A yorkie asleep underneath a white blanket.
Naturally Mindful

Dogs as Healing Companions for Trauma Survivors

I will never forget the conversation I had with a friend shortly before I set off to pick up my first dog. I told her I was worried I would regret my decision. She quipped that I would be wondering why I didn’t make the commitment to pet parenting earlier! Her intuition proved to be spot-on as the space my pup has opened up in my heart stirs and surprises me on a regular basis. For today’s #NaturallyMindful post, I will be sharing about canine psychological research as well as my own experiences with pet parenting as a trauma survivor.

Why Dogs?

  • Both Dogs and Humans Benefit from Shared Affection

Research indicates that both species release oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone, during interactions such as eye contact and petting (Handlin, 2015). This may serve to lower our stress levels and to bond us to each other. In addition, caring for a dog is not only good for our heart in terms of love. It is also linked with positive changes to physical heart disease risk factors such as our blood pressure and cholesterol levels (CDC, 2014).

  • Puppies Form Infant-Like Bonds with Pet Parents

The idea that humans need to serve as the “alpha” and establish dominance over dogs has been challenged by newer research. Rather than viewing their human as master, dogs may instead see us as a parent (Palestrini et al., 2005). For me, this has meant concentrating my efforts on forming a trusting relationship with healthy boundaries and rules with my pup.

  • Dogs May Assist in Coping with Mental Health Concerns

Although it is extremely popular, the evidence for the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy is relatively sparse (Crossman, 2016). Personally, I wonder about whether the deeper bond of pet parenting is needed for sustained symptom reduction. Surveys of pet parents do reveal, however, that humans perceive themselves as experiencing positive well-being as a result of their relationship with their dog(s) (O’Haire, 2010).

Personal Reflections

Choose Wisely

Dogs can have mental health and relationship issues themselves (see, for instance, Laurel Braitman’s book on Animal Madness). I’ll leave arguments about nature versus nurture (dog breed versus training) to the side for a moment and simply say that not every relationship between a dog and a person is going to be healthy or healing. I believe that, as pet parents, we need to be taking care of ourselves physically and mentally before making the commitment to raising an animal. This doesn’t mean we have to be “healed” first, simply that it is best if we have the resources in place to deal with the unexpected. For instance, my dog had a few bad experiences (and limited interaction) with other dogs, which has led him to “yell” at passing pups quite frequently. I chose to invested in personalized training to help with these behaviors and am now planning to engage in more advanced, focused training with him as well.

In choosing to become a pet parent, I think we do well, just as with human relationships, to enter into it with as few expectations as possible. The more we pile assumptions onto the relationship, the more we are setting both ourselves and our dog up for disappointment, failure and negative outcomes. Hoping that we will forge a healing and deep bond is not automatic; it takes commitment and follow-through.

Fully Invest of Yourself

Our pets require quality time with us on a regular basis in order to develop a rhythm in our connection. When I am feeling more depressed or anxious, it can be hard for me to view care-taking as anything other than an obligation. If I give myself to each walk or play session or smell adventure, bit by bit it becomes an expression of love.

Dogs and humans can bond through grooming. My pup needs a weekly bath and frequent hair-trims, so I’ve had a lot of opportunity for this. I am unable to clip his toenails myself (there was an incident), but he allows me to do all of his haircuts. This may not be a reasonable expectation for every pet parent, but consider what you and your pet can share, even if it is as simple as brushing their hair. Many dogs also love pet massage.

Hold on Lightly

Not to the leash! What I mean here is that a relationship with a dog is inherently one of loss alongside the joy it brings. Their lives are much shorter than ours, and, even before the ultimate separation, there are other changes as well. My dog is only a few years old but has already had to have knee surgery. He is now also going blind from Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), a condition that currently does not have any effective treatment. I’ve learned, as much as I’m able, to open my hands and make an offering of my affection for him, rather than to cling to it and “demand” of Goddess or whomever that it remains exactly as I want it to be. Love is loss at times.

