5 Lessons I Learned from My Dog
Author: Kent Thune
Why can’t people be more like dogs? I ask myself this question often. The scientific answer is that we humans have a developed frontal lobe on our brains and dogs do not. And because of our frontal lobes, we can, among other things, plan for the future and feel a wide range of emotions. While our bigger-brain attributes can be advantageous abilities, at times they can also become defeating disabilities, especially when they present themselves in the form of anxiety about the future, or when we make emotional mountains out of life’s proverbial molehills.
Too often we humans find ourselves irritated with the present moment, as if it were a stumbling block to wherever we are heading. We live for the end of the day, the end of the week, the vacation, and the retirement. And if we have nothing to look forward to, we wish for the past. Therefore, we are either living for the future or dwelling in the past. But life can only take place in the present moment. And so we are never really living; we are only surviving.
But there is hope for us; people can be more like dogs. And all that is required to begin learning from them is to simply observe and apply the lessons to our own lives, to be the people that our dogs see in us. You can begin your canine correction by reading five of many lessons I’ve learned from my dog:
1) The destination is the path: Live for today. Go with the flow. Life is the journey itself. These are more than timeless pieces of wisdom; they are my dog’s perpetual state of being. He lives firmly in the present moment and is always engaged fully with life. He eats each meal as if it were his last; he plays as if he’d never played before; he sleeps often and deeply; he smells everything as if he just received his nose today; and his affection is consistently more intense than that of a young couple in love. Living in the present moment comes naturally for dogs. Fortunately our bigger brains provide the capacity to be more like them by remaining conscious of our self-defeating behaviors, and to manage them, if we are simply willing to put our brains, or rather our minds, to the task. Therefore, short of having a frontal lobotomy, we humans must maintain an awareness of our flawed tendencies to keep them from removing us from the present moment, where life is happening. Life really is about the journey. Like my dog, we can care less about where we are going and soak in every square inch of life’s path as we walk it.
2) Spend more time off of the leash: My dog walks the metaphorical path of the present moment, but he also loves his favorite physical destination: the park. This is because, when we arrive, he knows he will be off the leash. As we come closer to any one of Hilton Head Island’s many parks, I can’t help but smile when my dog starts to yelp gleefully as he recognizes familiar smells and surroundings. His excitement builds until it explodes into what I believe to be a dog’s form of uncontrollable laughter. When the leash comes off, he does a kind of freedom dance and jumps around like a happy lunatic. After he runs and plays himself out, he’ll complete his experience by finding a spot in the sun, preferably in the dirt, to soak in more rays of happiness and breathe in more precious earth. On these park visits, I believe I am observing in my dog’s behavior the physical manifestation of the same thing the human spirit does when it is free and acting authentically. It is the same range of feelings we humans experience when we go on vacation. The heart sings and the mind harmonizes. We engage in some combination of play, laughter and relaxation; we can be ourselves when we remove the proverbial leash of the external world. But there is no need to travel or to go on an elaborate vacation to return to maintain a healthy contentment with life. Make more time to step away from the desk, the computer, the TV, and the hand-held devices and go to your favorite getaway. Spend more time off of life’s leashes.
3) Simplicity and moderation are the greatest of virtues: The life of a dog is naturally simple, the life of a human, unnecessarily complex. At any given point in the day, while I’m busy making life more complex than necessary, I might look at my dog and sarcastically say, “Boy, you have a tough life.” He looks at me curiously, as if to reply with the question, “Why do you make yours so difficult?” It’s too common and too easy for us to get caught up in the fast pace and the challenging complexities of what we call the real world. And ironically, our remedies for these sources of stress are not to slow down and make things more simple, but nearly the opposite. We think that life can be made more enjoyable if we have more stuff—more money, more clothes, and more square footage. And if we are not able to obtain more material things, we create lists of things to accomplish later. However, improvement is not a matter of addition but one of subtraction. Stress comes from the clutter of life and the remedy is to remove the clutter. The first item on the bucket list should be to empty the bucket. And an integral aspect of simplicity is moderation. Just observe the dog: Eat and exercise regularly, drink plenty of water, take naps, and try to play as hard as you work. Simplicity and moderation are at the core of every enduring health regimen.
4) The smile is the source of joy: From my desk I have a clear view of the front door and I often enjoy observing my dog greet my wife and kids when they come home from various outings during the day. No matter the time of separation, whether it is two minutes or two hours, he welcomes them as if it had been two years. After observing how my family’s faces lit up as a result of my dog’s warm salutations, and fully knowing how it feels to receive his greetings, it occurred to me that I should join him and form a welcoming committee of sorts. The effects have been immeasurably positive. This lesson reminds me of something the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Greeting others with a smile has an infectious and reciprocal effect. Therefore don’t just smile because you are happy; make yourself and others happy by smiling. Try it and experience the joy for yourself.
5) Nothing is more important than the pack: What makes dogs such wonderful friends? After giving this question a few moments of thought (or after reading this story), it is not difficult, even for the non-dog owner, to understand why the common qualities in dogs are worthy of more than just our admiration, but also of our imitation. Dogs are perpetually in our corner—the highest of attributes we look for in the best of friends and the closest of family members. Like their wolf ancestors, dogs are pack animals. In human terms, this translates to putting the most important people (and animals) in our lives first. This pack mentality is essentially how dogs so quickly became our friends, and how they often become much more than that. My dog is my family. He lives for us and I know he would die for us as well. This intense and unwavering love and loyalty is at the core of the human admiration of dogs and it is the underlying reason they have earned the status of “man’s best friend.”
Kent Thune lives with his family and his dog, Kenai, on Hilton Head Island. When he’s not spending time with them, he runs an independent money management firm. You can find Kent’s musings on mind, money and mastery of life online at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or you can follow him on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.