seems ironic huh? But you would be amazed by the response I got from using DBT and its mindfulness practices. Many of these women committed to the process and saw drastic change. While their circumstances weren’t ideal to them, they opened up and learned to become balanced with their thoughts and emotions and impulses. It is amazing to see how making the incarceration experience a mindful one actually could work. We saw less suicidality, less anxiety, and less overall stress. I was proud of the work we did there. At the same time, you work at a setting like that for so long until you realize: it is time to get out!

I’ve been working at DePauw’s Counseling Center for almost two and a half years now and my practice has evolved since the prison. Keeping with the momentum of my exploration, I have dug deep into the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – said like the word “act”) Model developed by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson. I can say now that I feel I have found my niche. What I love about ACT is that it teaches you to connect with your history in a way that you can recontextualize your relationship with it, especially when it comes to the pain of your past that seems to be putting life on hold; that you can take from your pain the value and wisdom that lies within it. It teaches you to get out of your own way so that you can live a more open, values-driven life. The title of one of Dr. Hayes’ more famous books pretty much sums it all up, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your life.  The mindfulness piece of ACT is what intrigues me most. Through experiential practice, you get connected with your body and mind in order to come to a place of “I am here, now.” You identify this sense by contacting the part of you that you look from: consciousness. You can see a thought as nothing more or less than what it really is: a thought! You begin to realize that while the human brain has evolved into this amazing problem-solving instrument, it also contains the thoughts and memories that we become so fused to that we don’t even realize that there is so much space to move. We get caught up into the literal stories of our lives and before we know it we’re not moving. Sure, this thing between our ears made up of spongy tissue is important, but it doesn’t have to run the show. To come to a place of realizing we as humans are so much more than what our minds tell us, is what I think a large part of enlightenment is all about. It is not to say that our mind or our experience is our enemy; rather, they can become our ally in accepting (as in receiving a gift) things as they are.

Mindfulness and Dogs

I cannot tell you how many hundreds of texts are out there devoted to the psychological study of canines. Book after book about how supposedly your dog thinks and what type of personality your dog has and every other question posed that assumes we know somehow that a dog is more human than any other animal. I judge, I realize, and even I sometimes fall into the trap of what our culture promotes as how to relate to your dog. For instance, a close friend and co-worker of mine enjoys meeting with my dogs from time to time, as she herself has two. I chuckle when she says that I am the “dog-faced boy” and Trace (our Husky) is the “boy-faced dog.” I laugh because its funny and yet you can see how in our very language that our human minds construct a type of persona, or self, that gets attributed to our four-legged pets.

I believe there is something to be said about the psychological experience of a dog but we must be careful how we use language to describe it. As Kevin Behan would state, there is not really a “dog psychology”. Kevin much the same would also argue that a “theory of mind” would not apply to dogs and I would agree to the extent that a dog does not have a psyche consisting of an ego. I do believe that dogs experience psychological phenomena insofar as they are conscious beings. And, aside from physics and the laws of nature, this is where humans and dogs and all of nature and literally all of the universe have a common connection: consciousness. If we as humans have to consider whether a dog “has” consciousness, we must also ask if the tree in our back yard “has” consciousness.  Quotations are used to emphasize has because it implies a separation between a self and everything else. So it begs the question, what if the human, the dog, and the tree in our back yard are all, in-and-of-themselves, one thing threaded by consciousness? It goes beyond the mind/brain – our entire bodies and everything that it connects with is consciousness. The dog and the tree already “know” this because they don’t question it – they ARE IT, and so are we.

We human beings carry a history with us. Every moment that goes by there it lies, in our hearts and minds and entire body, the echoes of our past. The dog too carries with her every moment lived, all the way back to the womb. However, this functions differently for a dog. As Kevin Behan states, “a dog can’t remember, and yet it never forgets.” It is a paradox but don’t let your problem-solving mind argue over it. It is quite “simple”: imagine you didn’t have a self – you had no language or thought process that perceptually says, “I am an independent being isolated from everything else.” You have memories per se, but they are not a function of a dualistic mind. You own no context or perceptual sense of time yet your body/mind connection exists as if birth and present are all one the same.

Let’s consider a meditative approach. This certainly is not an article on religion or spirituality but for the sake of self-disclosure to prove a point, I identify as a Christian who practices zazen, a Japanese form of meditation that literally means, “just sitting.” In Zen, there is the classic art of koans – short phrases or questions to be approached in the stillness of sitting, to test the process of achieving enlightenment, or awakening. One of the most infamous koans, found at the top of this article, is about a dog, but really is about something much deeper: “A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu said, ‘Mu!'” (Yamada, 2004). The interpretation of “Mu!” translates to “no” or “nonbeing” or “to have nothing.” But you can’t read that answer literally. A Buddhist would indeed tell you that a dog does have a buddha nature, as all living things do. The problem here is that the wrong question is being asked. Essentially, as soon as the human mind considers a being or thing to “have” something, it sees through the lens of “self-as-separate-from-all-things.” The real question remains: is not dog, buddha nature (or for our purposes here, consciousness) and the human asking the question all one thing? In my opinion, a mind without purpose cannot answer that question.

