Pets Teach Us How to Be Present

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Floating south along the inside passage between Ketchikan, Alaska and Vancouver, B.C., my wife and I cast our blues over an ending odyssey into the wake of our cruise ship.

In less than two days, we both will return to the sobering reality of our patient’s needs and our respective, professional constructs of time: a day sliced up like pie into stingy segments within which live the potential for lasting transformation - for both patient and therapist.

Having been safely ensconced in the loving care of her Uncle Don and Aunt Livia, our Boston terrier, Lilly, will once again dive between the sheets with mommy and daddy and snuggle herself to sleep. Given her heightened sensitivity, Lilly may also sense our re-alignment of attitude that often accompanies a close encounter with nature.

“Orcas off starboard!,” a man from a lower balcony shouts, pointing to placid waters. I bounce up reflexively from writing this blog and lurch toward my camera until I remember, “Don’t have to do that anymore.”

That was not the case yesterday while we were aboard a nautical tour off the shores of Silverking Lodge. Our observant guide gestured wildly to a cluster of seagulls circling over a patch of bubbling water - a strong signal that whales are about to breach.

Earlier, I’d recorded a distant dorsal fin arcing across the water on my cell phone, but this spectacle could be the visual mother lode. Except . . . in the time it took me to fumble for my phone and receive that vexing message “You’ve exceeded your data limit,” a pod of five or six baleen whales had leapt in unison from the ocean’s depths and splashed back down like so many Apollo space capsules.

“Oh my God! Did you see that!?” my wife shrieked with joy. Crestfallen, I looked up from my frozen photo screen to the now flat surface of the bay. In my zeal to “capture” this moment, I’d lost it completely. It was as if I was never there. Even if I had successfully “taken” that video, I would never be able to fully possess the experience.

My wife and I have returned home to Lilly dozens of times after journeys long and short. Only once did I record Lilly’s exuberant response when we opened the door. Every other time I was so involved in the joyous reunion that it never occurred to me to record the event; there was no need to “possess" it because I knew that Lilly’s love was a part of our lives.

Over the years, Lilly taught me something I’d forgotten: for an experience to be truly transformative, it must be completely lived in the moment. When I start analyzing, recording and “capturing,” I become detached - my chance for change slips away.

Does this mean that I will never again “take” pictures? Of course not. But it does mean that my first priority is to have an experience before trying to record it for posterity. However spectacular, the best image cannot replace being there in person.

Whether it’s beholding a breaching pod of whales or bathing in an exuberant reunion with your animal beloved, each experience for which we dare to be present becomes a part of us that we carry around forever.

And it weighs nothing.