Chain the Monkey Brain

And think like a dog. 

I saw a cartoon showing a person and a dog hiking in the woods with thought bubbles juxtaposed over their heads. The caption read, “Why your dog is happier than you.” The dog’s thought bubble showed only trees and a trail, and the person’s was a jumble of electronic gadgets, money, bills …but no trees, no trail. 

For those of us with wildly busy “monkey minds” (to borrow a Buddhist term), being distracted by daily life can keep us from fully enjoying the present moment, even while hiking Montana’s backcountry. Fortunately, two things helped slow me down both mentally and physically: meditation, and my dog.

Every year, my husband and I prepare for an annual backcountry trek by hiking five to ten miles a couple of times a week. We used to gauge our speed and progress using the GPS, challenging ourselves to go further or faster. While we did get physically fit, I started feeling like I was doing the hike, but not necessarily enjoying it. Over the years, steep terrain was catching up with my arthritic left knee, and I knew I had to make a change, or stop hiking.

There’s a thing called walking meditation, where you walk with purpose, slowly, noticing how you’re moving in space. Far-out stuff, I know—but it works. By incorporating a bit of walking meditation into my hike, I began thinking less and experiencing more, emphasis on enjoyment over performance.

Enter Gibson, my ever-busy but ever-alert border collie, who absolutely loves hiking. Gib is a natural wilderness guru, because like the dog in the cartoon, his thought bubble is uncluttered. As soon as his leash is clipped on, he’s completely absorbed by our upcoming adventure, sniffing, snorting, and on alert from the first step. He whiffs the ground, lifts his nose to follow a scent on the air, leading to the squirrel in the tree, then back to a nice smelly pile of coyote scat on the side of the trail. He points out the pika before it even squeaks a warning of our passing. He freezes moments before a deer bounds away. He even alerted me once to a prairie rattler hidden in the grass on the edge of a trail. Gibson is my trail hero, my trail Zen master.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not nearly as sagacious as my dog. Gibson doesn’t care how far or how fast we hike, or even if we just hiked this trail last week. His hike isn’t ego-driven, but rather spirit-driven. Modeling Gibson, I’ve released my urgency to simply conquer the terrain. My knee appreciates it, and by reminding myself to breathe, listen, and pay attention, I ratchet down my mind-clutter. Gibson’s quiet focus on the smells, the sounds, the energy of his surroundings, helps to quench my own “inner-tainment.”

Gibson’s sense of smell is over a thousand times better than mine, and my hearing doesn’t compare either; but when I pay attention, I can still pick out the two-tone call of the black-capped chickadee, the thrumming of a flicker drilling for insects in a tree, and a midden on the side of the trail left by a pine-cone-chewing chipmunk. We both enjoy discovering a jumble of painted lady butterflies exploring a fresh pile of irresistible fox poop, although we tend to focus on different aspects of the discovery.

Gibson’s only concession to heat or distance is a lolling tongue, telling me that it’s time to stop for a drink. His water bottle is even more fun than mine. His is the purple one with the cap shaped like a scoop so I can just pour water into it and hold it as he laps it up. Eyeing me the whole time, he’ll sit back, thirst quenched, and give me one of his funny winks. I always wink back, just in case it’s a secret code that he thinks I’m in on.

Gibson doesn’t mind when my patella and quads tell me it’s time to turn back. If that means downhill, we might bushwhack a bit, searching out a less steep route. That’s when Gibson is at his best, maybe pointing out a wolf track or a scarily huge pile of grizzly scat. As my husband and I kick up our conversation a notch and scan the bushes, Gibson just wags and grins condescendingly, as if saying, “No worries, I’m on it.”

Nearing the car, my wild-horse mind returns, thoughts leaping from, “I still have to clean the barn,” to “Is the taco place open tonight?” Gibson, however, immediately falls soundly asleep in the car, not a care in the world.

So, although my thought bubble may still be busier than my dog’s, for a short time, with his help, my focus is on the real world. A real world where money, ego, and schedules don’t matter. A world where for a while, I can become like my dog and simply let a hike be a hike.