I knew Chester would be a terrific friend. I didn’t expect him to be a great spiritual teacher.
Here are six lessons from our first year together.
Lesson 1: Practice gratitude. Give thanks often.
Chester, an adorable 18-month-old terrier mix, lived in a shelter for most of his life, from when he was just a little puppy.
I used to wonder if the dogs in the viral videos, who are super excited to get out of the shelter, really knew what was going on.
He was friendly enough with me during our meet-and-greet to nudge me to choose him. But as soon as I signed the paperwork, he went from calmly sitting by my side to leaping into my lap, his tail wagging like a windmill, giving me kisses.
I told myself it was a cute coincidence. In Chester’s case, the shelter was his home his whole life so how could he know any different?
Then we walked into my apartment. Chester gave himself a quick tour, then jumped onto my couch and into my lap again, where he attached himself to me for hours.
He knew. He found a family. He was home.
Chester’s excitement is renewed each time I open the door.
Whether I’m gone five minutes or five hours, he greets me with happy barks, shadowing me around while chasing himself and that wagging windmill tail of his in circles.
His simple gesture reminds me to give thanks that I have a home and family too. I don’t take either for granted anymore.
Gratitude practice: What one thing can you do each day to give thanks for your home and family? Maybe saying a reminder to yourself of how lucky you are each time you open your own front door.
Lesson 2: Practice mindfulness. Live fully in this moment.
Walking Chester was amusing at first, mainly because it was fun to witness each discovery he made in his new world. The way he sniffed and studied each and every flower, or shrieked in delight at an oncoming cat or squirrel.
But this quickly turned annoying, for two reasons.
First, because it seemed as if our walks took twice as long as they should. Especially when I had other things on my mind such as work deadlines that needed my attention.
The second, and more serious: To Chester, L.A.’s filthy streets were like a giant buffet of tasty yet hazardous deliciousness. He unearthed so many nasty goodies to eat, I wondered maybe he was really an aardvark mix.
Although my own internal ticking clock still beckoned, I needed to keep a close eye on what he might pick up.
So I put away my phone and turned my attention from the clutter in my mental to-do list towards whatever was directly in front of us so I could steer Chester around any potential poison.
Much to my surprise, what at first seemed like a challenge, made our walks more pleasant.
I noticed I was no longer rushing him. I, too, was tuned in to the flowers, the birds, the quiet of the early morning cityscape, rather than the noise in between my ears.
Chester had given me the accidental gift of a mindfulness practice. Each day, no matter what I’m doing (or thinking about doing), Chester reminds me to take a break, go outside and just be fully present.
Mindfulness practice: Take a 15-20 minute walk, at least once a day. Just go outside breathe in, and take in your surroundings. Leave your phone at home. It is just something to fiddle with and distract you. If this seems radical or difficult, remember this is how all of human history was like for thousands of years. Civilization managed just fine without iPhones.
Lessons 3 & 4: Practice openness and enthusiasm. Be ready and willing for new adventures.
Chester is also very sociable on our walks. Wherever we go, he loves making friends — doggie and human.
At first I took it as a sign he craved attention, after epic loneliness in the shelter. But the more time we’ve spent together, I’ve learned that it’s not about himself at all.
Chester is an effortless extrovert. His enthusiasm is genuine. I imagine in a past life he was a cruise ship activities director.
I see Chester light up in all aspects of life, even simple pleasures, such as when I bring him along on a neighborhood car ride, or break out a new chew toy or bone.
Chester greets each new day with excitement. He wakes me up at dawn like a furry, four-legged barking alarm clock equipped with sloppy tongue and kicking paws.
There are days I wish he came with a snooze button. Just as there are days I wished maybe he didn’t want to say hello to everyone.
Pre-Chester, I slept in a lot. Then I sleepwalked through too many days while out and about. Not just due to the mental clutter, but fear and shyness I’ve battled off and on.
Life wasn’t always this way. I was an outgoing little kid. Enthusiasm was easy. Then somewhere in adolescence things changed, especially when it came to meeting new people in social interactions.
Seeing Chester run up to strangers has encouraged me to put myself out there more, to reconnect with my own capacity and willingness to be open.
