According to the United States Humane Society, nearly 70% of households have a pet. A lot of evidence has been put forth showing how beneficial pets are to our health and overall well-being—mentally, physically, and socially. This can be especially true during times of adversity. The unconditional love and loyalty of a family pet is wonderful and can help us manage difficult experiences. In fact, the positive experiences reported by many people in adverse circumstances has given rise to ongoing research projects exploring the impact of animal interaction with those experiencing personal adversity, such as PTSD, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
My life changed four years ago when I adopted a Yellow Lab mix named Mac. He immediately filled my house with unbiased love and an overwhelming sense of caring. He has allowed me to grow in ways I never knew I could. Mac has been an incredible teacher of patience, unbridled fun, and authenticity. I know the importance of my own mental and emotional well-being, but like most of us, I often put my needs behind those I serve. A few weeks into this pandemic, I began noticing that Mac was reminding me of a few pretty valuable lessons.
The Importance of a Good Routine
A good routine provides us with structure and discipline in all areas of life. If I only have one interaction with an elite performer, such as an athlete, soldier, or CEO, I use it to talk about building a rock-solid routine. It can help us move toward our goals, free up precious time, stay motivated, and track our success. When we were kids, most of us had routines provided for us. We had a wake-up time, school schedules, dinner times, and most nights a bedtime. As much as we complained about those routines, they kept us on a productive path.
The period of quarantine has allowed us to have amounts of time to fill that we probably aren’t used to having. If you’re like me, you’ve probably noticed that this time can quickly get away from you, or be filled in less than optimal ways (like scrolling through Instagram while gorging on chips, and watching dozens of YouTube videos about Big Cat documentaries).
Having Mac has not allowed me to stray too far from our regular routine. Taking him out to do his business, going for walks, and feeding him can be something to set your watch by each day. I marvel at his nighttime routine. Before going to bed, he has to have a treat and one last bathroom trip. If either of those is delayed, he gets exceptionally fussy. As soon as his routine is complete, he goes straight to sleep. His routines are built into my routine, which has brought some normalcy to an incredibly abnormal situation.
Feel What I Need to Feel When I Need to Feel It
This pandemic is impacting more than just our physical health; it is taxing our mental health as well. Fear is at an extremely high level. Fear of illness, of loss, of financial decline, and extreme change in our lifestyle are understandable. The nonstop media coverage and prolonged uncertainty can potentially lead to intense feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Now more than ever, it’s essential for us to create awareness of our feelings and to learn to manage them.
One big lesson I’ve learned from Mac is that no matter how big or tough you are (he weighs 95 pounds), it is OK to feel anxious, or frustrated, or scared. I don’t judge him as being weak because he appears sad or scared; I want to help. This works both ways. Research cited by the American Kennel Club has shown that dogs can detect multiple human emotions—both positive and negative.
Mac is also the epitome of a being who expresses gratitude. Whenever I pick up his leash, it’s like the first time he has ever gone outside. Each time we play fetch, he acts as if it is the most excellent experience of his life. That type of gratitude is contagious. He reminds me to appreciate what I have and share an appreciation for others in my life.
He has also shown me that it is OK to take time for myself to process what I’m feeling. As energetic as he is, he has days when he only moves as far as the next soft place to nap. I spent the first few weeks of this pandemic trying to be everywhere, for every person who reached out. I quickly depleted my tank. That’s the last thing I need to do. If I need a day or two to lie around and explore my mental and emotional state, that’s OK. We have to break the stigma of staying excessively busy and allow ourselves down time.
How to Truly Be Present
I first learned about mindfulness and began practicing it about 20 years ago. I meditate regularly, and I have used mindfulness as the foundation for all of my professional work. I have always taught based on a variation of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, “Being fully present in the moment, on purpose, without judgment.” I believe that we, as humans, have the innate ability to be fully present. What happens when you jingle a set of keys in front of infants? They are fully present with the keys. No one had to teach them how to attend. It came naturally.
As we grow older and form biases through teachings and experience, we seem to struggle with judgment. Once we place judgment on any part of the moment, we’ve lost our connection to it. We begin to allow our thoughts to swirl and flurry until we can no longer see the moment clearly.
One of the most rewarding parts of having Mac in my life is that he appreciates being in each moment. If he has one of his toys, he is fully present with his toy. If he is lying with his head in my lap, nothing else matters. When we take walks, he is fully immersed in the experience. The ability to reach this level of mindful living should make the most experienced practitioner take notice. No matter how much I reminisce about life before COVID-19 or dream of what life will be like once we return from it, he continues to remind me that each moment I have right now is pretty special too.
I have seen many experts expressing a need to use this time to master skills, or completely turn our lives around. That seems like a lot of pressure and may sacrifice processing some of the feelings we need to address. I believe there are small lessons we can learn along the way to become a better version of ourselves. Those lessons may come from spending time with our families, video chatting with our friends, watching Internet classes, or even a furry professor named Mac.