Appreciate the Invitation to the Present Moment

My pup is capable of anticipating the future. The word “bath” sends him into a sullen heap, and the word “park” has him barreling toward the garage door to hop in my car. In general, though, he appears to live moment to moment. This is especially true if there is a good sniff to be had outdoors! Dogs appear to be able to detect the passage of time, the type of animal who’s passed by, and so forth, based on the intensity of scents left (Horowitz, 2016), so I tend to ask him if there are any good “stories” if he insists on stopping to peruse the grass. He shows me in the moment what he is feeling, rather than holding back.

Dogs can pick up a negative emotional state from their owners and respond in a variety of ways, including shaking it out (Huber, 2017). In doing so, they show us how to move through our feelings instead of ruminating on and stewing in them. I frequently feel jealous of the speed with which my dog adapts to new situations and the resilience he displays. At the same time, his “bounce-back” inspires me to respond to challenges with a hopeful rather than resigned attitude.

My pup and I share our hyper-vigilance (although his is in reaction to other dogs and mine to humans). This sometimes adds to rather than reduces my symptomology. If he is having a “barky” day, I find I may need to distract both him and myself with a change in location or a new activity. Before I got my dog, I had frequent anxiety at night. Now, I almost always sleep well unless I’ve had too much caffeine. The reason is that he sends me “its all good” signals for a few hours before bed every night, as he sleeps on the couch while I read or watch TV. He spends the night in a crate by my bed. His peaceful slumber lets me know it is safe to relax and allows the part of me that might otherwise think it needs to be alert to rest as I know he’ll wake me if there is any danger. The moments of the night that used to feel fraught and dangerous are now secure and cozy.

The biggest change for me as a survivor that has happened since I became a parent to my dog is that I have experienced a dramatic reduction in my level of suicidality. In part, this is due to the commitment I have to him in terms of care-taking and the difficulty both of us experience if we are away from each other too long. I believe it is also due to the fact that I have a being near me many hours every day who wants nothing more than my attention and care, who loves me even when I’m angry, and who allows me to dress him in an old sweater and wrap him in blankets every night before he goes to sleep. He’s found his way to my heart and he knows it. In doing so, he’s given me a reason to press on.

If you are a survivor who parents a dog, what has the relationship meant to you? What has your experience with your dog taught you? How has your heart changed?

Photograph of tree with several trunks and sun shining through.
Naturally Mindful

Return to the Moment

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

I’ve spent a lot of time planning my future lately. Most of it felt very centered and aligned with my Inner Goddess. Then it started to take on a mind of its own—planning for the sake of planning and agony about the disconnects between my present reality and my potentially brighter focus. For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, I want to reflect on my experience of present-moment awareness.

Mindfulness was all the rage when I was in my Ph.D. program for psychology. It has since spilled into the pop psychology world and many other venues, promising an escape from living entrenched in the past and beholden to the future. Most of the inner workings of it are rooted in Eastern thought, specifically Vipassana, a Buddhist practice. I spent over a year attending a Buddhist mindful meditation at least once a week, and it did in fact alter my relationship with my thoughts. It increased my awareness of the separation between my direct experience of the world through my senses and the explanations which I give to my direct experience. In order to rejuvenate my experience of mindfulness, I’ve been deliberate about making more time to engage in it on a regular basis.

When I practice present-moment awareness, I allow my mind to momentarily cease its constant churning through possible scenarios that could occur in the future. As a result of my trauma history, I have an inner program that runs a constant loop of hypervigilant scanning and planning. I recently had an interpersonal conflict that I thought would be ongoing the next time I saw the person. I ran scene after scene in my mind of everything I would say and do the next time I saw them. The person then chose to remove themselves from my life, and all of my planning was a complete waste of time. I fight so many more battles in my mind than I will ever face in real life.

