The Happiness of Non-Human Friendships

I lost a very special friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He and I had a 16-year relationship and we spent time every day cuddling, and sharing meals and walks. He was someone with whom I could share my deepest fears and secrets. He was there for me whenever I needed him. I learned so much from my friend about courage, generosity and strength. I loved him dearly.

My husband was not the least bit jealous or threatened by this relationship because my dear friend was my cat, Mistoffolese.  For over thirty years, Gary and I have shared our home with cats. All were at one time strays or kittens of a stray, or shelter cats. We’ve also had a few dogs, fish tanks, hamsters, gerbils and two praying mantis named Ramsesses and Moses. However many of these creatures lived with us, cats have always been big part of our life together.

Pets are good for your health and happiness. Researchers tell us that pet owners live a few years longer and visit the doctor less often. People who share their lives with a dog or cat have lower blood pressure and higher levels of serotonin. Dog owners in particular tend to be more active because of the demands of daily walks. (Although, I’ve had a few cats who insisted on having a daily walk, too.)

People who have animals in their life recover faster when they are sick and have longer survival rates after a serious diagnosis such as cancer or heart disease. Even something like a fish tank or a bird can help people feel more relaxed.

For all of these benefits and more, I choose to have stains on my carpets and tiny pricks in my grass weave wallpaper. I don’t even mind the claw marks on my kitchen cabinets. And when I put the tree up next weekend, I know there will be a few of the younger members of our household who will be sure to climb it and chase a few ornaments. I don’t care.  What I have, I share with the ones I love most and that includes my furrier friends.

My animal relationships aren’t limited to the indoors. I have friendships with some of the creatures that share the property I call mine. They were here long before this house was built. Perhaps they are the ones who share with me, so I try to be a good neighbor to them.

I plant extra herbs for the caterpillars and butterfly bushes for after the metamorphous.  I have blueberry bushes, but the squirrels and birds usually beat me to the berries every spring. I know when I plant the tomatoes and other vegetables; the raccoons and deer will probably get most of the fruits of my labors.  I have made peace with this. I can go to the grocery for more. They cannot. The relationship I have formed with the animals matters more to me than a tomato no matter how red and delicious.

I never look at these non-human creatures as my pets. They are my friends and guides to a deeper and truer love. They have taught me how to connect without words and how to sense the world around me. They have shown me how to see the world from a different perspective. (purrspective?) Each relationship has given me more than I gave in return.

This was especially true of my friend Mistoffolese. I have known very few people who knew how to love as completely as this very special cat.  I will miss him and all that he brought to my life.

This holiday season consider opening your home to a shelter animal. So many dogs and cats need a loving home and many shelters offer specials at this time of year on adoption and vet fees.

Building Stronger Relationships

It’s the rule of nature that all living things must grow to live. Relationships are living connections that require daily attention and nurturing. Like all living things, relationships must grow and expand in order to survive.

In the earliest stages of romance, lovers often wish they could freeze a perfect moment so they can stay in the embrace of those wonderful loving feelings. However, trying to hold on to love by freezing it in place is the surest way to kill it.

People change. Your life partner will not be the same person you married in five, ten or thirty years from now. He or she will constantly change to meet the demands of life. The key to a long and healthy relationship is to expect that change and encourage it by growing together.

The higher qualities of the Enneagram offer us a blueprint for exactly how we can nurture our most intimate relationship with the kind of attention that helps love grow:

Ennea-Point One: Goodness – Make a point every day to review the qualities you most admire in your mate. It is easy to fall into the habit of seeing only the faults. From the very beginning of your relationship, establish the habit of deliberately focusing your attention on the goodness in your partner. Find ways every day to let him or her know the many ways you respect and appreciate all he or she brings to you life. This is especially important for the times you are disappointed in your mate’s actions or choices.

Ennea-Point Two: Devotion – Make your relationship your highest priority. Strong relationships are built on devotion. You’ll have many demands on your time and attention throughout your life. Make it a daily habit to demonstrate with your actions that your partner is always number one with you.

Ennea-Point Three: Excellence – We can fall into the habit of taking our loved ones for granted. We start to relax our standards of dress, manners or simple courtesies.  We often reserve excellence for people we want to impress. Remind yourself often that the person you love the most deserves your best every day.

Ennea-Point Four: Depth – Strong relationships are built on intimacy. This is a willingness to share your vulnerabilities and ask for support. It’s also a willingness to listen and give support. It’s impossible to feel connected to someone who refuses to share his or her thoughts and feelings. Make it a habit to spend time with your partner every day talking and listening so the depth of intimacy can grow.

Ennea-Point Five: Clarity – Many people make the mistake of thinking a relationship is about getting all of your desires met on demand. Strong relationships are about building a life together. Develop a shared vision for what that life is going to be. Review your goals often to keep the clarity of purpose in your relationship. Be honest with your partner when your dreams start to shift so the relationship can grow and adapt with you.

Ennea-Point Six: Commitment – Being in a relationship is a commitment to the life you are building. Make a point to do nothing that will jeopardize that commitment. As you move through your life, many opportunities with present themselves. These include opportunities for career changes and new friendships. As you explore each one, remember that your relationship is your first commitment. Sometimes that means letting a few of those opportunities pass by.

Ennea-Point Seven: Joy – One of the greatest joys in your life will be your relationship with your mate. Find ways to express that joy with new experiences and challenges. Surprise your partner with small expressions of your love. Romance is kept alive by partners who never stop courting each other.

Ennea-Point Eight: Strength – In healthy relationships, partners draw strength from each other by sharing the responsibilities of the life they are building. Be willing to extend yourself without keeping a tally sheet of whose turn it is to do something. Be equally willing to ask for help when you need it. Relationships where one person is the “strong one” are out of balance and cannot grow as long as you are assigning roles to fill. Growth is only possible when both partners have the freedom to be strong sometimes and vulnerable at others.

