“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Although I like to stay informed about my world, sometimes I hate to watch the news because it is so pessimistic. I often call it “the bad news.” To help stay balanced, I like to meditate on the Reiki precept “be grateful.” In contemplating this precept, I remember all the blessings and good things in my life and in the world. Eventually, my mind comes to rest in the spiritual quality of positivity. When we live each moment in gratitude, it is a way of practicing a positive way of seeing the world. Practicing gratitude is also a way of focusing on our heart. Within our hearts lies our most profound healing power, and positivity helps us to harness it.
Sometimes animals are the best models of positivity. A great example of this can be seen in this video of mine on YouTube:
For me, I often remember this particular dog when I think of gratitude and positivity. This dog was so happy and so grateful for the Reiki session. He was so full of joy afterward. Clearly, he lived his life always expecting the best: as if something wonderful was happening now, and something awesome was about to occur at any moment! I was so surprised, after offering him that treatment, when I found out about his past.
He was found in the street with another dog, emaciated and left for dead. The other dog had died; this pit bull, when found, was barely alive. The vet didn’t think he’d survive, but he did. By the time I met him to share Reiki, he had been at the shelter for several months, gaining weight and strength but still waiting for his new family. I had no idea so much had happened to him in his past! All I saw was a dog full of joy, of gratitude, of positivity. What valuable life lessons this dog had taught me!
In this experience, there is also a great lesson in learning to let go of the “stories” of the animals—their sad pasts, the bad things that have happened to them and so on. When we focus on all the bad experiences from the past, this often creates a negative energy in our minds and hearts that stifles our ability to connect in the present moment. We can also become overwhelmed with sadness, at which point we are not much help to anyone, especially the animals we want to help. The more we practice gratitude and positivity, the easier it is to let go of these kinds of negative stories about the past. We can go deeper and see animals with our hearts. We can see them for who they really are: beautiful bright lights that can never be dimmed, no matter what challenges may come their way! All healing potential exists in this beautiful heart-to-heart connection.
Walking your dog is so great in so many ways: It’s excellent exercise, you spend quality time with your pooch doing what they love best, you get to breathe in fresh air, and dog-walking has even been shown to reduce stress and build your sense of community. But here’s an easy way to amp up your daily ritual and make it even more powerful: walk your dog mindfully.
When we think of mindfulness, we think of stillness, meditation, awareness and savoring this very moment with a full heart. Now incorporate these mindful intentions next time you walk your dog—and get ready to watch the many benefits unfold!
1. Slow down. If you walk the same loop around your neighborhood every day and you’re on autopilot, take a different path and consciously slow down. Instead of seeing the walk as a doggie bathroom break, awaken your senses and reconnect with nature around you. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Notice the new things around you. Breathe. Pay attention to how the flowers and trees smell, or maybe the crisp autumn air from a distant log burning in a fireplace somewhere. Listen to bird calls or the sound of the wind. Feel the sun on your skin. Follow your dog’s lead as he walks with balance and harmony on the earth. Getting out of your head and into the natural world in this way is very healing for both mind and body. (For more on the powerful healing properties of spending time in nature, check out my article on the Japanese art of “forest bathing.”)
2. Connect with the now. On this mindful walk with your dog, do not worry about what happened yesterday or in the past, or stress over what’s to come. Yes, this is difficult to do—but focus on setting your intention to focus only on this moment before you. This exercise in mindfulness allows you to free your mind and find a quiet place where true healing, inspiration and problem-solving can begin to grow.
It may help you to remember the five Reiki precepts.
For today only …
Do not anger.
Do not worry.
Practice diligently in your work.
Be compassionate to yourself and others.
3. Make mindful dog-walking your new habit. In our chaotic, busy lives, the reality is that, for most of us, mindful dog-walking will be difficult to do each and every time. But if you aim for 30 minutes three times a week, you’ll be incorporating more mindfulness into your life than ever before. And pretty soon something amazing will begin to happen: You’ll find it easier than ever to access that space of inner peace that our animals just naturally reside in—especially when times get tough.
Did you know that those who work with shelter and sanctuary animals are highly vulnerable to compassion fatigue? Not surprisingly, helping (and opening your heart to) abused, unloved and neglected animals on a regular basis is extremely stressful and traumatic. Those involved in euthanasia of such animals also experience grief. Compassion fatigue, therefore, is unfortunately an occupational hazard for those working with traumatized animals.
According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP) and the American Institute of Stress, the symptoms of compassion fatigue vary but can include any of the following:
Excessive sadness or bottling up of emotions
Losing your sense of humor
Neglecting your appearance
Abusing substances to cope
Feeling mentally and physically tired
Having difficulty concentrating
Reduced sense of meaning or purpose in one’s work
If you think you may be suffering from compassion fatigue (but aren’t sure), you can start by taking this self-test.
Healing from compassion fatigue doesn’t happen overnight, but there are pro-active steps you can take. CFAP stresses the importance of Self Care during this difficult time and offers the following tips: being kind to yourself, clarifying your personal boundaries, vocalizing your needs and more. The entire list can be found here.
Another option is meditation. In my work with animals, I’ve found that meditating and practicing Reiki can help us to stay centered, strong and balanced amidst all the chaos we observe, sense and feel. If you lack the energy to sustain a long, drawn-out meditation, these mini meditations are a good starting point.
Connecting with the following two Reiki precepts in particular is another way to help guide you down the path to wellness:
1. Be grateful. This precept is really about remembering the positive. Sometimes in difficult situations, we forget that every cloud has a silver lining. Figure out what your silver linings are for the animals that you work with. Perhaps a fearful animal you have worked with is showing progress. Maybe an animal who was abandoned finally found a forever family. Even in the case of an animal who died: Were they given kindness in the last moments of their life? Or perhaps their life has illuminated cruelty in a way that will teach and inspire people to help? If we take some time and look deeper into situations, we can always find things to be grateful for. In fact, some of life’s most difficult teachers are also the most profound.
2. Be honest. Reach out to fellow rescuers who know what you are going through or to your Reiki friends who share an empathic view of the world. My nonprofit, the Shelter Animal Reiki Association, is a group of more than 400 people around the world who spend time with rescued animals and use the practices of Reiki for support. If you can find people who not only understand, but also offer you a positive and encouraging word, all the better!
The Reiki precept “be honest” also means understanding your boundaries. What part of your rescue work is the most gratifying? Which parts are the most overwhelming? Spending time becoming more aware of how your time with rescued animals affects your inner state will help you to move toward balance.
CFAP offers a host of resources to help animal caregivers suffering from compassion fatigue. The Wrong Side of the Rainbow also offers information on Self Care as well as links to pet loss forums and a counseling service in Canada. Talking to a therapist can help, too; a simple Google search will lead you to a variety of animal care compassion fatigue specialists, such as Anne Lindsay of TACTdogs.com.
Remember, there is always hope. You are not alone. You are as strong as the earth and as expansive as the sky. All will be well. Take some time to meditate and practice Reiki, and watch both you and the animals you care for shift back into wellness.
Have you or someone you love experienced compassion fatigue? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this important issue.