By returning again and again to my breath and body sensations, I interfere with the analytical mind’s focus on the future and allow myself to settle down. Even if I need to spend some time determining my next step, it is different do to so from a place of inner connection versus an unsettled state. As I shared in the past, this is one of the biggest stressors in regards to my house, because I do not know for sure if it is going to be quiet enough for me to be able to feel safe in the present. I have only succeeded in truly finding inner awareness in settings in which I feel relatively safe and secure. With my hyperacusis and misophonia, certain noises seem to be too powerful for me to just simply “notice” as mindfulness requires.

Even though it feels like I have limitations on when and where I can achieve a mindful state, I do know that being in one affects not only me but also those around me. When I am presenting ideas to others, they seem significantly more engaged when I am fully present, rather than when I am internally distracted. I’ve also noticed that I find myself drawn toward people who I sense are slowed down enough inside to notice what the different parts of themselves want and need, instead of ignoring the majority of their requirements for physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment because doing so would require noticing and sensing instead of thinking and doing.

In some ways, I view mindfulness as a skill set which can be achieved through practice. At the same time, I also hold it as an internal reality to which nearly everyone has access, but to which very few of us bother to attend. It is not always pleasant and comfortable, rather, it brings into awareness the full spectrum of life, not merely the happy parts. Simply being with our breath, as we are, grounds and re-centers our purpose.

To what extent have you explored the concept of mindfulness? What are your thoughts on the ways it has been appropriated and commodified in modern American society? To what extent is mindfulness integral to healing as a trauma survivor? What might be its drawbacks?

Naturally Mindful

Slow Cooking: A Sustainable and Mindful Food Preparation Ritual

Consider the last meal you ate. What were the ingredients used to prepare it? Where did they come from in the world? How did they make their way to you? To what extent did you engage your senses as you ate the meal? For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, we’ll be participating in a cooking ritual together. Some aspects of this practice conjure up for me the scene in the TV show Portlandia where the characters are trying to determine not only the specific farm from which the chicken originated, but also its life story. The point of the ritual, however, is not only to allow us to see where our food comes from, it is also designed to invite us to practice attention and to see the fullness of life behind even a simple behavior such as eating. It is a spiritually-centered practice, not a full-time lifestyle recommendation, as I think it could become yet another way we might begin to restrict and over-regulate our lives.

For this practice, I suggest choosing a simple meal with bold ingredients that can be cooked in 30 minutes or less (my title references the internal practice, not the cook time)! You will be eating the dish very slowly, so either find one that will taste palatable even if it comes closer to room temperature, or one that you can serve yourself from repeatedly in small portions. If it suits you, consider choosing a dish that you’ve “invented” or one that has been passed down to you. You can conduct this ritual on your own or invite others who are willing to participate to cook and/or dine with you.

Supplies

Food items (the first part of the practice includes some internet research, so make a list of every ingredient as well to use while the food is properly stored).

Recipe

Paper or electronic map of the world with pins/tag capacity

Bowl/plate and eating utensils for which you know the origins

Step 1:

Using your list of food items, research the origin of each ingredient. Try to determine not only the place of origin of your food item, but also the journey it had to take to reach you. How long ago was it last in “nature?” In what type of vehicles was it carried from its point of origin to your house? Who grew, picked and processed it? Where and how did you buy it? Take careful notes.

Step 2:

Using your notes, pin each place of origin on your map. How much of the world was involved in creating your dish? What is your reaction to this knowledge? Use your imagination to recreate each item’s travels to your location. Connect with the people, places, smells and sights that existed along the way.

Step 3:

Before you begin to cook the dish, spend some time with the recipe. Where did you get it? If you created it yourself, what inspired you? If it was passed down to you, what is its history? Who were the people that made it for you in the past? In what context did you enjoy it? What memories does it evoke?

