Meditation with Doggo
Have you ever imagined what a photograph of your brain might show? I love the idea of sticking my head inside an fMRI and spending an hour with a neuroscientist who can interpret the scan. I’m most curious about the changes in my brain before and after a meditation session. Experts have found varying data on exactly how meditation impacts different parts of the brain. But one thing is definite: meditation changes your brain.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that it can improve self-regulation, help you become more focused in your problem-solving abilities, sharpen adaptive behavior, and increase your sense of interoception (the ability to sense what your body needs, such as hunger). From a mental health perspective, we know that a daily meditation habit makes you more resilient to stress, calms the mind, and improves self-compassion.
Every morning at the clinic where my therapy dog, Benji, and I formerly facilitated groups for folks overcoming addiction, we would meditate. Our groups tried many different types of meditation: guided meditations from YouTube, classic meditations that we took turns reading aloud, soft music, or just a few minutes of silence. Benji was almost always in the room. And Benji was almost always acting-the-fool. We would only meditate for five to ten minutes, but those are the minutes that he preferred to play with his squeaker toy, explore people’s lunches, and ask for belly scratches. At first, I had this inner monologue: “Benji, why can’t you calm down?! Meditation is hard enough for beginners without having to block out your chewing sounds!” But Benji was oblivious to my inner critic (as he should be) and kept right on behaving as a puppy.
Group therapy can provide powerful healing opportunities and can inspire important changes in the participants’ lives. I try to be mindful of my words and actions during group therapy, knowing that some folks look to my behavior to set the standard for the hour. So, every morning as our meditation began and Benji took advantage of our closed eyes to look for snacks, I had a decision to make. How would I handle this? Would I send him out of the room? Would I take his squeaker toy away to eliminate the distracting chewing sounds? Would I instruct him to “sit and stay” in embarrassed, ineffectual whispers?
One morning, I decided to try something different. I sat on the floor with Benji during the meditation. I removed his purple “Pet Me” harness and invited him to lay down next to me. I rested my hands on him and gave his head a scritch. He settled right down. I gently started petting him, moving my hand across him with each exhale, letting my breath calm us both. I noticed the softness of his ears and the coarseness of his ruff. I felt my mind wander for a moment as I noticed his scent and decided it was time for a bath. Then I brought my mind back to the moment with a smile. Even after all these years of meditating, my mind still wanders. And that’s okay. My brain is supposed to produce thoughts—that’s one of its jobs.
In meditation, we notice the thought and come back to the breath. In this case, my breath brought me back to the rhythmic petting of the calm puppy. As the Honest Guy (an excellent YouTube channel for meditation) brought us out of his guided meditation, a lightbulb brightened for me. I could meditate with my pets! What follows is a guided meditation that celebrates the presence of your pet—or animals in general—in your journey.
Don’t be surprised if your cat or dog comes into the room and gives you a nudge while you’re doing this meditation. They may try to climb into your lap or invite you to play. Accept them, however they choose to involve themselves.
While this is a written script, you may enjoy it more if a friend reads it aloud to you. To make it even more meaningful, the friend reading aloud can use the name of your pet. You can find recordings of this and other guided meditations on my website, annalisasmithson.com/tools.
Guided Meditation for Your Journey
Get your space set up by dimming the lights, lighting a scented candle, and perhaps burning an incense that you particularly enjoy. You might consider recording the following script into your smartphone so that you can fully immerse yourself in the experience as you play it back.
