The nature of relationships: animals

By Marc Felix and Kathrin Seitz | Jun 23, 2010

Several readers have asked us, "What do you think about our relationship to animals?"

Marc's answer

I've been considering this question and here are some of my reflections on animals.

Animals are clearly significant in our lives. The significance of animals is perhaps best suggested in Genesis when Noah is asked to build an ark and the entire second story of the boat is reserved just for animals.

Symbolically animals represent our instinctive nature. Think of all the stories where the rider is lost, but the horse instinctively knows the way home. In this vein is Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology, who guards the gates of Hades. Psychologically, Cerberus is symbolic of how when we repress our instincts they become like an angry watchdog that won't let us enter the unconscious mind.

I especially appreciate how animals are not self-conscious. They seem so grounded in their true nature, so utterly natural. They know how to look you in the eye.

I wonder if animals are closer to divinity. I've seen cats and dogs, still as statues, staring off into space and I think they must somehow be communing with God.

Someone famous [I don't remember who] said he had known five zen masters in his life and all of them were dogs.

Dogs are famous for their loyalty. I remember reading a story about a dog in Tokyo that met its master at the train station every day at noon. At some point the master died and the dog continued to meet the train for the next 11 years. I don't think a cat would be in such a story. Cats are far too independent. As someone pointed out, "cats don't have owners, they have staff."

Shamanic cultures believe that long ago people and animals talked with each other.

One of the pillars of shamanic culture is the relationship to power animals. A power animal is not a physical animal, but an animal that exists in the spiritual realm of the dream time. Of course most power animals have their counterpart in the physical. The power animal is the tribal equivalent of the western guardian angel. These animals protect us, guide us and teach us their wisdom.

Every animal has its own unique qualities, or as the shaman would say, its own medicine. Medicine, in the shamanic sense, is anything that brings us closer to the great spirit. Only wild animals are considered appropriate for power animals. It's not that domestic animals aren't as smart as wild animals; it's just that their senses and their instincts are duller -- much like us overly civilized people.

Some people are born with a power animal. But for most people, power animals have to be retrieved by a shamanic practitioner who is experienced in going back and forth between the spiritual realms and the physical realm. We don't choose the animal. The animal chooses us. The shamanic practitioner simply transports the spirit animal.

Perhaps one of the most valuable things we can learn from shamanic cultures is that animals are a source of great wisdom and power.

I believe people need to let go of any sense of superiority over the animal kingdom and treat animals as equals, with respect, dignity and honor.

Kathrin's answer

"People and animals are supposed to be together. We spent quite a long time evolving together and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a cat or a dog." - Temple Grandin

I love the idea of looking at animals as our partners. No wonder Noah gave them an entire floor on the ark. And don't we feel that way, those of us who have dogs or cats or for that matter cows or sheep? We here in Maine are lucky to have such immediate connection to lots of animals. We stop on the road to let wild turkeys cross our path; we admire deer and hunt them to feed our families in the winter. The farmers among us raise cows and sheep and, sometimes, horses. Having chickens at one's home has become an accepted and pretty cool thing to do here in Camden. We have fresh eggs at our doorstep.

I think it's a privilege to live with and near animals. As John Muir said, "Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much larger and better in every way."

When I lived in Morrill, I loved to observe my cat Melanie, bellying her way through the high grass, eyes focused on a blue bird. I held my breath, wondering what would happen next. And then, I would break out laughing when the bird got away. Mice did not get away. Mellie and I would have a solemn moment when she brought me a mouse and dropped it, with great ceremony, in front of me. What could I do but compliment her on her good hunting? My life was expanded and made more grand from my connection to Melanie, my partner on this earthly plain.

Animals teach us. My dog Cody taught me focus. Whenever I had a choice morsel of food in my hand (everything was choice to Cody), his eyes would follow the morsel wherever it went, from hand to plate to mouth. He was making sure that if I dropped it or gave into his ministrations, he would be prepared to receive it. If I could focus like that, I would be richer and wiser I am sure.

Many of us who have lived with animals have experienced what Marc would call their connection to the divine. When my father was dying, and I was grieving, Melanie and Cody would hear me crying and come running to me. I lived in a big house at the time, but it was as if they sensed my distress and quickly came to comfort me, sitting with me, or jumping on the bed to be next to me. I could not have gotten through that very difficult time without their support and guidance.

I have studied animal medicine as practiced by the Native Americans, the shamanic culture, as Marc said, and have been given a power animal. Melanie and Cody have gone to the great beyond, but my power animal remains with me to guide and protect me and teach me wisdom. Animals are truly extraordinary. As Henry Beston said:

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals ... In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."



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