4 Lessons in Living from Man’s Best Friend

This article originally appeared on No Sidebar.

Two years ago, my family expanded.

It started innocently enough: browsing profiles on Petfinder, swooning over portraits of 4-legged playmates that dared me to say no. Nothing softens the heart so much as being met with an expression of wide-eyed wonderment and a wagging tail.

I’d wanted a puppy for a long time, but circumstances had always prevented it: my apartment wasn’t dog-friendly or I was worried about the accompanying expenses. I volunteered at the local animal shelter, took care of family and friends’ companions like they were my own, and patiently waited for my turn to come.

A few years, and several homes and jobs later, I found her: 5 pounds, perky ears, amber eyes, and a soft gaze that made all my troubles disappear.

The runt of the litter, she was described as sweet and affectionate, and well-versed in defending herself against siblings twice her size. Having viewed dozens of profiles in recent weeks, I knew my search was over. I’d always had a soft spot for the most vulnerable, seeing something of myself in their perseverance. Determined to bring her home, I applied right away, made a deposit, and held my breath until I was approved.

My sister, a fellow dog owner and long-time proponent of my expanding my fur family, surprised me with a welcome kit in the mail: a leash and collar, a bed, a sock monkey that squeaked, and a bag of food that far outweighed my soon-to-be companion. Each time I walked past the once-empty coat hook that now held her new accessories, I could barely contain my excitement.

I counted down the weeks to her homecoming and prepared my solo cat of 14 years as best I could. I pored over plushies, chew toys, and tennis balls, and researched the highest-rated. Like I do most new endeavors, I approached this one with unwavering commitment and great devotion.

Nothing could have prepared me for the joy I felt upon first meeting Lyla, nor the immeasurable light and laughter she’s brought to my life since. It’s hard to remember my days before her as she’s become such an integral part of them.

I wake up to her playful pounces and come home to her eager face perched upon the windowsill. I’ve learned more from her about what it means to be present, resilient, and appreciative than I could have imagined, and continue to grow from her gentle way of moving through the world. In a sense, she’s taught me what it means to be human.

We can learn so much from our pets simply by observing them and allowing ourselves to be open to what they have to show us. Here are a few takeaways my time with Lyla has afforded:

1. Find contentment with what you have.

Before Lyla came home, I filled her bed with toys, many of which she took months to grow into. They’ve since all been retired, victims of hours of chewing, and hundreds of squeaks, throws, and tug-of-war episodes. I now keep one or two toys for Lyla at a time and don’t rush out to replace them. She reminds me that the sense of fulfillment brought about by material goods is fleeting and that their value does not compare with that derived from our relationships and leisure time.

2. Dwell in the present.

Our pets don’t think in yesterdays or tomorrows, ruminating on the past, or fretting about the future. They are supreme models of what it means to live in the here and now. I love watching Lyla roll in the grass and chase fireflies, greet other dogs and new humans. Her curiosity drives her and her senses guide her. Witnessing her playful spirit is a reminder of the joy to be sought simply from tuning into each moment as it unfolds.

3. Practice patience.

When things don’t go our way, it’s easy to become discouraged or give up hope altogether. But being around Lyla reminds me that our troubles are only temporary and that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to them. Her good-naturedness is contagious and helps me recognize that our struggles need not define us.

4. Embrace the unknown.

Like most dogs, Lyla loves exploring different routes and chasing new scents. The unfamiliar intrigues her, and she’s not afraid to get a closer look. Though far from fearless, she shows an openness to explore that I admire. The unknown can be frightening, particularly when it threatens our sense of safety and security. But it can also be exciting and rewarding, if we allow ourselves to welcome it in, instead of running from it.

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9 Steps to Soothe a Troubled Mind

One of the hardest things about having a busy mind is knowing how to quiet it. Sometimes it feels like rather than being able to control our thoughts, they in fact, control us: our emotions, our actions, our responses, our motivations, our self-confidence, and what makes us feel whole.

Negative thoughts in particular can be some of the most difficult to contend with, as we quickly find ourselves becoming wrapped up in self-criticism and self-doubt, believing the often-fictitious mental dialogue we perceive as fact. We are incredible thinking machines, capable of generating hundreds of negative thoughts each day, that come to define the way we think about and relate to ourselves.

The more we try to stifle such thoughts, the louder they become. It’s easy to believe that resistance is the easiest path to a quiet mind, but more often than not, the opposite is true. By learning how to acknowledge our negative thoughts, and approach them with compassionate awareness, we can reduce the hold they have on us and find a path toward inner stillness.