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Allow yourself to fully relax into your favorite spot and breathe in the familiar scents of home. Give yourself permission to fully immerse yourself in the journey you are about to take. If your pet wanders into the room, acknowledge them. Enjoy the sensation of their paws on your lap. Smile into their large, soulful eyes before closing your own. If they nudge your open hands, enjoy the softness of their fur and the wetness of their nose. Your pet is part of your heart and your home. They may wish to join you on this journey. With your eyes closed and your body relaxed, we will begin this guided meditation by counting down from 5…4…3…2…1… You find yourself just inside the entryway to your own home. You are kneeling before the front door preparing for a journey. You are holding warm, fuzzy socks in your hand. They have a print that makes you smile as you pull them onto your feet. You relax a little more as you enjoy the sensation of the soft cloth against your toes. Perhaps you wiggle your toes and arch your feet to deepen the sensation. You lace up your boots and stand, stretching your calves and thighs as you pull yourself upright. You take in a full, deep belly breath, arching your back slightly. You realize you’re holding an old, well-worn scarf that was a gift from someone you love. You continue smiling as you wrap the scarf around your neck and feel the warmth as though it is a hug from that same person. Your shoulders relax and your back settles into an easy, comfortable posture. You hear a jingle and look down to see your pet standing by your side. Your pet is happy, content just to be with you. As you clip a lead onto their collar, the sound gives you a sense of security. The texture of the leash in the palm of your hand is a comfort. The two of you are connected, stronger together. Pause for a moment and breathe. As you reach toward the doorknob to begin your journey, you notice a faint light seeping through the door frame. Slowly you turn the knob, sensing the brightening of the light. You open the door and you are fully absorbed in a brilliant white light. In this light, you find Love. Strength. Compassion. Your heart is illuminated and pure. Your pet is illuminated from within, adding a special purity to the already brilliant light. You pause to experience the moment, leaning into the light and relaxing further. Soon the light begins to fade. As it does, you realize that your higher power is with you on this journey. You are ready. Pause for a moment and breathe. You step through the door and find yourself in a wide, open field covered with flowers. You see deep orange, sunshine yellow, and rich burgundy. On the far edge of the clearing there are tall, majestic trees, still holding onto their colorful leaves. You are warm in your soft, cozy clothes, but you sense a cool nip in the air. You breathe deeply and smell the rich, spicy scent of the season. With your pet at your side, you set a slow, luxuriant pace. You enjoy the walk through the field, pausing occasionally to enjoy some of nature’s treasures. You and your pet spy many treasures on the ground. You pick up a particular stone that catches your eye. For a moment you get lost in its beauty. What color is the stone? What is its texture? Is it cool or warm in your palm? You put the stone in your pocket and notice your pet has found a small, round object. It might be a walnut or an apple. They bat it around as if it’s a ball, making small contented sounds, lost in the playful moment. When your pet notices you watching and smiling at their antics, they play even harder. They enjoy making you happy. Finally, your pet brings you the item. You place it in your pocket with your stone. You both received a treasure today. Pause for a moment and breathe. You and your pet reach the far side of the field and you step into the forest. The air feels cool and dry. The sound of crunching leaves beneath your feet momentarily distracts you. You look down and see that your footprints leave a faint glow in your wake. The brilliant light that blessed you in your home continues to illuminate your journey. You wish to move forward in your journey, but you are not yet sure how to enter the woods. Then you see two paths opening up before you. You pause to contemplate them. Your pet looks to you for guidance. Their trust in you gives you confidence. Unhurried, you study both paths. On your left is a cobblestone path, old and well-used, but clean and somehow familiar. The path to your right appears new. The dirt is recently packed, the brush clipped back just enough to allow you and your pet through. It is a little wild-looking. Both paths are appealing to your senses. You make your choice. Pause for a moment and breathe. As you wind your way down the chosen path, you notice that your pet has perked up their ears. Soon you begin to hear it, too. A faint hum. The hum resolves into voices. The voices sound cheerful—singing, talking, and laughing. You approach a small group of friendly people lounging around a campfire. They beckon you into the circle. Your pet tugs on a strap hanging down the side of your body. Your new friends are as curious as your pet. They ask you what it is you’re carrying down the path that is so bulky and uncomfortable. You realize there is a large bag strapped to your back. You didn’t even realize you were carrying this baggage. Something about this bag reminds you of the path you didn’t choose. Your new friends offer to help you in setting it down. You place the bag on the ground and step back to observe it. It is yours, but only if you want it. As you inspect this baggage, you realize it is the only space in your surroundings not touched by your inner light. You reach into your pocket and wrap one hand around your new stone. Your pet nudges the bag away and you agree to let it go. Your capacity for self-compassion swells. Your new friends smile in agreement, supporting your choice. You bury your other hand in your pet’s soft fur and feel grounded in their presence. You don’t need that baggage. You are free to continue your journey with many new sources of strength. You say goodbye to your new friends and return to your chosen path. Pause for a moment and breathe. You and your pet follow the winding path to its far end, enjoying all it has to offer. You experience sights, sounds, and smells that delight your senses. You feel freer and lighter. You have more energy to enjoy your journey. Your pet appears buoyed by your new energy. Soon you are leaving the forest behind and returning to the familiar surroundings outside your home. You stand at the threshold of your home and contemplate your journey. The gifts you received. The choices you made. The companionship of your pet. You smile, pleased with your journey and strengthened by your companion. Your love for your pet has elevated your self-love. You step through the front door and return to the awareness of your physical body as I count down from 5…4…3…2…1… Notice your hands and feet. Roll your wrists and ankles. Lift your shoulders slowly and roll your neck in a gentle circle. When you are ready, slowly and gently open your eyes. You may now end this guided meditation.
Find a guided meditation online and challenge yourself to try it at least three times per week. Three excellent sources (all accessible through YouTube) are WiseMindBody, The Honest Guys, and the University of New Hampshire’s Health & Wellness Center. You can also access my recordings on annalisasmithson.com/tools.