Step 4:

Set up your cook station and lay out your ingredients. Prep each ingredient individually—for instance, cut up veggies separately. Focus on your breathing and on the physical experience of interacting with each item. Next, prepare the recipe according to the directions. If there is any sort of a wait time during cooking, use the time to focus your senses—what are you hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching as you prepare the food? Cooking is an incredibly stimulating experience that taps into all of our senses! Breathe into the experience and see how your body reacts to each aspect of cooking the meal.

Step 5:

When the food has been prepared, set a place for yourself and anyone who will be joining you. Take a moment to note the origins of the eating utensils and plates/bowls you’ll be using. Serve yourself whatever portion of food you can eat very slowly without it losing flavor as it cools or warms up to room temperature. When everything is ready, start by closing your eyes and smelling the food. What is the first scent to hit you? What small notes are hiding out, taking their time to make themselves known? Sit in appreciation of the scent-bath the food is providing, noting any reaction your body has to the sensations you are experiencing. Next, move on to hearing. Are there any sounds emanating from the dish? Listen, and listen again. Where in your body do you notice sensation? Now, move on to sight. Open your eyes and drink in the full array of colors, shapes, textures and gradients that present themselves in the dish. Where is it smooth? Where is it rough? What colors stand out? What colors do you see when you look again? Which shapes predominate? Where is the form ill-defined? Where may steam be rising? Liquid pooling? Note each aspect of the dish piece by piece, and then take in the experience as a whole, noting your physical reactions. Move now to taste, preparing one small bite. Before you eat it, take another moment to smell, listen and look at how the food has changed in form now that it is on your utensil. Slowly eat the first bite, pausing to note both the flavors the food imparts as well as the sensation of touch as it enters your mouth and you chew it. Continue to eat the dish, chewing each bit at least 20 times and pausing after each bite to examine how your body is responding to the experience. As you eat the dish, honor your body’s sensation of hunger as well as your possible fullness. When you feel satiated, discontinue your eating and take some time to reflect on the experience as a whole.

bowl free
Banana-oat bowl!

Reflections

I engaged in the mindfulness practice I created with a banana-oat dish I love. This dish brings back memories from my undergraduate experience. Our cafeteria occasionally had visiting chefs, one of whom introduced me to the deliciousness of Bananas Foster. My spinoff is missing the rum and the sugar, but has the buttery sweetness in a wholesome, protein-rich package.

In researching the ingredients, which include Greek yogurt, dates, butter, rolled oats, and bananas, I was surprised to learn that the butter I’d purchased had a longer trip to me than everything else, save the banana. The banana was the only ingredient that originated outside of the U.S.; it was grown in Guatemala. Bananas are Guatemala’s top export. In reading about the history of banana imports to the U.S., I felt sadness at the exploitation that has occurred for the workers who produce the crop. After a cursory search, I was not successful in locating a local place where I could buy fair-trade bananas. This exercise was worth it to me if for no other reason that it caused me to realize the foods I’ve been eating for decades without any sense of concern (e.g., non-animal products), are also susceptible to forces which I’d rather resist. Tropical fruits are my favorite, so I have more work to do to try to find a way to source them as ethically as I can (suggestions welcome!). The oats I used seemed to be at least distributed the closest to me, but the origin of the product itself was a bit murkier; they may be grown in Canada. I was happy to learn that oat production uses less fertilizer and weed killer than other grains and may have less of a negative impact on the soil as well.

When I added all my pins to the map to represent each place from which my ingredients originated, I thought about the many miles traveled and fossil fuel energy it took to get the food to my house. I’ve been frequenting a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm this summer for my vegetables. It takes a while to drive to it, but it is nothing compared to the thousands of collective miles over which my food had to pass in order to unite in my simple dish. The bowl I used to plate my dish is sustainable and is hand-made from coconut in Hawaii.

In cooking the food, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to remain present with what I was doing. My mind kept racing ahead and on to other topics: I suspect I lose out on a lot of the sensory experience food provides every day by my actions. I observed myself using smell as my primary sense, checking to see if the oats and dates had finished toasting in the butter when they started to hint at burning. I microwaved(!) the banana; when I’ve made this recipe before, I’ve used a frozen banana. A fresh banana in the microwave smells to me like a wet gym sock; the flavor was semi-palatable but I will definitely go with the frozen variety in the future.

