“(S)he knows not where (s)he’s going,
For the ocean will decide,
It’s not the destination,
It’s the glory of the ride.” (Edward Monkton, Zen Dog)
Before I tell you about my secret weapon for staying sane (sane being relative), I want to help put into perspective what it is that we may be feeling right now, whether it be loss due to circumstances or loss due to injury. David Kessler, one of the most well-respected authorities on grief, has put a name to the discomfort that most of us are feeling at this time. In an interview, he stated, “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures.”
I believe in the concept of time-limited negative thinking, albeit not always easy to do. I’ll give people contained permission, that is, tell them when they’re fighting intrusive negative thoughts, to allow themselves to feel whatever it is they’re feeling for 5 or 10 minutes and then to try to shift their focus. For example saying to yourself, I feel sad that my spring season has been shut down, or I feel sad that I’m in the best shape of my life and my race or event is postponed, I feel sad and anxious about not knowing when this uncertainty will end. No judgement, no social comparisons. Just “I feel ____ .” The period is key. Allowing ourselves to name a feeling and sit with it, then helps us to refocus to the present.
Most experts in the field of mindfulness would agree when you can bring yourself to the present, you can lessen feelings of despair about the past and/or the anticipation and apprehension regarding the future. So who better to turn to for some lessons in mindfulness, than my resident expert on mindfulness. Nope, there are no Tibetan Monks living in the house, no Yogis, neither Tara Brach nor Jon Kabat-Zinn reside here. However, if you ever want to learn how to be in the moment and be totally zen-like, just watch your dog.
There have been countless books written about integrating zen into different activities. Books such as Zen and the Martial Arts, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Faking It (faking what I’m not sure), Zen Guitar, and countless others. I could use a little light-heartedness right about now, so this post could be entitled, Dog Zen and the Art of Sports Training.
Here are a few lessons of dog zen that can be particularly useful:
Lesson 1: If you’re an underdog, be strategic—it’s not always muscle that gets you to the end game. Focus on process goals. Seven years ago, we started to dog hunt. Since our last dog was around 8 or 9 when we adopted her from a shelter, we decided this time we would look for a puppy. We looked at various places, then found a farm up in the hills where ironically, I had, on many occasions, ridden my bike; in fact, it’s the area where I love to ride most.
Lady Clementine of Chop Mist Hill
I found it ironic, how many times I’d ridden past the very place where we would come to find this little creature who would bring so much joy to our home. If you ever want your mood to soar off the charts, spend about 30 minutes in a pen full of 8 week old puppies. These little blonde balls looked like popcorn as they jumped and bounced off the walls, climbing all over each other. It reminded me of an Ironman mass swim start (minus kicked in the face)—complete mayhem. Each of them trying so desperately to be in front so that they could make contact. Except one. One teeny not-so-blonde, but very orange one, that nosed her way to the front of the pen by crawling underneath all her brothers and sisters in stealth commando style, finally just curling up right next to us. That was her statement; subtle, yet effective. My daughter made her decision at that moment and picked this runt of the litter. Our friend Kristin came up with the name Clementine (Clemmie)-how perfect for a teeny orange ball. Clemmie had her sights set on her goal, and found the best way to achieve it. It wasn’t the way everyone else was doing it, instead she used her strengths to her advantage.
Lesson 2: Be grateful for what you do have. Before my injury, during my endless hours of training, I was an ingrate. Boo hoo, I have a 5 hour ride. Hey, how about being grateful that (a) you have the time to do it, and (b) you have the health. I realize this now more than ever. Watching Clemmie run and play with abandon is a reminder that when we get back to training, and back to our lives, to seize the day and soak in every moment of race day as well as long training sessions. Every morning, she couldn’t be more excited about her day. If she had a voice, I could just hear her exuberance as she wags her tail and licks my hand to wake me up each morning: “GET UP, GET UP, GET UP!!!! IT’S MORNING AND I GET TO EAT AND PLAY AND EAT AND PLAY AND OH MY GOSH, I’M SOOOOOO HAPPY!!!!!!!!” I admit, on race mornings, I used to feel that way as I jumped out of bed.
Lesson 3: Rejuvenation is an integral part of training and life. One thing that has always been difficult for many athletes, is allowing time for rest and recovery. The one common statement I have heard from people over the past couple of weeks is, “I’m so unmotivated to train or work out.” Or “I just feel sooooo exhausted.” Uh yeah. This pandemic will forever change our lives—not in all negative ways, but right now we are adapting to new conditions from this global crisis. Please ignore those Facebook posts of those who are sharing their superhuman productivity. Whether it be not missing a beat and continuing perfect adherence to training plans (but good for you if you are),or doing 50 hill repeats a day or power-lifting mammoth sized weights in the basement. This is a marathon with an unpredictable, movable finish line. If you’re a marathon runner, you know you’re likely to hit the wall at mile 18. But you know at 26.2 miles you’re there! But what if you got to mile 26.2 and the race director said, “sorry we’re moving the finish line to possibly, but I’m not sure, maybe 32.6 miles and then we’ll go from there.” If you knew this beforehand, you’d know to pace yourself very differently. Similarly, we need to emotionally and physically pace ourselves. As Clemmie would say, it’s always ok to pause.
I’m excellent at pausing
Lesson 4: We accept the love we think we deserve (Stephen Chbosky). Clemmie loves herself and that love is shown effusively to others. Each time she greets me it’s as if she hasn’t seen me in years. She reminds me to forgive myself after a bad training day or bad race. It was evident from day one, that Clemmie was meant to be a therapy dog. She has passed all of her preliminary exams to be a “certified” therapy dog, meaning she will be permitted to come with me to nursing homes, children’s hospitals, and disaster relief sites. She’ll have her “final” exam as soon as we’re able to resume our lives. But for now, even without final certification, she is a people magnet, and when in my office is my assistant therapist. Wherever we go, I can’t even say how many people approach us to pet her and inquire what type of dog she is (a Goldendoodle). I watch the smile that she brings to people’s faces, as she, in her klutzy, oafish way will offer someone her enormous mitt of a paw or give someone a big lick and dog smile, then roll over on her back for a belly rub.
Therapy Dog Clemmie reporting for duty
Lesson 5: Self-care people. This one is simple. Eat well, hydrate, set structure to your day, and try to get some good quality sleep.
And don’t forget breakfast
Lesson 6: Pets improve your health (a no-brainer). Research shows that pet owners live longer lives than those without pets. There is empirical evidence showing that spending just a few minutes with a pet significantly reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increases the neurotransmitter serotonin (associated with mood and feelings of well-being), and lowers blood pressure. Some dogs can actually sense the onset of a seizure in those with epilepsy. Others can sense decreasing blood glucose levels in diabetics. Pet owners exercise more and are less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke. As for me, quite simply, I feel like my heart, like the Grinch’s, has grown 3x in size since this fur ball came into our lives.
I’m better than drugs
When I was competing, I was blessed to have so many people who inspire me. I think of my little runt (well, now she is 55 lbs and still growing), who, despite being mauled by her littermates, kept slowly inching forward and never gave up. She has an infectious enthusiasm for life. She puts her heart into new endeavors, whether it be learning new commands, swimming for the first time, having a calming effect on clients, or exploring a new area. As we heal from this global trauma, I know for myself, each time I feel overwhelmed with uncertainty about life, about my injury, about my triathlon training and start to look too far ahead, what brings me back is living like Clemmie, thinking about every moment, this moment, the only moment.
And one more thing….don’t touch your face.
Or else you’ll have to wear the cone of shame