He demonstrates for me the potential each day brings when we wake up fully with enthusiasm, and open ourselves to connect with everyone we encounter.
Openness and enthusiasm practices: How do you start each day? I won’t fault you if you need coffee before you feel ready to get excited. But once you do, when was the last time you struck up a conversation with a stranger? Not for work, or get anything from them (for instance, if you’re in sales). Just to connect.
It doesn’t need to be anything profound or significant. The act itself can be beneficial enough. Anything else — a smile, a laugh — is just a bonus.
Lesson 5: Practice compassion. Share love and kindness, without conditions.
Sometimes Chester is more than sociable; something more profound is going on.
Rescue dogs are known to be especially empathic. Chester is no exception. He knows what sadness feels like and doesn’t want anyone else feeling it.
His intent can be obvious, such as when he pulls me toward a toddler in the middle of the street throwing a tantrum. He’ll run up wagging his tail and giving kisses, determined to elicit a smile from both kid and (especially appreciative) exacerbated parent.
Chester’s more subtle tell is when he sits completely still until the mysterious, needy someone he senses way up the street crosses our path.
There is no rational explanation for how Chester could know who to choose at such moments.
I’m convinced he is intuitively tapped into an energetic realm we humans do not fully understand. I’m amazed each time and how often the evidence appears.
Such as when Chester bounded up to the seemingly stoic senior man with the “U.S. Marines Vietnam vet” ball cap on his head who shed a tear when he shared that he recently had to put down his beloved 15-year-old dog also named Chester.
“Thank you Chester, this was just what I needed,” he said, also the most common response we get.
But Chester is not an always-on, tuned-in furry yogi. Most nights he needs me to return the favor.
Usually around 3 a.m. he wakes me up from his spot on the foot of my bed, and jumps around, barking for no discernible reason (perhaps, a bad dream).
“Relax, friend. It’s OK…” I whisper, as I shush and pet him.
He looks in my eyes, rolls over for a quick belly rub (“Thanks, dad…”), then falls back to sleep right next to me.
Compassion practice: Intuition isn’t required for us to regularly show compassion. Everyone we encounter every day needs it for some reason, whether or not they would admit it. We can choose to be supportive with our friends and loved ones without judgment . To be there whether or not it is the most convenient time. We can also show ourselves compassion. “Treat yourself as if you already are who you’d like to become,” as Dr. Wayne Dyer said.
Lesson 6: Practice trust. Take a single, small step of faith.
I often wonder why Chester was in the shelter as long as he was. Dogs in the shelter for more than a year — one year, three months in Chester’s case — are extremely rare, at least where I live. Those who linger too long are more likely to be euthanized than get adopted.
I had been contemplating getting a dog for at least as long but didn’t feel ready. There were many cute candidates I saw on the many rescue websites I semi-regularly visited. But I had just as many excuses.
Not the right time. Not enough space, Not in my budget, etc.
Life happens whether we’re ready or not, as I’ve previously written. Maybe there was a guardian angel watching over Chester until I was at least closer to ready.
If I hadn’t made the choice to trust enough to take the next step — get in my car and go visit the shelter off-line, in person — “Who rescued whom?” would still be merely another car’s cheesy bumper sticker.
I wouldn’t have gained the joy, the love, and the lessons I’ve learned this year (and those to come, I am certain).
Think back to the things you can give thanks for, the times you were at your best because you were fully present, or when you were willing to put yourself out there — with wholehearted enthusiasm or deep emotional connection (unconditional love or compassion).
A giant leap of faith can seem daunting. Staring into a gap too wide for our vision, we’d rather stay stuck than jump over the divide from where we are now to where we’re meant to be.
What if in such moments we choose to avoid the temptation to say “no” to what that still small voice inside us calls us to do? And instead, take a single, small step of faith?
And when it’s time to take the next step. To choose to keep going.
To give thanks for what we have. Live in the moment. Be open to possibility and enthusiastic whatever may come. Treat ourselves compassionately, whether we succeed or fail.
Trust practice: Listen carefully and closely to that still small voice inside you that says “you’ve got this. I’ve got your back” Then go do it.