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This article is taken from Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals, recently published by North Atlantic Books. It presents the first seven of 18 practices.
When we love and spend a lot of time with any being—whether an animal or another person—we usually have a pretty good idea of what that person is feeling, and why. I do not believe that people who call themselves “animal communicators” are significantly more gifted in this regard than regular people. I personally do not like the term animal communicator, because it infers that someone who is labeled “animal communicator” has a special talent or gift that you do not have. We all come into this world wired to connect with all life.
When I need to know what ’s going on with an animal who seems troubled, I first rely on my veterinary training, what the animal’s human guardian reports, and what my physical senses tell me, as well as my “sixth sense” that all living beings are born with. An intuitive ex- change with an animal starts like any other—with physical cues—body language and gestures. From there we reach out from the silent language of our hearts; love creates alignment with human and nonhuman beings.
All life responds to offerings of respect, gentleness, admiration, and reverence. To do psychic or telepathic readings of individual animals is not my intention here and is something I’ve never seen as necessary or desirable. It is not what I will be teaching you to do in this chapter.
Whereas a psychic reading is an attempt to discover otherwise undisclosed information about its subject, my intuitive exchanges with animals are exchanges between equals, companions, about matters of mutual spiritual concern. Say, for example, I have an inner encounter with a dog in a rescue shelter. I probably won’t find out how the dog came to be a stray or who his previous people were. Instead I may learn the sort of thing a human survivor of a traumatic experience would share during a deep and searching conversation about the meaning of adversity. Or say that I myself am going through a difficult time. The spirit of an animal may come to comfort me and offer me some wisdom. The inner encounters I have with animals—and will be teaching you to have—are exchanges of meaning.
I’ve been able to connect with animals in this way ever since I was a small child. Nobody taught me how, and there was no particular technique to it. I was just doing what came naturally to me, exercising what I believe to be an ability all of us are born with. Because the ability is seldom recognized or affirmed in our society, most children lose touch with it at a very young age, and forget that they ever possessed it. So why didn’t that happen to me? As I mentioned earlier in the book, I felt somehow imprinted in my early years by the animals. My experiences with them in nature are deeply embedded in my core. Animals offered me the validation and interpretive help that children more usually receive from human adults. When they noticed I was open to connect with them, they taught me how to connect more. Also mentioned earlier in the book, scientific research shows that emotional need acts like a magnet in the intuitive process. Emotional needs are expressions of the heart.
Even if you can’t remember any instances of it in your own child- hood, I encourage you to think of intuitive, telepathic communication with animals as a natural ability that you once had and have temporarily misplaced, rather than as a supernatural power that you are trying to acquire. There is nothing supernatural or paranormal about it. An animal communicator does not possess a gift that you lack.
Now that I am trying to help others to reawaken this capacity, I’ve had to reflect more about how it works. So let me begin with my thoughts about that. It seems to me that the way in to the mind of any other being is through the mind of the Source. We all exist in the one mind of the Source. Everything in the created world carries a spark of the Source, divine consciousness. It is what all creatures have in common. Though I appear drastically different from an elephant in out- ward form, insofar as we are both manifestations of the divine mind, we are made of exactly the same stuff. What makes an elephant alive is the very same thing that makes me alive. So when I want to experience a spiritual connection with an elephant, I start by connecting to the Source within me. It is the voice of the heart that takes over. As I said earlier, love creates alignment with all creation. Once I connect with that, the corresponding part of another being lies open to me. I don’t have to go looking for it. I simply recognize it, as one recognizes that which is perfectly self-evident. To be truly recognized is what the Source in every living creature most longs for. Every living creature just eats that up. When you are able to recognize the divine nature of other beings, you become transcendentally charming. Many beings are eager to confide in you.
So the first step in learning to connect with the spirits of animals is to connect to the divine within yourself. To do so, you need to quiet the mundane chatter of your mind and bring your attention into the present moment. I’m going to offer you a variety of practices that might help you to achieve that. You might already do some meditation or other practice that reliably gets you to an inwardly quiet and receptive place. If so, feel free to substitute that for my suggestions.
Practice #1: The Wildlife Photographer
Imagine that you are a wildlife photographer in quest of a close-up. You need to be very quiet and still so as not to frighten away the creature you wish to photograph. At the same time, you need to remain alert so that you will be ready to act as soon as that creature comes near. In a quiet place where you will be protected from interruption, settle yourself in a position that feels both relaxed and alert. Imagine that your thoughts are audible. The more long-winded and complicated a thought, the louder it is. If you become totally carried away with your thoughts, you will scare away the animals for sure. At the same time, imagine that when you exhale, you are creating a blanket of silence. Whenever you notice that your thoughts are becoming noisy, bring your attention to your out-breath to cancel the sound of them. The object here is to quiet the mind rather than to empty it entirely. Thoughts will continue to arise, but you can reduce the noise level by letting go of each thought and bringing your attention back to the out-breath.
Variation: Try this practice in an outdoor setting: your backyard, a park, or a nature preserve. See if you can become so inwardly quiet and outwardly still that the creatures around you are undisturbed by your presence and emboldened to come closer to you than they normally would come to a human being.
Practice #2: Bringing Your Attention into the Present
A quality all animals have in common is that their attention is completely focused on whatever they are doing in the present. Animals don’t multitask. They don’t make plans for the future or dwell on what happened in the past. In order to connect with an animal mind, your mind needs to be focused on the present moment as well. Here are some simple exercises for focusing your attention:
- Eat a meal the way an animal does, concentrating on the act of eating without doing anything else. Don’t read, watch TV, listen to music, or converse. Experience the meal with all of your senses. Whenever you notice your mind starting to wander, gently bring it back to your food and to the activity of eating.
- Often when we are driving, we experience the roads as an entirely manmade environment, constructed for our own convenience. But even in big cities, our roads cut through the habitats of other creatures—often to their peril. (Over a million squirrels are killed each year by vehicles.) Try driving as slowly as the law allows, remaining conscious that there are other creatures all around you, whether you are able to see them or not, and that you are passing through their territories. Be alert to the possibility that an animal may suddenly dart across the road, unaware of the potential danger because animals don’t interpret the road the way you do. Considering the road from an animal standpoint will make you a safer driver.
- Animals experience the world directly through their physical senses, and many of them are gifted with senses that are more acute than ours. Choose one of your physical senses and spend five minutes experiencing your environment with that sense alone. For example, if you choose the sense of smell, focus entirely on the odors and scents around you, noticing those that seldom come to your full awareness. Next time you do the exercise, choose a different sense. Try this practice both indoors and outdoors.
- If you have a dog, go for a walk together, letting the dog set the pace and choose the direction. Focus your attention entirely on whatever interests your dog from moment to moment. Try to keep the leash loose, so that neither you nor your dog experience any tugging or jerking. In order to do this, you will need to fall into a rapport, anticipating each other’s movements. Think of the leash as a symbol of your connection with your dog rather than as the physical means of staying connected. This is a terrific way of learning to concentrate your attention, and of discovering what the world is like from your dog’s point of view.
Practice #3: A Day of Silence
Silence is often practiced in the context of a spiritual retreat, but I find the practice even more powerful when it is incorporated into my ordinary life at home. What keeping silent means is to refrain entirely from the use of words—neither speaking, hearing, reading, nor writing them. (By this definition, animals live their whole lives in silence, even though they make sounds.) As you settle into silence, you will probably find that your attention gradually shifts away from verbal thoughts and toward sense impressions, emotions, and mental images. In this way, your consciousness becomes more like that of an animal. This is a wonderful practice to share with an animal companion, if you have one. If you normally use words to communicate with your animal, refrain from doing so on this day.
Opening the Heart
Once your mind is quiet and attentive, the next step in connecting to the divine within you is to open your heart. We are most likely to feel that our hearts are open when we feel warm, expansive, and loving. But if you are not already in that place, trying to get there on purpose doesn’t always work, and your effort can backfire into a sense of personal inadequacy. So when you work with the heart-opening practices, start from the premise that your heart can do no wrong. Whatever it is feeling—or not feeling—is true, sincere, and of value. Let your heart decide which of the practices it feels like doing at any given moment, and let it decide when to quit. Don’t try to force a result, and don’t evaluate. Whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) is fine.
Practice #4: The Keepsake Box
Picture a beautiful box in which you store mementos of love, compassion, and kindness that you have received over the years. Search your memory for items to place in this box. For example, recall a time when:
- someone made you feel completely understood and accepted
- someone really knocked him- or herself out to help you
- you received a gift that was far more generous than you expected, and exactly what you had been wanting
- you did something hurtful and the other person fully forgave you
- you were feeling worthless and received a sincere and glowing compliment
- you couldn’t meet some obligation and another person let you off easy
As each memory comes to mind, picture holding it at heart level and notice what happens. If you feel a stirring of warmth or joy or genuine gratitude, place the memory reverently in your imaginary keepsake box. If you’re not feeling it, set that memory aside. (Don’t tell yourself that you should be feeling something that you don’t truly feel.) Each time you return to this practice, begin by taking out and appreciating the items that you have previously placed in the box. Then add any new mementos that might come to mind.
We are most easily moved to gratitude when we have received a gift or a favor that we have done nothing to earn or deserve. Having awakened gratitude by recalling specific incidents like those listed above, see if you can extend the feeling to the blessings all of us receive every day—blessings that no one has to earn or deserve. We are blessed by the sun and the rain, the moon and the stars, the trees, and the flowers. We are blessed by the firm earth under our feet, the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, and the warmth of our own blood. Even when nothing in your life is going the way you want it to go, you wake up every day to find yourself in this miraculously beautiful and supportive environment, and you get to live in it for free! Bring all of this to mind, and bask in the awareness of your good fortune.
Practice #5: Receiving an Animal’s Appreciation
If you have a companion animal, do something that makes that animal demonstrably happy. Get your cat to purr or your dog to jump up and down with joy. Bring the whole of your attention to the gratitude your animal is expressing. Think: “This is the God within me being praised.” Learning to fully take in the appreciation your animal bestows is particularly helpful if you’re the sort of person who has trouble accepting compliments or thanks that come from other people.
Practice #6: The Noah’s Ark of Emotions
Animals have a unique ability to touch the human heart. In fact, sometimes animals move us when nothing else will.
Imagine you have built an ark and need to populate it with all the different ways of feeling moved by an animal. Think of a story, a picture, a film clip, or a memory of an animal that moves you in a particular way: an animal who makes you laugh; one for whom you feel compassion; one who inspires awe and admiration; one who makes you go all mushy with affection. For the purpose of this practice you might want to create a physical collection: a file of pictures, anecdotes, and/or video clips. Return to your ark periodically, either singling out a particular item that evokes an emotion you want to feel at that moment, or just browsing to reexperience the various feelings you’ve had in the past. This practice can be especially helpful at times when you’re caught up in thoughts and out of touch with your heart.
Practice #7: The Heart on a Bad-Hair Day
Mystics and seers who are able to connect with spiritual beings usually advise detaching somewhat from the physical senses and the emotions. Since the spiritual beings don’t have bodies and aren’t very emotional, putting oneself in a neutral and somewhat disembodied state helps one to establish a rapport with them. Some people find that they can’t do this at all, and a great many people find that they are unable to do it at the very times when hearing from them, or perhaps a guide or an angel (or from God), would be most welcome. When we ’re sick or exhausted or in the grip of some powerful and painful emotion, input from above might really help, yet we feel we are in no fit state to present ourselves at the gates of heaven.
This is what ’s so great about animals as spiritual helpers. They’re incarnate just like us. They know what it ’s like to feel needy or threatened or sad. When you’re having a bad-hair day, spiritually speaking, you don’t need to tidy yourself up to connect with an animal. On the contrary, the strong emotion that makes it impossible for you to quiet your mind or fill your heart with love and light can become the very means of connection.
The next time you are in the grip of some strong emotion that makes it impossible for you to do any of the previous exercises, don’t fight it. Instead, bring the whole of your attention to what you are feeling. What you want to experience is the texture and sensation of the emotion itself, as opposed to the many thoughts you are probably having about the emotion. You want to experience the emotion through the body more than the head. For example, if you are anxious, your mind is probably full of worries and problem-solving schemes. If you are angry, your mind is probably busy replaying the incident that set you off or engaged in self- righteous diatribes. Instead, you want to focus on what anger or anxiety feels like on a physical level. Notice what part of your body feels it the most, and what the sensation is like. Instead of trying to get rid of that sensation, say “hello” to it and keep it company for a few minutes. Whenever your mind starts to veer off into anxious or angry thoughts, gently bring it back to what is happening in your body.
As you are simply sitting with the difficult feeling, invite an image of an animal to come. This may or may not happen. Don’t try to force it. Simply invite it and see what happens. Should an animal image appear, recognize the emotion you are feeling as your connection to it. This animal knows how you feel, and you know how she feels, because all living creatures experience emotion. You are not isolated in your distress. On the contrary: it connects you to something universal. All feelings are an expression of our aliveness, and a manifestation of the God within.