My husband and I recently adopted a puppy, her name is Lila (pronounced Leela, from the Sanskrit language meaning cosmic/divine play, grace, loveliness). We actually had no idea how hard (yet rewarding and beautiful) it would be to embark on this journey as puppy parents! but here we are, learning a little every day.
We are training Lila to poo and wee in the garden and every time she does this, we give her a reward, a treat. When we do so, her brain will assimilate this action of going to the toilet outside with a positive feedback. As you know, repetition is the mother of skills and essentially we want to train her brain to perceive using the garden as her "toilet" as a rewarded act so, hopefully she will keep repeating this pattern until it becomes a habit. So, you might be wondering what does this have to do with yoga or the mind?
Well, first of all, this training or (re)patterning of the brain is very similar to meditation. The mind, just like a puppy, will run from one thing to the next, it will create some havoc, make a mess at times and even hurt us when it is left unattended. The puppy, just like the mind, don’t mean to hurt us, but they can do (Lila has sharp claws and teeth) . The puppy might scratch you or bite you, the mind, on the other hand might create worry, doubt or anxiety by entertaining thoughts about the future, regret, sadness or anger about the past, which in some way or another, will hurt us too.
So, just as we train a puppy by giving them a treat when they do something right, we can train the mind so that it can enter a more balanced state. When we set time aside for daily meditation, we are training our minds, no matter how successful or unsuccessful the meditation itself may seem to you. By repeating the behaviour, things will get a bit easier overtime.
When we give a puppy a reward, they enjoy it and it is more likely they will repeat the action that led to the reward, right? However if I am unkind to the puppy for its behaviour, I won’t be creating a healthy neural pathway. In the same way, when we train our minds to be present, we can get glimpses of stillness, of ease and even calmness (this is our reward) and the more we practice being aware/present throughout our day, the more mindful we will become. But if I sit to meditate or do my best to be mindful during my day and I happen to get caught up in thoughts or if the story I tell myself leads me to say or do something unkind and I then judge myself for having thoughts, its like blaming a puppy for being a puppy, not helpful.
So, we keep compassion as a key ingredient of this training.
Once our ability to be more present throughout our day becomes more established, the circuitry of our brains will adapt to not entertain unhelpful thoughts or incessant mind chatter but rather live more mindfully, more informed of our internal as well as external experience.
"Train your eyes and ears; train your nose and tongue. The senses are good friends when they are trained. Train your body in deeds, train your tongue in words, train your mind in thoughts. This training will take you beyond sorrow." The Dhammapada (translated by Eknath Easwaran)
This is a wonderful way in which ancient and hopefully modern yogis are practicing the sacred limbs of yoga, especially the ones most concerned with the mind Dharana/Concentration or ability to focus our minds in an object, and Dhyana/Meditation in order to decreases not only our own suffering but the suffering of all.
The neural networks in the brain that give energy to a thought or behaviour get wired by repetition. Hence, the more often I think or behave in a certain way, the more likely I am to repeat it because neurones that fire together, wire together, even if the thought or behaviour pattern is more detrimental rather than beneficial. The Buddha taught that "More than those who hate you, more than all your enemies, an undisciplined mind does greater harm." The puppy is not aware of the harm it can cause, nor is our mind. What can we do about it? Be watchful
I absolutely love the lessons contained within spiritual philosophy as, in my experience, practicing what I learn, has improved my ability to see a bigger picture, thus learn from life in a way that brings more harmony and compassion to my human experience, especially when things get tough. I have been meditating/training my mind regularly for roughly 8 years (and not regularly for a bit longer) and it is the one thing I recommend everyone to practice, it has not only helped me with pain management, but also with coping with huge shifts in life. I much prefer meditating rather than medicating (no judgement for those who do medicate, sometimes it is necessary!)
"Hard it is to train the mind, which goes where it likes and does what it wants. But a trained mind brings health and happiness. The wise can direct their thoughts, subtle and elusive, wherever they choose: a trained mind brings health and happiness." The Dhammapada
So what do puppies and the mind have in common?
- If you don’t pay attention to them, they can make a big mess
- Just like a puppy the mind doesn’t know the harm it can do
- They can bring great joy when good habits are established
- Once you learn about their nature, you might laugh about their ways
With awareness, and without judgement, we embark on this life-long training to create/embody more helpful patterns so that we can get better at working with them, rather than against them, after all we will live with them for good 😌
In yoga with love,