The next time you find yourself caught up in a sea of self-deprecation, consider these steps to clear out the mental deluge.

1. Allow the mind to be active and remember that you don’t have to engage it. Our thoughts come and go with little conscious effort. We expend our valuable mental energy only through those thoughts we choose to entertain. One of the most difficult practices, even for the most mindful among us, is simply allowing our thoughts to be present without clinging to their compelling storylines.

2. Gently tell the mind that you hear it and simply allow the thoughts to be present. Sometimes, just telling the mind, “I hear you,” can provide relief. The negative thoughts that consume our minds may be trying to tell us something important – they just haven’t found an appropriate way to express themselves yet. By acknowledging that you hear such thoughts without buying into their message, you begin to create space between yourself and the energy they exude.

3. Tell yourself, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this. I hate to see you hurting.” We rarely show ourselves the care and kindness we deserve when we’re bogged down in negative self-talk. Failing to acknowledge the pain this dialogue causes only makes our suffering worse. What would you say to a friend who spoke to herself in this way? Pause, and take a moment to show yourself some tenderness for what you’re feeling.

4. Remind yourself that you did not cause your suffering, and you deserve to be kind and loving toward yourself. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Don’t shoot the second arrow.” Each time we face a misfortune, two arrows fly our way: the first is the event that caused us pain, while the second is the suffering we bring upon ourselves by how we emotionally respond to it. By responding to our existing pain with self-blame, we increase it greatly. Instead, we can gently remind ourselves that our pain is not self-inflicted, and begin to relieve it by treating ourselves with kindness.

5. Challenge messages of self-criticism and self-defeat with messages of self-worth and understanding. It becomes harder to hold our negative thoughts in spacious awareness when we contradict them with competing messages. If you’re feeling inadequate in some way, look for evidence that doesn’t support your beliefs. Repeat the new messages out loud or write them down so you can see them regularly.

6. Remind yourself that you are not alone. You have a community of others who love and support you. We tend to isolate ourselves when we’re feeling distressed, yet these are the times when we most need the comforting presence of those who care about us. Think about who would want to be there for you if they knew what you were going through, and reach out to them.

7. Remember that your thoughts will pass. You are still you, whole and human. When we’re trapped in a negative thought cycle, it can seem like we’re never going to come out of it. Yet our thoughts are as temporary as the changing seasons, and while it can be difficult to separate ourselves from them, they do not define us.

8. Actively engage in something that soothes you. Repeat until you feel relaxed. One of the most powerful ways we can prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by our thoughts is by turning our attention to something else and being fully present with the activity before us. Exercise, sit down with a cup of tea, meditate, listen to music, or journal. Tune into what you’re needing in the moment and allow yourself a break.

9. Remind yourself that it’s not easy and that’s ok. If you approach it with patience and an open mind, you deserve to be proud of yourself. If clearing our minds of nagging thoughts were easy, we’d all walk around with an air of lightness and ease, free of the distraction and tension a cluttered mind can bring. Celebrate the open-heartedness and attentiveness you bring to the process. Seize the opportunity to be kind and gentle toward yourself for your efforts.

The more you engage in the steps above, the more natural they will start to become. If you can catch yourself early on in a negative thought cycle, you decrease your chances of being carried away by accompanying emotions, and give yourself more space to be present to what brings you joy.

Bonus

Check out my free guide, Calming the Mind –Click here to download!

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Fresh-Baked Bread & Hand-Picked Flowers

Where do you derive your value from? Is it from the things that fill your living space? Furniture, photos, books, toys. Your job title? Teacher, accountant, freelancer, dog-walker. Maybe it’s from your relationships: parent, brother, godmother, aunt. Or perhaps you arrive at your value simply from how you feel when you wake up in the morning: the better you feel, the higher your worth.

These value markers are like empty seats at the table. We leave them open and put out place settings, hoping they’ll be filled by those we love, familiar faces who make us feel good; but the longer they go unused, the deeper we feel a sense of vacancy that only leaves us wanting more.

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Second Chance Minimalism: Relearning to Live with Less

This article originally appeared on No Sidebar.

I never imagined my journey with minimalism would lead me here:

To living off the bare essentials, to wrestling with a deep craving to share not only my material belongings, but the intricate moments that make up each of my days, to learning that saying no in the short-run can lead to a lot more saying yes in the long-run. I never imagined it, and yet, it’s been one of my greatest teachers and steadiest motivators over the past several years.

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