Walking the Dog

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

If you’ve ever watched a person walking a dog, you’ve seen a good illustration of your mind at work. You have two minds; one is like the dog, the other like the dog walker.

The dog part of your mind responds immediately to stimulation. The alarm clock goes off and startles you awake. You’re annoyed at having to get out of your comfortable bed, so you hit the snooze even though you have to get moving. Eventually, you stagger to the kitchen and make your coffee without even thinking about what you are doing. On the way there, you step on a Lego block and scream at your six-year-old who left it on the floor. Even after the coffee kicks in, you’re mostly in reaction mode, which is a good thing when you’re driving to work, but not such a good thing when the copier jams and you swear and kick it in front of your boss. Working at the computer, you have a hard time concentrating and keep on checking your email. When you have a presentation to make, you get nervous when you see all those faces waiting for you to say something, and imagine all the ways you could mess it up. But, later, when there are questions, you’re so well drilled in your topic that you answer them right away. After you get back home, tired and cranky, you snap at your husband when he tells you what he wants for dinner; but all is forgiven when, after the kids are in bed, his kisses ignite in you a desire for sex. When all is done, you give yourself over to the pillow, the mattress, and fall asleep.

What I just described was the dog portion of your brain, the part that reacts instinctively or with long-established skills and protocols. For the most part, it works well; but I think you’ll agree that some of the reactions you had could be improved. That’s where the dog walker comes in. Hopefully, the dog walker is there with the dog and can call or pull it back when it starts chasing squirrels, as you were when you kept checking your email; rooting around in a garbage can, as you did when you were imagining all the ways you could mess up your presentation; or barking, as you did when you screamed at your kid, snapped at your husband, and swore at the copier. The dog walker can better assess complicated issues, look at the big picture, and see further into the future than the dog ever can.

Dog walkers can make mistakes, too. The first is when they let their dog run without a leash. You make the same mistake when you fail to exercise any mastery or control over your primitive reactions. It’s OK to let your dog off the leash some of the time and get in a good run where it can’t do too much damage, for instance when you’re having sex with your husband. But, if you let the figurative dog off the leash when a strange man kisses you, you could be heading for a heap of trouble.

The second mistake dog walkers make is in believing they have no control over their dog. They believe that since their dog is a big Husky, they have to let him pull them all over the neighborhood. It sees a squirrel and off it goes, dragging them through two yards and up a tree. That’s what happens when you keep getting distracted by the emails. A dog walker can’t clear the path of squirrels any more than you can prevent someone from sending you an email (although you may be able to shut off notifications); but once a dog walker catches his dog being distracted, he gives him a good tug on the leash. You can also bring your mind back to what it was supposed to be doing.  Use its distractability to your advantage and distract your mind from the email in the same way the dog walker distracts the dog from the squirrel.

The key thing is for the dog walker to keep an eye on the dog. Before reading this, you may not have even known you had a dog or a dog walker part of your mind. You knew just you kept getting into trouble. You went to therapy and said to the therapist, “I keep on barking at everyone, I can’t get my mind off the things that could go wrong, and I’m easily distracted.” The therapist will help by doing the same thing dog trainers do. Dog trainers will train the dog to walk by training the dog walker. Therapists do the same thing. They train the dog walker part of the mind to be better at walking the dog and let the dog part of the mind go on being like a dog.

To say it’s important to let your inner dog be a dog is an understatement. You don’t really have a choice. No matter how intelligent and refined you think you are, you’re also an animal who reacts and has feelings, impulses, and desires. That’s actually a good thing.

Maybe you can see this better if I change the metaphor. Forget the dog. Part of your mind is like a predictive spelling program, like what you have on your cell phone. You tap in the first few letters of a word and the program predicts what you’re trying to say, so it spells it out for you. Once you’re accustomed to using it, predictive spelling can be a tremendous help in speeding up your typing, but you’ve got to watch it, or it’ll have you writing words you don’t intend. Anyway, so the predictive spelling feature is like the dog part of your brain. It does things quickly for you, based on your habits and instincts.

The third mistake is to identify yourself only with the dog or the dog walker. You are both an animal (or a predictive spelling program, if you prefer) and a human being. People who identify themselves solely as the dog say, “I keep barking at my kids,” as if that was the whole picture. They’d be more accurate if they said, “I keep barking at my kids, but I know it’s not good for them.” If it sounds like you’re divided, it’s by design. You have these two minds for the same reason you have two eyes and two ears: you get around better when you have their distinct perspectives to compare. You are both a wild beast and a higher being, although you may be a higher being who hasn’t yet tamed her wild beast.

What can you do about screaming, swearing, or snapping at others? Well, what can a dog walker do about barking? The best thing is to know when trouble is coming. The skilled dog walker looks ahead and sees another dog, and walker, coming the other way. That’s a good time to shorten the leash, pull out a treat, and get the dog’s attention. He doesn’t have any control over whether the other dog walker is doing the same, but if he does his part, he can minimize the barking and do a lot to prevent a dog fight.

If you are prone to screaming, swearing, or snapping at others, then the best thing you can do is know when those times are coming: when you are tired at night, still groggy in the morning, or about to use the copier any time of day. That’s the time to check yourself and proceed cautiously. You have little control over what others do. Your kid can easily miss a Lego, your husband can easily say something stupid and insensitive, and copiers will always be copiers; but if you are mindful of yourself when you enter a situation, you can avoid most minor problems and almost all big ones.

People who deny they have an inner dog and identify themselves only as the dog walker say they never bark at their kids, when they do; or claim to never be distracted when it happens all the time. That’s just as stupid as walking around the neighborhood with a leash in your hand and no dog attached.

Then there are those people who do not permit themselves to be spontaneous and make mistakes. They’d rather turn their inner dog into a proper human being.  What they need is a good car ride, so they can hang their heads out, feel the wind in their ears, loll their tongues, and have some joy in getting goofy.

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