Training a cute little puppy

Imagine your mind is a little puppy – cute, playful, boisterous, and, above all, determined to run around and explore every nook and cranny wherever it goes. While you might have a notion that the puppy should be sitting quietly in a corner all day until you call it for a walk, the reality is that puppies just aren’t made to sit quietly in a corner, and there is no point getting angry at the puppy for simply doing what puppies do.

Our minds also love to run around, to explore, to jump all over the place, and to get excited whenever there is the slightest indication that a treat or a walk or some playtime might be coming up. In part, this constant curiosity and excitability has served us well – as a species, we’re forever searching for new and innovative ways to improve our lives, and what we can achieve. On the other hand, our minds, like puppies, do benefit from some training. Dogs are happier when they are well-trained, and our mind is also more contented when it is trained with gentle discipline.

There are two aspects to this mind training. The first is to understand that our busy, racing mind is simply doing what it’s designed to do – there is no point in getting angry at ourselves for losing focus during a meditation, just as we would be unreasonable dog owners if we started yelling at a puppy every time it moved away from its spot in the corner. We often have highly exaggerated notions of what our mind should be capable off during a meditation – as if we can simply flip a switch and our mind will go from unfocused and distracted to calm and serene simply because we happen to be sitting in a meditation posture wanting to meditate. It’s just not the way our mind is set up, both from our evolutionary history, and also because most of us live very busy, overstimulated lives.

The second aspect is that we should not be afraid of applying some ongoing discipline to ourselves and to our mind. This discipline can be gentle, loving, patient, just like a good dog owner is gentle, loving and patient with a new puppy. Yet just as a puppy which is allowed to do whatever it wants does not grow into a contented, well-adjusted dog, so we too need to bring some discipline towards our minds, and we benefit from training our mind on an ongoing basis.

This is why mindfulness meditation is more than simply learning to relax and blissing out. There are many activities which are enjoyable and which benefit us – gardening, going swimming, watching a movie, and so on. Mindfulness asks more from us than simply having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will increase our appreciation and enjoyment of life, and help us feel less stressed. But when we are meditating, our mind could be all over the place, and we gradually learn to bring it back, again and again, just like we might train a puppy to walk on a lead and sit on command.

Weekly practice idea:

Take some time to examine your attitude to bringing discipline into your life. You’re probably already disciplined in all kinds of areas – work, household chores, personal hygiene, diet etc. How do you feel about a disciplined meditation practice – is this something you already do, or something you find challenging?

Anja Tanhane