Our family dog, Phoebe has lived with us for almost four years but still gets crazy excited every single time she hears a siren blaring.
She starts barking, runs to the back door, and goes nuts until one of us lets her out. She then runs to the backyard and howls and barks at the siren, communing with that sound in the way dogs do. It’s one of her many charms.
My wife and I are not naturally dog people. Like so many other families, we wound up adopting our pooch in the spring of 2020.
After years and years of pleading from our kids, the pandemic finally wore down our resistance and we caved — on condition that the children walk her and feed her. (And like so many other parents, we were duped by that promise too. C’est la vie.)
Yet I’ve truly come to embrace Phoebe and the responsibility she comes with. In particular, I’ve come to appreciate that relating to, caring for, and walking the dog are all amazing opportunities for mindfulness practice.
Now, you may not be a dog owner, or even a pet owner. Even so, I hope you’ll keep listening, because if you have anyone or anything to care for in your life — a baby, a parent, a sibling, a friend; a hamster, a goldfish, a parakeet or a plant — you’ll probably hear something familiar, and maybe even something useful.
Here’s the honest truth: I sometimes get resentful towards Phoebe. Sometimes I have to squeeze in a walk between zoom meetings or phone calls or teaching. Since I travel a lot, we have to make arrangements for doggy day care. It’s not so simple to plan family vacations anymore.
On top of that, there are moments on our walks when she wants to stop and sniff something particularly sniff-worthy and I feel in a hurry to get home. In those moments, my impatience overcomes me and I find myself yanking on her chain to get her to move.
There are other times when she hasn’t gotten enough stimulation or attention (and let’s be honest: she always wants attention) and I come into the den or the living room to find that she’s rummaged through the trash in search of some food remnant, leaving a mess of used Kleenexes and other detritus strewn about. Blech.
But in my better moments, I find that walking Phoebe is an extraordinary opportunity for practicing mindfulness. I set an intention — a route through the neighborhood, a general time window, and an emotional quality of awareness, compassion, and ease that I want to embody.
It doesn’t take long for those intentions to be tested in some way: Phoebe wants to go another direction; we have some unexpected encounter on the sidewalk; she sees a squirrel. Or my mind wanders: to stuff at work, or what’s giving me a little anxiety with friends or family or the world.
But then I look at Phoebe, I feel her on the leash, the two of us connected by this kind of umbilical cord, and I bring my attention back to my intention: to be compassionate, to be calm, to walk the path with ease and flexibility.
Now believe it or not, dogs make an appearance in the Torah and in what I think is a pretty unexpected place. It comes as Moses is telling the Israelites about the final plague God is going to visit on the Egyptians, slaying the firstborn. (We’ll save a theology discussion about that for another time.)
Right there in the story, Moses says, quote, “but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at human or beast–in order that you may know that the Holy One distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.”
While the rest of this makes perfect sense in the narrative, I’ve gotta ask: What is the dog doing here?! It’s like Toto showing up in the middle of “The Ten Commandments.”
Emmanuel Levinas, a great 20th-century French Jewish philosopher, actually wrote an essay about this question. He must have been a dog guy. And basically what he says is that the dog is here, at this most dramatic moment in the story, to remind everyone of their humanity.
He actually tells a story about when he was a POW of the Nazis, and how his group of French soldiers was befriended by a stray dog. The group named him Bobby.
While the Germans treated the soldiers as less than human, Bobby would greet them in the morning and be there waiting for them when they came back to their beds at night, “jumping up and down and barking in delight.” For Bobby, Levinas says, “there was no doubt that we were human beings.”
Walking a dog, like anything else, can become rote and routine. It can become something to do mindlessly or distractedly. And, like anything else, dog walking — and, more broadly, living in relationship with a dog or frankly with anyone else — provides us yet another opportunity to practice being mindfully present.
Maybe that’s why the dog is in this verse, at this moment of liberation, to remind us what it means to be human, what it means not to be an oppressor, but a liberator of ourselves and others: awareness, intention, presence and compassion.
So the practice I want to invite you to do this week is to take a rote activity and see if you can do it with a bit more awareness, a bit more intention, a bit more presence, a bit more compassion.
If you have a dog, it could be walking the dog. If you don’t, it could be a million other things: washing the dishes; brushing your teeth; bringing in the mail; watering your plant; even paying your taxes. Whatever it is, this week, see if you can bring some mindful attention to this activity.
Maybe take a deep breath before you begin. Set an intention for how you want to be as you’re doing this activity — yes, even brushing your teeth! You might say to yourself, “I want to manifest patience” — and maybe that will lead you to brush a little slower, a little gentler.
If you’re watering the plants, you might say, “I want to show up with curiosity,” and perhaps you’ll take the time to notice the subtle changes happening inside that pot.
If you’re walking the dog, maybe you’ll say, “I want to be compassionate,” and that can lead you to showing just a little more love and open-heartedness toward them, whether they’re Toto or Bobby or Phoebe.
Blessings for the journey — and for the dog walking. Know that I’m on it with you.