“And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
If my dog, Brooklyn, were able to express herself in English, I’m pretty sure this would be one of her favorite maxims. It’s how she lives, anyway: like each day—each moment—is a truly new one, brimming with impossible possibilities.
We mere humans, on the other hand, don’t always see it like that. Even if it’s a new year, a new day, a new moment, life for us can have a rather depressing way of feeling much the same as it did the year, the day, the moment before. (This perhaps has felt especially true as of late, when the coronavirus has served to make every day seem similar—and similarly dismal—a kind of Groundhog Day existence that’s become a little tiresome, to put it mildly.)
And yet the plain truth of it is that Brooklyn is correct: whether it feels that way or not, each new day is in fact new—as is each new instant. This moment that you are experiencing right now as you read this has never actually occurred before. And in this fresh, never-before encountered life, absolutely anything could happen. The question is: what?
That’s what Brooklyn wants to know: What wonderful thing will happen next? Will she go for a walk? Get a treat? Have a cuddle on the couch? Will someone she loves go away and then come back? And if she heads out for a walk, will she see another dog? Will she meet a new person? When she gets back home, will she take a nap?
And perhaps most importantly, might there be some chicken in her future?
Now, for the most part, these are not extraordinary events—going for a walk, having some chicken. Yet for Brooklyn, somehow, they are. For Brooklyn, it’s as if these occurrences have never happened before, and will never happen again—which is in fact the fact of it. Each moment is utterly, heartbreakingly unique—there for but the briefest instant and then forever gone. Should such fabulous, impossible occurrences not be appreciated with the bright, eager eyes of a dog?
Encountering life in this way—with the wide-open eyes of a child, or of a dog—is what Zen Buddhism sometimes calls Beginner’s Mind, and Brooklyn’s got it down. The enthusiasm, the curiosity, the excited wag of her tail. The way she takes nothing for granted; the way every instant seems worthy of wonder.
So it is that, for Brooklyn, each new moment feels new—not just because, as we’ve been discussing, it actually is new, but because, with those Beginner’s Mind eyes, everything is greeted as if for the first time. I wonder if that’s what’s really going on when your dog welcomes you home with that famous gusto—perhaps they simply experience things so freshly that it’s almost like it’s the first time you’ve ever come home: an event unexpected, miraculous, and well-worth celebrating.
For dogs, everything is like this. Even the most familiar, ordinary things are wondrous. A pile of poop. The scent on the wind of another dog. Snow.
Actually, snow is one of those things that can be wondrous for us humans, too. You awaken the morning after the first big storm of winter, and outside—shining, unmarked, footprintless—the whole world is covered in snow. These are the days that wipe the universe clean, somehow, and wipe our vision clean, too, so that our old, tired way of looking at life is swept away, and for a moment or two at least, we cannot help but to see it all as if through a dog’s eyes, with that senseless, childlike excitement. You put on mittens and boots and head outside with the dog.
I’m not sure Brooklyn even knows what snow is, but she freaking loves it nonetheless, and so she is bounding around chasing snowballs, pouncing on the place where they disappear, plunging in headfirst only to discover that what she was chasing is everywhere. She emerges from great piles of snow, her muzzle all covered in white, her tail wagging. She barks shrilly for more.
Your six-year-old son is out there with you, also—you’re both dressed up alike, all ridiculous-looking and puffy-coated, and you each have the same mischievous glint in your eye, and you are throwing snowballs at each other, and Brooklyn is bounding about and barking, and above the snowy rooftops, vultures are soaring in the sunlit sky, and little birds are in the rhododendrons, hopping from branch to branch, dislodging little puffs of snow wherever they land. All the animals are delighted. It’s a snow day. Everything is new.
Oh, we could all use a brand-new day like this, every now and then. Which is exactly what we are given every morning, if only we could see it. Yes, if only we could see as clearly as Brooklyn does, I have a feeling every day would shine with such freshness, as would each moment within it.
Of course, to experience life like a dog does is no easy task. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been trying every now and then to enact this particular piece of canine wisdom—to appreciate each day, each moment, as new—and it’s really, really hard. The mind wanders. The past seeps in. The fresh, vibrant moment at hand goes unnoticed, overlooked. But it is, I believe, a good state of existence to aspire to: one in which everything is worth being curious about, sniffing at, barking at, wagging your tail at. Because there’s such hope in a world that is constantly being refreshed—such possibility and freedom. Such adventure!
Considering all this, it may surprise you to learn that for one who so keenly appreciates the newness of each day, Brooklyn begins her mornings by hopping into bed with my wife and me and going back to sleep. Even when one of us gets up, she’s still not ready to rush off—instead, she moves over to the warm spot we’ve just vacated, curls up there, puts her butt on the pillow, and snoozes some more. (Of course, what better way to appreciate your life than to cuddle up with those you love?)
Still, it’s a reminder that just because it’s a new day, doesn’t mean you have to necessarily make a big deal out of it, or do anything so different. You don’t see Brooklyn riding around on a unicycle to celebrate the uniqueness of the moment at hand (though you do see her wagging her tail a lot). After all, the moment is unique already without you striving to make it so. Which is part of the point: everything you experience is new and different, whether you realize it or not. You have never had this exact piece of toast. You have never seen this exact shade of pale, winter light. You have never taken this exact breath.
Each moment is a new beginning, forever fresh—the only question is, can you, like Brooklyn, meet it freshly?
Actually, there are other questions, too, like: What are you going to do with this new day you’ve been given, this new moment before your eyes? What momentous occurrences will you partake in? Will you have a grilled cheese sandwich? Take a bath? Play Monopoly with your family? Who knows? Maybe you’ll go for a walk! Maybe you’ll have a nap!!!
Whatever you end up doing, take a moment to remember that you’ve never actually done it before, and will never do it again. It’s a new day, and we only have so many.