Ennea-Point Nine: Healing – Expect that your partner will hurt you sometimes. No relationship survives, or grows, without hitting rough patches.  Be the first to say, “I’m sorry.”  Be willing to forgive mistakes when asked. Once a conflict is resolved, let it go and never bring it up again. Healing is essential for growth, but it only happens when mistakes are acknowledged, forgiven, and put away. The only thing you should remember about a mistake is the lesson they brought to your relationship.

In the first days of romance, the feelings are so strong it feels like your connection will last forever. Feelings change and as your relationship matures, love will also mature. When love is nurtured, each new expression is more wonderful and fulfilling than the last.

The mistake many people make is refusing to grow love beyond those first few months of connection. They mistake the excitement of a new relationship with love.

Love has many different ways of showing up in your life when you are open to allowing it. What the most successful couples know is that when you protect your connection to your mate by feeding your love with daily attention, everything else takes care of itself. No matter what is going on around you in your life, if the bond you have with your mate is strong and loving, even the worst problems are manageable.

The Meaning of Mindfulness

The study of the human brain was revolutionized with modern imaging technology. Neuroscientists discovered in their quest to map the human brain that no two brains are “wired” exactly the same. Even more interesting is that the brain is constantly changing and reorganizing itself. Areas of the brain can be mapped, but when you examine it more closely, each mind has a unique structure.

The implications of this understanding are staggering. Everything that was assumed to be true about the brain has been re-examined over the past decade. The debate among scientists about whether the mind defines our thoughts, behaviors, and choices, or our thoughts define our mind has a whole new context. Spiritual leaders have claimed for centuries that we are what we think, and now it is confirmed by science.

Spiritual practices are being studied extensively by top researchers because of their effectiveness in reshaping the mind. Mindfulness has become a kind of catchall term used in the media to describe the spiritual practices that help reshape the brain. Mindfulness is often described as “present moment living,” “being in the moment,” or “releasing the past.” Eckhart Tolle eloquently described it as the “power of now.”

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to correctly identify and direct the many activities of your brain. It’s more than staying focused on the moment, although that is an important part of it. Mindfulness is an awareness and understanding of the many functions of your mind for the purpose of choosing to be the most effect person you can be. To fully exercise your power of choice, you need to understand the nuances of your mental activity.

Spiritual practices include a variety of techniques that help you learn to observe your thoughts, memories, emotions, automatic self-protective mechanisms, personality functions and feelings, and then choose how you will direct that mental activity. Mindfulness is one of those practices. The many different styles of meditation are other examples.

What’s the Best Way to PRactice Mindfulness?

To try to practice mindfulness without first making the effort to do the work that prepares you for the practice is like looking for something, without a clear description of what it is. If I tell you your life would be much improved if you find something that you have in your home, you’ll want me to tell you what that thing is so you have a better chance of locating it. You may be willing to make the effort to look for the mystery object. You may be motivated by promises of an improved life. However, if you don’t have a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to find, you probably won’t have much success of actually finding it. At the very least, you’ll want to know some guidelines for what the object isn’t.

The same is true for mindfulness. You may be willing to try to “stay in the moment.” You may be motivated to meditate “to find the gap.” But, you will have limited success until you know exactly what you are looking to find.

How Can Inner Work Practices Help?

The term “inner work” refers to the practices that prepare you for meditation and mindfulness. Inner work helps you to see and understand your mental functions. You may have heard it described as “losing your self,” or “letting go of the false self.” Once you can identify how all of your thoughts work together with the structure of your personality and your psychological defenses, then the practice of mindfulness is possible.

What Role Does Meditation Play?

Meditation is an important part of how you move from inner work to mindfulness. Atheists often argue that when the mind stops working, our life ends. We may be our thoughts, but we are nothing beyond that. Spiritual guides argue that if we are nothing more than our thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings and opinions, then when those mental activities are silenced during meditation, who is the individual that remains? This individual that remains during meditative silence is described as “being” or your “authentic self.”

Regular practitioners of mindfulness through meditation experience a strengthening of their sense of identity and how it fits into a purpose and connection to the world. A powerful sense of your individuality grows along with a feeling of connection to everything around you. This strong sense of connection is sometimes described as “oneness.”

The Sleep Patterns of Meditators

Through regular meditation, you are able to stay mindful of your thoughts for more of your waking hours. In one study at the University of Wisconsin, the sleep patterns of meditators were compared to non-meditators. Even sleep patterns of meditators show stronger gamma waves, the brain waves that are present in our minds when we experience compassion, happiness and optimal brain function.

How Does All of this Work Together?

Spiritual practices were developed many centuries ago to cultivate wisdom. This is the wisdom that we are not our mental activity, but something so much more. Buddha called it “enlightenment.” Jesus called it the “kingdom of heaven within.” Lao Tzu poetically described it this way, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

Before you can fully experience this kind of mindfulness, you must have the ability to manage your mental activity and that’s why inner work is the first step.

Through the process of inner work, you become aware of all of the activities of your mind. As you learn to meditate and use inner work processes, your brain reshapes itself from all of the destructive thought habits you’ve picked up in your life. You begin to see the world and your self with a completely new perspective.

The meaning of mindfulness is that you have the power to reshape your brain, your choices, your life and your identity. Mindfulness is the power to experience the most extraordinary happiness that comes with ordinary living.

Next month’s blog will cover the language and jargon of spirituality. Does the modern terminology of science provide a better context for these concepts that generations of spiritual leaders have described as ‘unexplainable.’

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