Let me further deduce a few ideas – I may have lost you already. Take Rene Decartes’ famous phrase, “cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am].” What if we re-worded it to simply say, “ergo sum [I am].” And yet, on a deeper level, can you see how words do not express what it truly means “to be” or to have this sense of “I am.” Language and cognition can only go so far, as they indeed it can give it a context. I suppose the best way to explain it is to not explain it at all and somehow without an ego say: [nothing]. Still, “nothing” can be changed to, no-thing, as a different way to look at it. For example, for a thing to be a “thing,” it must have boundaries. The computer screen or device you are looking at to read this essay has edges, it has limits. You can see it exists, or so you “think.” The idea that a thought alone would justify some-thing as existing and/or having consciousness doesn’t always paint the whole picture, nor is it always true, if ever. The question that so many canine researchers and dog lovers alike will always ask and I presume will never have the answer is “does a dog literally think?” There are varying opinions suggesting “ye” or “nay” but do we really know?

So you might be wondering, “how does mindfulness play a part in dog training or simply living with a dog.” Great question! From a NDT perspective we believe that a dog mirrors our emotional lives. Think of your dog in a way that in any given moment, he is a snapshot of our very sense of “being here now.” At the same time, when we train we are going to be in a problem-solving mode of mind and this is okay; as a matter of fact to an extent it is necessary. In our minds we learn the forms of the techniques, like pushing and box training and so forth. We also must learn the theory behind the model. In the beginning it is our mind that is processing the information but once it becomes a pattern of flow for us and our dogs, I believe it is the whole body and not just the mind that absorbs everything. We begin to move by feel. It is then that I think we can appreciate the here-and-now experience of connecting with our dog. Our whole entire being is operating as a state of consciousness with the dog and the ground beneath your feet and the air you breathe. It is NOT being on autopilot as some might feel; rather, it is full awareness without attachment to thought, like a dance where everything flows without having to process anything. You just move.

I will close with a quote from the great movie, Phenomenon (1996) with John Travolta. The scene is with him and the two children who realize that he is going to die soon from some unknown illness. He’s eating an apple with the two of them on his side:

“If we were to put this apple down and leave it, it would be spoiled and gone within a few days. But if we were to take a bite of it like this, it would become part of us. If we could take it with us forever. Everything is on its way to somewhere, everything.”

Your dog is on its way somewhere, and so are you. Will you be mindful along the way?

Please ask questions and give your own thoughts and feelings about this. I’m sure I have some mistakes in here but I would love to discuss this topic further!

* Scott Hamilton is a licensed mental health counselor in the State of Indiana. He currently works as a clinical counselor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He has previously worked as a therapist in outpatient clinical settings and in a state correctional facility. He received a BA in psychology from Anderson University and a MS in counseling at Indiana State University.

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6 thoughts on “Mindfulness, Counseling, and Dogs

  1. I like your article. I was introduced to mindfulness practice with Thich Nhat Hanh and it seems a dog has its own nature and we can be mindful of it. LIke see what the dog is doing versus what I want to do and have a sense of humility with the dog even defeated by their determination for prey. My dog scares the UPS man but he acts like prey and I keep telling him to see her, and himself in another way. Be mindful of the roles they are in and if that can shift in attitude and awareness. I keep trying to connect more mindfully with my dog rather then some of the other things I have done to have her conform to what seems best. I have to do both but so much more listening goes on when I am mindful, I can touch, smell, feel and see more then just think about it or feel about it. I can sense more the wider way she is in the world and I am in it with her and see it as a collaboration.

    1. Thank you for your response Nanda. It is ironic we call it “mind-fullness,” given the lifestyle we often live where we pay no attention to the present and we go 90 mph on a daily basis. But I think we would call that mindlessness! I would love to meet Thich Nhat Hanh as I love his books!

  2. Thank you, I loved your article. I felt more grounded on reading it and had a much calmer walk with my boy Charlie as a result.
    Given that “a dog mirrors our emotional lives” does that mean they are never autonomous but purely (always) a reflection of us?

    1. Thanks, Jennifer, for your reflection. I think on one level, yes, you could argue that a dog is never really autonomous – you could say that about all living beings. I’ll add that mirroring would essentially apply to anything the dog comes in contact with. All of nature is a mirror. The emotional capacity, however, between a human and dog is so intertwined. This is where we bring up the emotional battery of the dog.

  3. I would offer that they are a reflection of ourselves when they are with us; otherwise, they are ‘themselves’, whatever that might be.

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