Usually, when someone tells you to “relax,” the instinct, understandably, is to want to respond by punching them in the nose. This is the way it is with most unsolicited advice: it’s annoying, and you kind of just don’t want to hear it. Keep in mind, however, that any wisdom you receive here comes not from me, an extremely flawed human being, but from my innocent, sagely, and mostly good dog, Brooklyn. (So if you don’t like it, blame her, not me!) The other good thing about guidance when it’s offered by a dog is that you don’t have to listen to them prattle on about it—they tend to offer it up just by being who they are.
And so: Brooklyn.
When Brooklyn relaxes, it is the most relaxed I’ve ever seen a creature be. Every muscle, every atom, releases. She becomes a pile of mush—sometimes even when she’s in your arms. But the signature move she makes that best embodies this idea of utter relaxation is when she sprawls out on her back, her soft underbelly exposed to the heavens, her limbs splayed off to the sides. It is a position of extreme vulnerability, and thus one of complete trust. In these moments, she exhibits no fear, no anxiety—only a deeply calm faith that all is well in the world, that she is safe, and that there’s not a single thing she needs to be worrying about. Now, to be sure, make a loud noise, and she’ll be over and up in a flash—but in the moment, it’s pure ease.
We humans, on the other hand, struggle to reach such a state—which if you consider the language, is probably part of the problem. Yes, though I do my best to unwind, I wonder if such a concerted effort might actually be self-defeating, sort of like “hurrying up and relaxing.” Anyway, I meditate, I do tai chi, I take hot baths, I enjoy lazing about on the beach on sunny summer days. I appreciate a good snooze, a good night’s sleep. But so often, even in these states of repose, tension remains: the mind races, the jaw clenches. At night, lying in bed, the brain chews it all over again and again: the things I could have done better that day, the things I failed to do at all. Even in these precious moments of relative ease, there’s so little true ease.
To be sure, Brooklyn is not always relaxed, either—in fact, far from it. When we play fetch, for instance, her body is a bundle of fast-twitch muscles on high alert, quivering in expectation. And when there’s tension in the house—our young son howling about one injustice or another, his mom and I fed up, our voices strained and elevated—the vibrations in the air sink into our poor dog till she literally trembles with them.
The difference is that when nothing’s afoot—no ball nor squirrel to chase, no family drama to resolve—Brooklyn is, for the most part, at peace. She lounges around, yawns, takes dog naps. Whereas we humans remain infected with anxiety—about the future, the past, all the things that we wish we could fix—even when nothing’s broken.
This makes me wonder if part of what’s going on here is simply the oft-mentioned fact that dogs live in the present. In other words, when there’s a ball, she chases it; when there’s family tension, she reacts to it and lets us know. But when there’s nothing she needs to respond to—when life is good, and nothing’s obviously awry—Brooklyn can dissolve into that nothingness, into the good, soft ground of it.
Funnily enough, the fact she can relax also probably helps her, when she does act, to give that action her all. Which, in turn, probably helps her to relax. After all, whatever Brooklyn does—barking at another dog, rolling around in something smelly—she exhibits complete commitment. She holds nothing back. And when you give yourself so fully to life—when you pour yourself into everything you do unreservedly—then there’s no room for regret. At the end of the day, Brooklyn has earned her respite. She can rest easy, knowing there is nothing more she could have done.
Of course, trying to emulate all these wonderful, inspiring qualities of a dog can be counter-productive, if we don’t remember to take it easy on ourselves. (Why can’t I be fully committed to my daily life?!? Why can’t I exist in the present?!?) As much as we might like to be, we are not dogs, dammit. Our big, stupid brains will continue to mull things over even when there’s no real reason—that’s just part of what big, stupid brains do—and there’s absolutely no point in beating ourselves up about it. Or, as a Zen teacher of mine likes to say, “Be kind to monkey mind.”
Anyway, while it might be frustrating to recognize how far from enlightened doghood we ourselves may be, having a pup in our lives will probably help keep us calmer, nevertheless. In the October issue’s Big Dog Story, authors Philip Tedeschi and Molly Jenkins talk about how, going back to our earliest days together, dogs have provided humans with a sense of neuroceptive safety—“observing a known dog who is calm or playfully engaged disenables our defense mechanisms and allows us to know, however subconsciously, that ‘the camp is safe.'” And yes, relaxed dogs in their presence probably meant our ancestors didn’t have to worry so much about being pounced upon by a saber-toothed tiger, but the sense of calm that dogs offer is bigger than that, too, somehow. A dog at ease inspires trust not just in the moment at hand, but in the entire universe, in life. Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows this feeling—the warmth of well-being their simple presence can impart.
Every now and then, Brooklyn will take a deep breath, and then let it all out—that wonderful, familiar dog sigh. And it’s a reminder that you can do this, too—that it’s OK for you to take a deep breath and let it all go, confident in the knowledge that, for the moment at least, all is well. Not only is Brooklyn offering this advice, her very existence is giving you permission to enact it. So go ahead! In the end, to truly relax is a revolutionary state, because it involves this massive trust in the way things are. It is a rejection of all that pointless anxiety, that ancient, misguided notion that something needs to be fixed. It is to know in your bones that right now, nothing need be done—that the universe has it covered, and doesn’t need your help.
Don’t worry—your worries aren’t going anywhere, they’ll be here tomorrow, you can reengage with them then. The point is, right now, you are probably not about to be mauled by a bear—you can exhale. The pile of mush that is Brooklyn guarantees it.