Every morning, somewhere in the hazy hours just before sunrise (and sometimes long before sunrise) Maisie sneaks up on the bed, somehow knowing we are both too tired and too far under to notice and kick her off. She presses her body against mine, her legs outstretched towards my husband, and settles in for the duration. It is as predictable as the sun rising and setting, and though I often wake up clinging to the edge of the bed with the covers barely on me any more (always amazed at how much space a 17 pound dog takes up) I also take comfort in the warmth of her muscular body, her blissfully silky fur, and the occasional tail, paw, or nose in my face.
We are blessed to have a dog who does not run to the door to be let out first thing in the morning. She takes her cues from us, rarely getting off the bed until the last one of us has done so, sometimes not even then, staying on the bed while I attempt to make it around her stubborn little body, one more game she seems to love. She only takes her cues from us so far, however, and there is a dramatic difference in how she starts her day from how we usually start ours. Maisie is not cursed with a human’s brain.
Here is a scenario that is not uncommon: the alarm on my husband’s side of the bed goes off, a shrill bell far too reminiscent of a school bell shattering the silence. I usually know it’s coming. We have an alarm that starts with a flashing light, a supposedly gentle brace-yourself-and-get-ready-the-real-thing’s-coming signal that rarely wakes him, but almost always wakes me. But even if I do brace myself, sometimes I drift and that bloody bell is brutal. I’m convinced it’s going to cause one of us to have heart failure one day, but he seems attached to it, and so since he’s the one with some semblance of a real job and a more pressing need to be out of bed by a certain time, it stays. The next part of the routine is for him to reach over and either hit the snooze (so we can go through the whole damn process again) or turn it off, eventually stumbling out of bed and into the bathroom and then to the kitchen to get the morning coffee going.
It is rare, even on weekends, to wake up with any sense of laziness, any sense of gee-what-shall-I-do-with-this-brand-new-day kind of feeling; instead, I usually wake up with a feeling of vague panic, already seven steps behind on the ever present list. If we don’t wake up to an alarm, the first thing out of my mouth (being so nearsighted I don’t have a prayer of seeing the clock without my glasses) is almost always, “do you know what time it is?” When did I become so obsessed with time and whatever in the world happened to “good morning”?
In spite of the behavior of her humans, Maisie’s days start entirely differently. She begins with a good stretch, front paws overhead, back paws spread out and in the air, belly to the ceiling, her body long and lean right before she gives a good shake to work off the sleep. There is always a little nuzzling, usually with whomever is the last one out of bed, a paw on a shoulder or a head burrowed into the crook of an arm. Once she gets off the bed (or sometimes while she is still on the bed), she does some yoga, a quick little Sun Salutation. Downward-facing dog, paws outstretched in front of her, her barrel chest nearly touching the floor, hind quarters and tail up to the sky in a perfectly gorgeous arc, followed by a one-legged upward facing dog — first the right leg, then the left, each one pointed back with the grace of an American Ballet Theater dancer, her nose looking up to the heavens. She barks a few times, plays a little, runs around chasing her tail in an exuberant display of her joy at simply being alive. When she stops and looks at me, there is no worry in her face, no consternation about how late it already is, only her little ears pitched forward in curious anticipation and the question of, is it time for our walk yet or shall we eat first?
I am envious of her obliviousness to obligation and lack of regard for responsibility. But I am learning from her cues and I am trying to start each day with a little more calm and a lot more joy. And so, my new approach to morning is to Begin Each Day on the Mat.
Years ago, when a friend of mine was in a dismal state, the world throwing one thing after another at her, mini-tragedies piling up on a heap of untended wreckage, she asked me through her tears, “Why is God abandoning me?” Despite my wavering belief that there even was a God, never mind one who actually spends his days micromanaging and controlling our lives like some sadistic puppet master, I simply said, “He’s not abandoning you, he’s just getting out the megaphone, because you are not listening. You are not paying attention.” But while I am often quick to dish out what I think is great advice, it has taken me decades to realize that the best way to start listening to my own life, to really begin to tune in in such a way that a megaphone is unnecessary, is to begin the day with some kind of quiet, some kind of deliberate attention. While I have finally begun to truly embrace that lesson, I honestly can’t say what, exactly, that practice should look like for me, never mind anyone else.
