One of the things we love about dogs is their attention to the sensory world – no thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Just the here and now. If we follow their example, we can learn to turn the volume down and occupy the present.
Some days it is difficult to get out of our head and into our life. We might hold on to an emotion, mentally repeat an event that didn’t go as planned, or worry about a “what if” that might occur in the future.
As a mental health advisor, I not only address my own questions and concerns about the “what if” in life, but also try to help my clients manage their thoughts and emotions when dealing with strangers. I can’t always provide answers to the “what if” questions, but I try to help my clients see what is under their control and what is not.
But what do we do with all of these worrying thoughts and fears? Getting angry about something doesn’t change an outcome, and holding onto stress and being in a constant state of fear about what may or may not happen is not healthy. It’s bad for our general health and zero percent effective. How do we fight the “what if”?
Mindfulness is a way. When we are aware of our present emotions, feelings, sensations and thoughts, we do not relive the past or fear what might happen in the future. We live in the present moment.
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One of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness is exercise, which allows me to get out of my head and into my body. Walks with my dog, Wrigley, are especially important to my mindfulness practice. He and I take a sensory walk every day.
It’s easy – let me guide you through the steps …
Start your walk with your dog by your side. Engage your senses mindfully and let your thoughts withdraw into your surroundings. When you grasp each sense, you are as completely immersed in it as your dog does with his nose. When Wrigley senses something on his walks, he examines it carefully. Channel your inner pup and first notice everything you smell.
Take a deep breath. What do you smell Perhaps you’re by the water smelling a mix of ocean air, suntan lotion, and dough boy, or walking past a recently mown yard and smelling the freshness of the cut grass. Inhale all of the scents, one breath at a time.
Look around and focus on what you see, not what you think. Home for one thing at a time. Observe the colors, the patterns, and the placement of things. You might discover a house you’ve never noticed, or your neighbour’s hydrangeas come into view in evergreen and lavender hues. Take mental pictures of what you see.
Pay attention to the different vibrations around you. Imagine having your dog’s ears pulled up in response to various ambient noises. Are they far or near? Is it a single sound or a group of sounds – human voices, children’s laughter, or the rustling of leaves on trees? Pay attention to all the ways the world tries to communicate with you.
What are you feeling? Maybe it’s the warmth of the sun on your face, the pebbles under your feet, or the silky blades of grass as you run your fingers through them. Notice all the things around you and how they literally touch you.
What do you taste after all? You don’t necessarily have to put something in your mouth to try it. When you walk along the coast, you can taste the salty air or the humidity. Let the taste linger.
After specifically addressing all of my senses, I feel much more alive and animated because my senses are awake and absorb everything around me. This exercise keeps getting me out of my head, away from my fearful thinking and into my body and my surroundings.
The sensory walk is a gentle reminder that the best way to deal with the unknown is to take time to care for ourselves. If we take good care of ourselves and choose to be present, we can greet the future and all of its strangers with the most balanced and centered version of ourselves and walk peacefully next to our loving, furry friends. And that is entirely in our control.