Eating the dish was an exercise in centering and re-centering. I sat down and took a bite, completely forgetting my own purpose. As I re-centered on my breath, used my senses to connect to what I was doing, and ate it very slowly, I found myself experiencing texture in a new way. Part of the appeal of this dessert is the chew of the oats in contrast with the silkiness of the dates and yogurt. I also enjoyed the different temperatures—the yogurt was cold, the bananas were steaming, and the oats/dates were closer to room temperature. It had never fully occurred to me that food is more than smell, taste and visual appeal (except for the few textures like sea urchin that I simply cannot bear). I struggle to eat vegetables on a regular basis, so perhaps concentrating on these sensory touch-points will help to widen my palate.

On the whole, my meal sat differently in me as I thought about its origins, travels and the impact each piece of it had on my being. I wondered how the sorrowful path of the banana, at least if its story was untold, would impact my body as compared to one that was sustainably grown and harvested. I was filled with a fuller understanding of myth and story; the beauty of sitting together and hearing one’s elders speak in sacred terms about how the various indigenous plants and animals came to populate our region and make their way to our bellies has been obliterated by modern agricultural practices. The mechanization and digitization of our lives stripped from us first our connection to the land and has now, with convenience foods, taken even our knowledge of how to prepare food for ourselves. In addition, there is privilege today in having the time, money and resources to examine from where our food comes and to prepare it and perhaps grow and harvest it by hand; many people struggle obtain nourishment in the first place. Movements like permaculture and fair trade may assist us to address these concerns as a society; on the small scale, as we adjust our lifestyles to whatever extent possible, we can partake in small, sacred moments of passing a plate around the hearth, recounting the story of each ingredient and mindfully savoring each spoonful.

To what extent do you attend to the origins of the foods you eat? How far or near are their points of origin to you? How fresh are they when they arrive at your home? To what extent are you attentive and mindful during the process of cooking? Eating? Lastly, if you try any part of the ritual, please share your experience!

 

Naturally Mindful

No Shade: Connecting with the Fullness of Nature

We had a very warm spell where I live this week. As I spent time outside, I repeatedly experienced a sensation of “too much sun.” I wasn’t sure how it could be possible for there to be too much sun, or why everything felt plastic and excessively green. Finally, it dawned on me that, although the temperature was pushing 90⁰ F, the leaves were only just starting to come out on the trees. Save the shadows of bare branches and objects like houses, there were no patches in which I could pause for a moment to get a break from the sun. Something in the “not quite right” and uneasiness of the moment led me to ponder more completely the ways in which I connect to Nature for today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday.

I experience an inner paradox in my relationship with Nature. I have had some of my deepest feelings of awe and wonder in natural settings and am continually reminded of the presence of Goddess in green spaces. At the same time, I am nearly phobic of insects like ticks, easily physically overwhelmed by heat, and triggered by the activities of humans while outside. My desire to seek Goddess in Her Wilds becomes tenuous when I’m not in a balmy, mildly sunny, park-like setting. I feel a sense of hypocrisy and disappointment in myself for not loving every breathe of hiking untrailed pathways, splashing in muddy rivers and falling asleep to the crackle of the campfire. I believe, though, that I am not alone in my discomfort and that there are many people who, for various reasons, would benefit from a deeper relationship with Nature but who are also cautious in their embrace of all She has to offer.

Goddess as Earth is not only gentle and sweet. She has fiery tempers, walls of tears, barren hollows and deep pits of rock and soil. She sweeps away with wind and tumbles down with jolts. I find much resonance in the fact that we cannot choose the weather in any one location in which we find ourselves, just as we cannot dictate our fate on more ethereal plains. Consider also that significant amounts of our money and energy in life are spent protecting ourselves from Her in hovels of concrete and wood and maneuvering ourselves through Her in cages of glass, plastic, metal and rubber. And each time we think we’ve conquered Her as a species, She shapeshifts straight through our boundaries.