But I am beginning to get a glimpse of what it can look like, with little daily variations. And so, sometimes my mat is an actual yoga mat, sometimes it is my meditation chair, hopefully most days it is both. Sometimes my mat is my pen in my journal, sometimes it is just taking one minute for a good, long stretch, thirty seconds for a few deep breaths, before I throw back the covers and let the world conspire to wreak havoc with me. And sometimes (though this is truly rare) the mat is sitting outside under the dappled shade of my Chinese Elm tree, a cup of Earl Grey Lavender tea in hand, and the warmth of a summer morning seeping into my bones.
When I am blessed with the luxury of a little time, my mornings look a little less frantic and a lot more tranquil. I wake up, get dressed, unroll the yoga mat (which Maisie seems to think is some sort of giant toy for her to jump on and bite and wrestle) and I proceed to do my own Sun Salutations. I try not to get discouraged on the mornings (okay, pretty much all of them) my forehead does not meet my shins in a forward bend. I try to accept the limitations of my hamstrings and breathe gently to move deeper into the pose. Maisie is usually somewhere on the mat, often forcing me to step over her when I move to my own downward facing dog, at which point she jumps out of the way, sometimes joining me in the real version of the pose right next to me. (Yes, I truly love this.) At some point I usually find myself dodging a cold, wet nose nudging me and her coarse tongue licking my face, almost always when my hands are on the mat and I am defenseless. It is hard not to laugh, hard to take anything too seriously in that moment, and it is perfect. My practice of this ancient art may be suspect, but that is of little concern to me when she is adding her sweet light to it.
When we are finished our mixture of yoga and puppy play, I retreat to the quiet space in our house, to my favorite room, one that is unadorned and poorly furnished and probably a little too dusty, but one that feels like it’s holding you in its arms, feels a little like a tree-house, with nothing to see out the window except my neighbor’s magnificent Tulip Poplar. And while I have been told that this is not an acceptable way to meditate, I bring Maisie with me, take her little bed, her own little pale green zafu, a cheap, supposedly temporary thing we bought the day we brought her home but one that she seems to love so much we haven’t bothered to replace, and I put it on the floor next to my chair. We both settle in with quiet, rhythmic breathing. I say my silent mantra; she doses off. I like to think that she meditates with me, that she is somehow calmer and more centered because of her place next to my meditation chair. But I’m sure it’s just that I am calmer and more centered, less rattled when she starts barking at me or a squirrel or her reflection in the patio door, or simply, it seems, to hear her own voice.
My friend of the mini-tragedies teases me, saying that my solution to any snag one might run into, from one in your hose to a cancer diagnosis, is to just breathe. She says it laughingly, not quite dismissively, but I can tell that she does not really buy into it, that she probably views me as someone who doesn’t really know just How Hard Life Can Be (I do, I promise). And it does seem like a rather simplistic solution, a giant cliche, I will give her that. But if you take a step back and look at it from a distance, it is the only thing that makes sense. There is plenty of scientific research out there that confirms this fact, but that is of little importance to me; nor am I terribly concerned with the proper way to “practice” it. Sometimes just the mere split second we decide to actually do it is all we need to ground ourselves and get clarity, figure out what action the situation warrants, to slow down just long enough to think before we react.
And so these two practices, my yoga and my meditation, are my way of just breathing, of creating calm before the storms, imagined and genuine, colossal and minute, that may or may not hit during the day. Beginning each day on the mat requires a diligence I don’t always possess, particularly because it involves actually going to sleep at a reasonable hour so I have time and space in the morning. I do not manage to make it happen each and every morning, but whether I do or don’t sets the tone for the day. And so I am finding this idea of beginning the day on the mat more and more necessary, as critical to a productive day as nourishment and hydration and exercise and a good night’s sleep. As critical to my sanity, even, as my morning coffee.
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Dear readers, what are the ways in which your animal companions have taught you to be a little more present, a little less stressed? What are the things you do, if anything, to start you day off with clarity, to help you to remember to “just breathe”, to stay grounded regardless of what life throws your way? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.