"Like meditation, walking Flo is just a job that needs to be done. In fact, walking Flo can be a meditation of its own."

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Episode 22 -- June 5, 2020

Meditating with Flo: Finding Avenues for Anxiety in Recovery

If you've ever asked for advice in calming your anxiety, someone has probably suggested that you meditate. This is great advice, but for many of us it's easier said than done. In her book The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober, author Jennifer Matesa introduces us to somebody who greatly improved her own meditation and mindfulness practice: a dog named Flo. We hope this story acts as a reminder that we all have sources of peace and joy during the pandemic, possibly right under our noses.

This excerpt is from The Recovering Body by Jennifer Matesa. It has been edited for brevity.

About a year after I detoxed, I met my friend Petra and her two-year-old yellow Labrador, Ginger. Yellow Labradors are the most popular dog in America. They are smart, obedient (if well-trained), and generally friendly and calm. As I got to know Petra better, I visited her house more often. Ginger was the first dog in my life who ever came to the door when she heard my voice. She has that yellow Lab face with the warm deep-brown eyes and the black-rimmed mouth that looks like she's smiling.

"She is smiling!" Petra would say, laughing. "Dogs smile."

Whatever. I waited for Ginger to be smelly and stupid, because when I was a child, my mother told me that all dogs were. But Ginger always smelled like Petra's perfume, so she reminded me of Petra, and of course, this made me kiss her head. Pretty soon I wasn't just kissing her head, I was rubbing my face through her hair and putting my arms around her big body, plus talking to her in that quasi baby voice that people use to talk to their dogs. And she wasn't even my dog.

Although Ginger's owners sometimes say she's "bred for beauty and not for brains," Ginger ain't dumb. Ginger eventually began to do things like plant her head on my knee and stare at me with those seal eyes until I petted her, or bring me her ball so I could throw it, or curl her body next to mine on the couch while we were watching a movie. And my body would respond: I'd feel that warm flood that I'd felt when Penny purred against my neck. No wonder that many studies (and perennial headlines) tell us that people with dogs live longer than those without. And it's not just because of the beneficial effects of the bonding hormone, the "good chemicals," which are significant.

It's also because, yes, dogs demand to be walked.

They need to be walked not because, as my mother seemed to believe, they're "stupid" and can't get their ya-yas out by climbing trees the way cats can. It's because dogs are pack animals. For their own peace of mind and mental health--just to feel normal--they need to perceive their bodies being led through their world by their Top Dog at least once each day. Or so I've been told.

Interesting, because humans are also pack animals--which is one reason why Canis lupus and Homo sapiens have evolved together so harmoniously throughout the millennia.

So I'd spend some time with Ginger, she'd love me up and make my body rain oxytocin, and I'd kiss her dog face--something I never, ever imagined doing, putting my Clean Human Lips on a dog's big furry face with its wet nose and slimy tongue--but Ginger was starting to look less to me like a "dog" and more like big nice blonde person who would recline on the couch and let me hug her for hours. And it would come time for me to go home, and I'd feel like I'd want to sneak Ginger in the car with me. I'd go about my days and find my mind engaging in ideas of Should my dog be light-colored or dark-colored, a boy or girl? and Where in the kitchen will the dog bowl go? and What will I do about the hair that the dog will shed all over the floor?

And of course: Where will I walk the dog? Because I work at home. Some days I never even leave the house. The dog, I imagined, would nudge me out into the world. Into the flow of life.

These ideas scared me so much that you'd have thought I was considering where to put my new baby T. rex. These are the kinds of ideas and intuitions normal people have all the time--to people without drug addictions, these thoughts just mean simple things like, I want a dog--but they rocked my world, they portended change, and if I had still been using, I would have drugged them away. I'm sure my meditative practice helped me recognize that these fantasies constituted a normal desire to have a dog and an ability to see that I could commit to taking care of one. At the very least, they convinced me to talk to Petra, who assured me I was indeed normal, and who was overjoyed to volunteer to help me train a puppy. "Get a puppy," she said, "and I can guarantee you a good result." So in April 2012, I finally surrendered to the increasing frequency of these fantasies and, Bang, I just happened to come across a litter of rescue puppies, from which I acquired my black Lab-mix girlie.

I named her Flo. She has grown to be forty-five pounds--all black, with a kind of whippet-like high waist and that extra skin that Labradors carry around their neck. Plus the seal-like waterproof jet-black Lab hair. As I write this, she's sleeping on the bed at my feet.

Flo. I figured if I were going to be saying a dog's name several dozen times a day, why not make it a statement that would remind me to do something productive? Flo. Flow. Go with the flow.

Or as my friend Janice told me so often, simply, "Accept, then move."

Almost nothing reminds me of the fact that awareness is the result of simple practice more than walking Flo. Like meditation, walking Flo is just a job that needs to be done. In fact, walking Flo can be a meditation of its own. I sometimes use my time moving my body with Flo's to open my eyes and notice my own neighborhood, a landscape that, because I've lived here for twenty years, I thought I knew inside out. Each time I put the leash on Flo, I put on my "beginner's mind," and I catch sights I'd ignored, dismissed, overlooked--street art, falling-down masonry, painted architecture, abandoned buildings, gardens, weeds, wildflowers, piles of trash, corners of beauty or destruction or both. I also train Flo, who is afraid of a few things as disparate as buses and umbrellas. I urge her to keep moving through the parts of life that scare her, and in training Flo, I train my mind in confidence and authority and my body in fitness. It's usually tedious, often tiring, sometimes (as when I'm anemic) a real drag for which I have to ask for help.

And then, because I ask, and because they care about me and Flo, people come and help.

And god, how Flo loves me. She just loooves me. Yeah, I let her lick my face, which I never thought I'd let any dog do. She slept on my feet for most of the past long, hard winter. When I scratch her ears, she moans these deep little moans I think of as her "eargasms."

And Petra's right: Flo smiles at me.

You can find more ideas for calming your anxiety in recovery by reading The Recovering Body by Jennifer Matesa.

About the Author:
Jennifer Matesa, a seasoned health writer, authors the award-winning blog Guinevere Gets Sober and contributes regularly to TheFix.com. In 2013 she became a fellow of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Jennifer is the author of two books from Hazelden Publishing, The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober and Sex In Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers.

The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober
By Jennifer Matesa

© 2014 by Jennifer Matesa
All rights reserved