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Surfer Mind: Being Present With Animals

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

I noticed my cats smelling the air one day. They seemed receptive to layers of scents. Their noses twitched, and their heads rose up and down so subtly that one would have to stare as intently as I did to notice the nuances of their body movements.

I tried it! Gliding my head up, down, side to side, I smelled sweet and pungent plant fragrances, smog, exhaust fumes, and damp wood with the slightest head movement to the side or up or down. Next, on my hands and knees, I smelled grass like my cats smelled — with nostrils brushing each blade. I hoped my neighbors hadn’t seen me crawling in the yard. Simultaneously, I could almost taste the candied grassy smell and musty dirt while the feathery strands tickled my nose, buried in its cool, green carpet. Wow! Life is vibrant when we pay attention.

How present are we? In Buddhist meditation, mindfulness is practiced during every activity. When eating, eat. Be aware of taste, texture, flavors, chewing, and swallowing. When walking, pay attention to sounds, smells, and internal and external sensations, such as your feet contacting the ground or the breeze across your face. Paying attention reshapes our perceptions. Paying attention to my discomfort in Zazen (formal Zen sitting meditation with legs folded in lotus posture) presented a choice. Either resist, squirm, change position until another irritation arose somewhere else in my body and mind or focus on my breath and pay attention to the feelings in my legs.

I noticed that pain was not constant but a series of changing sensations rising and fading away. Sometimes the legs tingled, throbbed, or burned, and sometimes pain disappeared completely. This is the nature of reality. Nothing is permanent. What we resist persists. Where we project our consciousness will determine our experiences. When we believe our thoughts or emotions are permanent states, we cling to or resist them, creating suffering for ourselves. We can let our thoughts and feelings toss us around—or we can ride them like a surfer riding waves on an ocean. Our thoughts and tumultuous emotions, like the waves themselves, pass. Our mind, like the ocean, remains untouched. When we stay present with what arises and allow the experience and feeling of an angry emotion to run through us without reacting, repressing, or mulling it over forever, we are no longer affected by the anger or any other random wave. Our compassion deepens because our hearts stay open to whatever hits us instead of shutting down in isolation and becoming desensitized to the pain of others.

Our animals are content and balanced when we arrive with a surfer mind that rides the waves – a happy, flexible mind, like their mind! Animals live in their bodies. They are present and allow whatever arises to pass. They are Zen masters. Our resistance creates hell. So when a fly buzzed around my head during another sitting meditation session, I chose to drop the mental fight, the desire for comfort, and the impulse to shoo it away. I focused on my breathing as the insect grazed my ear canal. I sat perfectly still, present with the tickling and buzzing, and I dropped fear thoughts of the fly entering my ear or nose. I sat until the annoyance turned into the most melodious, soothing sound bath I had ever heard. No sooner had I let go of resistance and merged with the insect’s joyful language; it flew away.

Mindfulness is the practice of aliveness. Presence is the spirit in which our animals experience life. Although we have peeks of awareness, we mostly pull inward, feel separate instead of integrated with the whole, and perceive the world from our self-centeredness. Animals receive the world in its wild magnificence and blossom into each day. They live in the moment. They don’t pack their days with harmful residues from yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow.

We cannot hold onto the present moment, but we can notice our thoughts, let them pass like clouds in the sky, and experience our illusive and eternal nature — peace and joy — the spirit and momentum in our lives, where our animals reside. Mindfulness may be just a crawl toward enlightenment.

Presence is the spirit in which our animals experience life.
Surfer Mind: Being Present with Animals

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