I’ve been dogless ever since my dachshund Joe passed away a couple of years ago. I spend a lot of time mooning around dog runs. I’ve also been watching a lot of dog training shows on TV, living vicariously through César Milan.
So what’s up with all these misbehaving dogs?
So often, the solution Cesar prescribes is to produce and reinforce a calm and balanced state. Only when the dogs are relaxed and feeling secure, do the owner or the trainer give them praise. That way they can learn how to recognize when they are out of balance, getting too wild, and bring themselves to that calm state on their own without needing a muzzle or a choke collar.
It occurs to me as I watch these shows that I might need the same sort of training.
I’m a highly-strung animal too by nature, maybe even by breeding. And I need to learn to bring myself to a calm state. I need to learn to make that a habit. To build those muscles that will help me to become peaceful and relaxed.
I discovered drawing when I was desperate for some way of quieting my mind and getting focused on the Now. Drawing in a sketchbook focused me, got me into a flow state, broke my patterns, brought me peace and joy. That discovery, changed my life. It was an amazing, powerful lesson. I learned it well, years ago.
Or so I thought.
Often these tv shows feature a dog that has been trained to get to this point of calm confidence but over time it drifts away from that understanding. It backslides and starts destroying the house, attacking other dogs and mailmen, a repeat offender. The owners despair that the dog is off the rails again, that it’s hopeless, incorrigible, unfixable.
A Bad Dog.
I forget the importance the regular discipline of drawing has been to my mental health. I get overwhelmed by the demands of my job, of my family, and I put myself last.
The dogs need to be brought back for a fresh session of training. But really the training is for the owners, to remind them that they need to maintain a healthy supportive relationship with their dog. Not to be random or overindulgent or enabling. Our own weakness, our own vulnerabilities come out when we own a dog. Because a dog is someone who has no choice but to indulge our neediness and reflect our weaknesses.
It’s the same with being creative or exercising or eating right. Even though we know what we need to do, we know the answer to our needs, the key, the medicine that can bring our life into balance — but still we can forget and backslide.
I see that in myself, more often than I’d like to admit. I forget the importance of the regular discipline of drawing has been to my mental health. I get overwhelmed by the demands of my job, of my family, and I put myself last.
I see in these recidivist dogs that same problem. Their owners forget the contract that they promise to keep. They invite the dog to sleep in their bed and to eat scraps off the table or jump up and paw at visitors and let them bark uncontrollably at strangers and they turn back the clock.
Just as I forget to draw a little today and then tomorrow, or forget to be gentle when I judge the drawings I make, or forget to pick up my sketchbook instead of Facebook or the TV remote. I’ll have a couple of beers instead of a meditative sketching session. I’ll crave praise and decide the sketch I posted didn’t get enough likes, so what’s the point? Or I’ll just be too tired to be disciplined, too distracted to slow down, too overwhelmed at work to keep my habit.
So I’ll break the contract I made with myself and regress just like that Boston terrier with the underbite and the addiction to ripping up sofa cushions.
You’re not starting from scratch. The neural pathways, the memories are still intact, even if they’re a bit rusty and overgrown. And it won’t take the same years of effort to open them up again.
The good news is that once a dog or a creative habit strays from the path, it can be brought back — and it’s actually easier to get it right again than it was in the first place.
We remember what it feels like to get in the zone. Our minds and bodies remember and know how to feel that calm peace that comes from drawing. We know when we’re back in the right place. It’s like riding a bike. Or peeing outside.
So if you’re like me, and you sometimes find you’ve eroded your drawing habit, that you no longer feel that sense of tranquility and balance, you can get it back, I promise. Even if it’s been years and years since you tried.
Take it slow. Start with the basics. Just sit down and draw something simple. Draw it without judgment. Be supportive and encouraging to yourself. Be genuine and real. And take that first step knowing that you may need to take a few more. But you can do it. You know how. you’ve done it before and you can do it again..
I find time again that I come back to this metaphor of a dog as somehow my better self, the calmest, truest, most authentic version of myself, and that what works for my four-legged friends can work just as well for me.
Now, I just need to adopt another dog of my own to remind me every day what matters most.
Sit. Stay. Draw.