In recognizing the moods of Nature, I’m dwelling also on how to meet Her. For instance, I marvel at the gloriously undignified art of camping—living so close to Her possible howls and unexpected dew and creatures. Picnicking on grass with ants visiting our blanket and swimming in murky water where our feet explore depths our eyes cannot penetrate offer a blending of the sublime and the mundane. I yearn for the opaque and muted tones that are only found where tidiness ends.

Where I feel led in this meditation on Nature is to find my edge. Permaculture principles teach us that edges are teeming with life and possibility. Staying inside the fence will no longer suffice for me. At the same time, forcing myself too far outside my natural comfort zone will only overwhelm and further disconnect me from that which I am seeking, which is a deeper relationship with Nature. As I ajar the gate slowly, I want to let the weeds take up a small residence inside the corner of my need for creature comforts.

Specifically, I plan to engage in the following practices:

  • Sit with a thunderstorm and meditate on its rumblings.
  • Find a bug and make it a friend (or at least observe it well).
  • Gather rainwater for my altar.
  • Delight in the mischievousness of Nature—specifically in Her human form—by reimagining at least one behavior that stresses me as the antics of an overgrown ape.

To what extent are you beholden to creature comforts? In what ways would you like to deepen your relationship with Nature? Where are your edges in experiencing Nature, and how can you more fully inhabit them?

Naturally Mindful

Miracle Moments

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

During some intentional inner work time, I pulled the Mother Mary card from the Guidance Guidance Oracle card deck. I felt an aversion to the phrase it contained—“expect a miracle.” My childhood religious training has infused the word miracle with implications of salvation from sin and requirements of faith. My scientific training has added additional complications by creating great skepticism in me as to whether anything can exist that could not ultimately be dissected and analyzed. However, as I reflect upon for today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, in sitting with that word for a while in meditation and carrying it in the back of my mind throughout the day, I’ve found myself growing in my ability to relate to it from a place of awareness and gratitude.

Unexpected good fortune is one hook with which I’ve caught ahold of the experience of miracle. I had a situation a few weeks ago in which I had a highly charged moment that I thought would be repeated ad nauseum for the next several months. Without any effort on my part, the situation instead resolved itself with a day. I can get caught up easily in the useful fantasy that the only way positive events will occur in my life is if I work very hard to make them happen. The experiences of delight and relief that pepper my pathways when I finally stop striving to create them are blessings indeed.

Instances of serendipity also help me grab onto the concept of a miracle. I’ve been stressing about my dog who is a few years old and may need surgery at some point for his knee condition. Even though he should have a good long time with me yet, I get myself worked up about what it will be like when he ages and passes on. As I pondered this, a random stranger came up to me at a pet store and told me she had a friend whose two Yorkies lived into their mid-20’s! Twenty or more years as a possible outcome was not something I had even considered (and know is highly unusual). But for a second, it felt like Goddess herself was appearing and letting me know that trusting in the moment and allowing life to unfold without a firm sense of where or how each fork in the road will occur is not only a happier choice but also possibly a more realistic one. I wonder how many “angels” I brush past in my rush to control rather than to be present with my fate.

Nature presents herself as a living miracle to me. It has been a “real” winter where I live with lots of snow. The temperature has been creeping upward for a few days recently, even thought the nights are still cold. It only took hours of warmth for me to notice some kind of greenery (probably weeds!) starting to poke through the mulch, as well as some insects to begin to buzz around. What seemed just days ago to be lifeless, decayed and rotted is already unfurling and crawling with movement and hope, as if Goddess in her Nature form is being transfigured from death to life.

What do you think of the word “miracle?” To what extent or in what ways are you able to appreciate it, and where might you feel challenged by it? What blessing and “angels” have appeared in your life?