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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Lessons in Mindfulness: Am I Walking the Dog or Walking the Smartphone?

One of the many benefits of owning a dog is the way they hold up a mirror to our human foibles and help us become more aware, awake and alive.

In the four-plus years that I’ve had Cassie, my first German Shorthair Pointer, she’s helped me become aware of many personal areas that I need to work on. My patience, for example. I’m not a patient person, and that’s not a good thing when you have a GSP that has the tendency to create chaos wherever she goes because of her boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Fortunately, her chaos comes with great spoonsful of sweetness and love that more than makes up for the trail of toppled planters and busted screens around the house.

The fact that she is riotously funny helps as well. There’s nothing like a little humor to help us put things in perspective, and I get that in spades with Cassie.

Lately, Cassie has been shining a bright light on my bad habit of reading on my phone while we’re out on our morning walks together.

Now, I learned early on that frequent walks are critical to keeping sane with a GSP. These dogs need to burn off their excess energy or the chaos level rises from an entirely different level of unmanageability.

With Cassie, the morning run is especially important. After being in her crate all night, in the morning she is raring to go. So every morning at about six-thirty, I put on her electronic collar and we head out into a nearby open field and woodlot for a half an hour of exploration.

I’ve gotten to love these morning outings with Cassie. We take them every day, every season, warm or cold, rain or snow or shine. They have become, for me, an extension of my ten-minute morning meditations. My morning Cassie walk is a walking meditation, helping me get myself centered before the day’s work schedule sweeps me away like a river.

Over the years, we’ve seen deer and foxes, hawks and owls, amazing sunrises where the first rays of the new day illuminate millions of dewy spiderwebs that have been spun up in the field overnight—things I would never have seen if I’d been sitting back in the kitchen drinking coffee.

Would I have done these walks on my own if I didn’t have a dog? Maybe some of the time, but certainly not every day. I’m too task-driven, too focused on getting things done, and nothing really gets done during those half-hour walks.

So I credit Cassie for getting me into a good routine. But as is always the case with human beings, bad habits find a way to creep in.

Sometime early last year, in the height of all the madness around the presidential elections, I was so obsessed with the political news that I started grabbing my phone as Cassie and I were heading out the door in the morning. I just had to know what the latest polls were showing as to which candidate was leading in battleground states and nationally.

In addition to political news, I became drawn into news about the coronavirus. Along with the presidential polls, I’d pull up the latest map on numbers of cases, deaths, progress on vaccinations, etc. My statistically minded brain needed the endorphin rush of checking those stats to wake up in the morning.

In the meantime, there was Cassie, running around, sniffing out rabbits, pointing at birds, exploring the newborn day. I missed all of it, because I was on my phone.

The great thing about dogs is that they are always in the present moment. There is no past. There is no future. There is only the great NOW, spread out before them, there to be explored.

Not only are they present in the moment; they are actively engaged with it, with every one of their senses. Their sight, their smell, their hearing, their taste, their touch.

It’s a great way to live. And it’s a perpetual lesson for we humans, who are so often in our heads, anywhere but in the present.

So there I was yesterday, out with Cassie, head buried in my phone, checking out the news, when suddenly I became aware that Cassie had stopped moving. I looked where she was looking and saw a herd of deer standing thirty feet away in the edge of the woods. We were downwind of them and they had not smelled or seen us approaching.

I counted eleven of them, all decked out in their lustrous winter coats. They were out for their morning breakfast and were foraging on twigs—does and their yearlings. I could see from their swelling bellies that a couple of the does were pregnant.

Cassie stared. I stared. The morning sunlight was rising through the trees and the sight was really quite striking. I thought to bring up my phone and take a picture, but I didn’t want to scare them, and besides, the phone felt suddenly worthless as a rock at this moment. It was technology, and technology had no place in this moment of man and nature.

It was one of those rare moments of epiphany that I will never forget, a moment of transcendent communion of me, the dog, the deer, the woods, the morning, all bound up in the present moment.

I was aware of the breath coming in and out of my lungs. Of the sunlight slanting through the trees. Of a woodpecker hammering on a hollow tree somewhere nearby.

Whatever I’d been reading on my little smartphone screen had been forgotten. It didn’t matter. It didn’t even exist. This was all that mattered, because this was all there was.

Then one of the yearlings looked up and took notice of us. It gave a wave of its tail and its mother noticed us then too. Ears went up, tails went up, and in a flash, they were all gone, their whitetails bobbing through the woods like flashing handkerchiefs waving us goodbye.

That was it. I put away the phone and swore I would not take it along with me anymore during our morning walks. I was missing too much of the perfect present by looking at the damn thing.

On our way back to the house, I even stopped to pick some daffodils to give to Rachael.

She was happy, I was happy, Cassie was happy.

Another lesson in mindfulness from man’s best friend.


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