Early this morning, my old dog paced from one room to another, settling down for a few seconds only to get back up and put her nose to the door to be let out. Moments later she would turn around and scratch at the door to be let back in again. I interrupted my breakfast to grant each request to go out or come back in, because she may have had good reason to want to be outside, and if it was to ‘make a mess’ I was happy she would choose to do that outside, rather than inside. During this dance, it occurred to me that my mind—the mind—is often restless like my old dog was being right then, pacing back and forth and rarely settling in one place for long. I smiled at the image of my mind as a restless dog.
After a short while, I realized my dog did not really have a ‘need’ to be so restless, so I asked her to “Go lie down” on her bed, and to “Stay,” which she willingly did. I gave her a little treat and spent a few minutes with her, and soon she settled down. She seemed relieved to have been given a command that she understood and could readily obey. Perhaps all she needed was a little reminder to just ‘be’.
A few hours later, after sitting in meditation with my meditation group, one member read a short piece from Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path With Heart.” It has been said that there are no coincidences and I had a good chuckle when she opened the reading with the following words, “…meditation is very much like training a puppy.”
Kornfield goes on to describe how the mind is like a puppy:
“You put the puppy down and say “Stay,” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes the puppy jumps up, runs over, and pees in the corner or makes some other mess. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes. In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again.”
Having raised my dog from a puppy, I could easily relate to these words. She is sensitive and intelligent, but it still required a certain amount of repetition and discipline to help her understand what she was being asked to do, and for her to learn how to ‘obey’ the commands to, “Come, Sit, Lie Down and Stay.” Being frustrated and/or impatient would not have helped her learn; to the contrary it would have made her less receptive to the instructions she was being given. And had I aborted her training before she had a solid grasp on what was required of her, she would never have learned how to sit and calmly stay put in one place for some period of time. But having learned these basics in relaxed training sessions that lasted only as long as her attention span, she learned the commands and she has always been happy to obey them.
Kornfield continues the analogy of training the mind in spiritual discipline as you would train a puppy:
“When you undertake a spiritual discipline, frustration comes with the territory. Nothing in our culture or our schooling has taught us to steady and calm our attention. One psychologist has called us a society of attentional spastics. Finding it difficult to concentrate, many people respond by forcing their attention on their breath or mantra or prayer with tense irritation and self-judgment, or worse. Is this the way you would train a puppy? Does it really help to beat it? Concentration is never a matter of force or coercion. You simply pick up the puppy again and return to reconnect with the here and now.”
My dog’s training was not stressful or traumatic to her—she never felt threatened. Comparing that experience to learning to quiet the mind, isn’t it so much more relaxing to imagine simply bringing one’s attention back to the present moment whenever one realizes they have strayed into thought, than to imagine becoming tense with frustration because the mind is “so damn busy”? Just writing those last few words caused some contraction within me. How did it feel to read them?
I love Kornfield’s analogy. It seems to me that the mind is indeed like a puppy—interested in everything, wandering here, there and everywhere. How delightful and rewarding to be able to gently guide the puppy in its training. And how sweet life reveals itself to be when the mind doesn’t feel threatened, and so naturally becomes quiet. Calmly and consistently pulling our attention back to the present moment anytime we realize we are lost in thought or action—not just during meditation, but throughout the day—allows what was once a restless mind to relax, revealing the divine stillness that lies within, and is always available to us.