One morning at six o’clock, a few months after adopting a terrier-poodle puppy, I pulled myself out of bed in an attempt to meditate. I decided sitting up on my yoga mat was too much effort, so I got into child’s pose, kneeling and lowering my head to the mat. I stretched my arms out in front of me, while my meditation music “om’d” in the background.
After two minutes, which felt more like two hours, a fluffy presence leapt over my arm. My boyfriend usually kept Bella in the bedroom while I meditated, but I’d left the door open a crack. She had nuzzled her way out, her paws so light on the floor that I didn’t hear her coming.
When I opened my eyes and lifted my head from the mat, Bella stood a few inches from my nose, in between my outstretched arms. In her mouth, she held a green frog toy by one leg.
“Bella, I’m meditating!” I said, but with a smile, because dear God was she cute! Five months old, four pounds, and not even a foot tall. Her coat of brownish- black puppy fur was just starting to fade to creamy apricot.
Bella whipped her beloved frog so close that it hit my nose. Then, just in case I hadn’t gotten the obvious memo that she wanted to play, she put her butt up, paws forward, and shook the frog between her teeth.
The meditation music changed to soft ocean sounds, and Bella blinked up at me with her chestnut eyes, pleading for a game of tug-of-war.
I couldn’t resist her. I grabbed a frog leg between my pointer finger and my thumb and gave it a little pull. Bella pulled back, letting out the most pathetic groan, which I think was meant to be a growl. Her tiny tail whipped back and forth, and I thought to myself, “I couldn’t love you more if I tried.” Our connection was wordless and relatively new, but I was already crazy about her.
I loved every little thing she did. The time she leapt into a pond after a duck and kept going after him as though there was no difference between land and water. The way she assumed everything I had was hers, my glass of water, my food, my pillow, my socks, and never questioning whether she deserved it.
I loved how when I blew on her face, she gave the most pissed-off look and batted her dainty paw at my mouth. I loved how, to everyone’s shock, she thought “the cone of shame” was a fabulous accessory and wagged her tail when we slipped it over her head (this may be because I dressed her up on a regular basis). I loved how everything fascinated her, even dust.
I loved how after I gave Bella too much turkey, and then my boyfriend gave her too much salami – , which caused an awful bout of pancreatitis -, she didn’t cuss out her mortified parents for feeding her too many treats. Instead, upon our return from a vet visit we couldn’t really afford, she went straight to a warm patch of sunlight on the carpet. She didn’t resent us or complain. Right away, she got back to the business of basking in the warmth of the present moment.
I also loved how seriously she took the game of tug-of-war, as though she were some ferocious lion, and which Bella and I played that morning for almost ten minutes. I probably smiled the entire time, and when the timer on my phone went off to mark the end of the meditation, Bella’s head tilted to the side. The sound startled me, too. We were still playing, and I’d completely forgotten that I was supposed to be meditating. Then again, if the point of meditation is to bring us to the present moment, maybe I was still doing what I was supposed to do.
In the six years since I adopted Bella, we have meditated together almost every morning. Here are six ways my puppy improves my meditation practice:
She wakes me up early
Bella and I share a pillow at night, her head in front of my mine, the small curve of her back pressed against my chest, her soft ear brushing against my chin. She sleeps in my arms and wakes up in them, too, — and sometimes, her urge to play at six a.m. is as intense as my urge for morning coffee.
Quite suddenly, she wakes up, stands on my head, and then jumps off the bed. She pounces on a squeaker toy or a lonely sock, charging from one side of the room to the other until I finally get out of bed. I never appreciate her enthusiasm at the time, but later, I’m thankful for it.
If you want to meditate in the morning, it’s good to be awake.
She sees the world with fresh eyes
When Bella and I go for walks around the neighborhood, she walks as far ahead of me as possible on the leash, and finds so much pleasure in the same route we take each day. She is a master of spotting and celebrating the newness of things, a flower in bloom, a different scent in the sky, an ant crawling across the sidewalk.
Rather than being lost in thought, her eyes sharpen to the present moment, and she notices the faintest of sounds, the tiniest of flowers and bugs. She stops to investigate all of it, never in a hurry. And sometimes, if I pay enough attention to her, this world becomes fresh for me again, too.
She teaches me the art of simplicity
I have so many books on meditation I hardly know what to do with myself. My inbox is full of Present Moment Reminders from Eckhart Tolle, and notifications from Oprah and Deepak’s meditation series, and mindfulness emails from the yoga studio down the street, and monthly updates from my local Transcendental Meditation Center. I’m the one that signed up for these things, and I’m glad I did, but sometimes I get so overwhelmed by all of my options I do nothing at all.
Bella does not believe in multi-tasking. She gives each activity her full awareness, whether that’s chewing on a bone, greeting a dog, bathing in sunlight. If she had a mantra, it would be the same one you see on the walls of 12 step meetings: “Keep it simple.” (“And play often!” Bella might add.)
She brings me back to the moment
I still frequently fall back into old but familiar thought patterns: harshness, perfectionism, anxiety. I hear the voice of my alcoholic father screaming when I was a child, or the rigidity that imprisoned me during the eight years I suffered from an eating disorder, and it makes me believe that peace is impossible. Maybe I should just give up already.
But then, this nonjudgemental, loving presence climbs into my lap. Bella loves me no matter how enlightened or unenlightened I am. She pays no attention to the pessimist or the worrier in me, and she doesn’t define me with the same limiting labels I use to define myself. When I hold her and look into her beady eyes, my heart calms, my awareness increases, and my seemingly inescapable problems fade into the background. I experience the here and now: Bella’s soft pant, the swish of her tail, the grassy scent of her fur, the air moving in and out of her lungs and mine.
She takes care of her body
When Bella is hungry, she eats. When she is tired, she sleeps. When she is thirsty, she laps up her water. Her thoughts have not disconnected her from her body, and she naturally takes care of it. She doesn’t overwork herself or starve herself or stay up all night jacked on coffee. She respects her tiny being, her precious life, — without even realizing she is doing so. And sometimes watching her take care of herself is the gentle nudge I need to put my computer down and eat breakfast. To go to bed. To take a deep, conscious breathe. To pause and ask my heart, body, and mind what it needs.
She is soft-hearted
Bella is soft-hearted, meaning she doesn’t wear some kind of armor around her heart to protect her from feeling. She doesn’t numb her pain with addiction, or feel the pressure to wear a “brave” face over her real, authentic one. Bella will never tell you she is “fine” or everything is “great” when it is not. Instead, she’ll tell you exactly what she’ is experiencing with the language of her body. She’ll tremble if she’s scared. She’ll leap into your arms if she wants affection. She’ll cry if she’s in pain. She doesn’t try to rationalize or justify what she’ is feeling;, she releases that emotion in the moment. And it reminds me to do the same.
© Adapted Excerpt from Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life by Shannon Kopp Courtesy of William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers