What We Can Learn from Our Pets
Categories: Excerpt Health & Healing
Excerpt from Animal Wisdom by Linda Bender; pet photos from NAB staff
Since June is National Adopt a Cat Month, we’re posting an excerpt from Linda Bender’s Animal Wisdom about the joys of living with animal companions, as well as some photos of staff pets. We hope you feel inspired to spend some extra time with your four-legged friends, or even consider bringing a new one into your life!
The Reciprocity of Paradise
The grim truth that what we do to animals we do to ourselves has a joyful corollary: what we do for animals, we do for ourselves. If you have a dog, you’ve already experienced this principle at work. When you walk your dog to give him exercise, you get exercise too. When you pet or play with a dog, he enjoys a release of a feel-good hormone called oxytocin, and the level of stress hormones in his bloodstream declines. While you are petting a dog, the exact same thing happens in your own body. Medical researchers have discovered that people who live with companion animals recover faster and more fully from serious illnesses. For the elderly, having an animal friend improves mental alertness and diminishes feelings of social isolation. Animals have also been shown to be of enormous benefit to people suffering from psychological conditions or emotional traumas that make it difficult for them to connect with their fellow humans. When given an animal to care for, soldiers afflicted with PTSD experience fewer anxiety attacks. Incarcerated felons begin to feel like they’re worth something, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
This reciprocity between human and animal well-being is equally present on a spiritual level. What all creation myths have in common is the idea that whatever catastrophic event put an end to Paradise applied only to humans. Wild animals continued to experience the Earth as the best of all possible worlds. They were fundamentally happy and continue to be fundamentally happy to this day. They can be—and deeply wish to be—a source of happiness for human beings. We cannot find our way back to Paradise without them.
The very quality that makes us helpful to other creatures—our ability to see room for improvement in the world—makes us less happy than they are. Sometimes it makes us downright miserable. Because we’re better than animals at foreseeing problems, we’re also prone to worrying. We imagine problems that don’t exist, and then create new problems in our efforts to solve the nonexistent ones. We ’re so busy worrying and trying to improve the world that we find it almost impossible to just relax and enjoy the present moment. Unlike all other living beings, we have a lot of trouble accepting death. Though we see that it is inevitable, we can’t help regarding it as a mistake. We alternate between brooding about it, trying to prevent it, and trying to ignore it. We also have trouble accepting ourselves. We see so much room for improvement in ourselves that we have a hard time believing that we are lovable.
This is why the need between animals and humans is mutual. They need us to protect them and we need them to help us to feel happier.
We can’t make ourselves happier by directly emulating animals, because our nature is different from theirs in some fundamental ways. But when we love animals and form close bonds with them, some of their happiness rubs off on us. To watch them enjoying their lives makes us smile. Their good moods are infectious. Their affection for us has the power to reach the place in us that feels unworthy of being loved…
If we are open to it, an even deeper rapport becomes possible. We can come to share their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, to look at the world through their eyes and see what they find so good about it. In this way, animals can become our spiritual teachers. Animals have taught me to perceive the connectedness of all living things and to experience for myself the joy they experience in this connectedness. They have taught me to accept the limits of my own understanding and to relax into the mystery of existence. They have taught me how to be less afraid of death, and less afraid of all the other things that are not under my control. They have taught me how to lighten up and enjoy the present moment. Most of all, they have taught me how to find repose in the certainty that I am loved.
Excerpted from Animal Wisdom by Linda Bender. © 2014, North Atlantic Books.
Tags: Natural Pet Care Sacred Activism Linda Bender