Tools to Heal - Part Three: Lessons from Animals
I’ve been an animal rescuer all my life. Whether it was an abandoned dog, a bird who couldn’t fly, a drowning bee or a snail in a precarious position, my hands rushed to their aid, following a strong impulse. It is in my nature. But what many don’t understand is that this is mutually beneficial, for animals can also help us heal.
Those of you who share your life with an animal companion know the feeling: We come home after a hard day and there they are, ready to greet us. They lie down next to us (sometimes on us) when we’re sick or depressed. Or they simply stare at us with that expression that screams unconditional love.
But loving moments aren’t the only thing our companions offer us. They are also excellent teachers. Humans tend to pride themselves on being the most intelligent species (easy to say when you’re basing intelligence on a human scale without bothering to understand other species), but there is so much we can learn from both our companions and other animals.
Here are five lessons I’ve learned from animals:
Lesson number one: Be present in the moment.
We all try to avoid going down the rabbit hole of our mind, chasing ghosts and memories. We try to stop the anxious thoughts about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. We jump out of our bodies and distract our minds binge-watching show after show. It’s easy to dissociate from the present when we’re on our own or with other humans who are just like us. But other species offer a different experience.
Time and time again, a bird has pulled me out of my mind. The simplicity of their presence reminds me there’s a reality here and now and I’m missing out on it because I’m too busy rummaging in my head. And as I come back to the present I observe the random visitor: their small size, their plumage, the way they hop, sing or find food. I think to myself, “This little creature takes one day at a time, and so can I”. Because today is all we have.
My animal companions also teach me this lesson every day. They enjoy life immensely and celebrate each moment they can share with us. Sometimes they come asking for cuddles, interrupting my thoughts, and as I caress them I concentrate on the sensation of their fur under my hand, the warmth of their body, the look of relaxation in their eyes. It’s a form of mindfulness that benefits everybody.
Lesson number two: You matter.
There is something incredibly rewarding about helping an animal in distress. I’ve had birds spread their wings and fly off my hand. I’ve witnessed how my dogs went from shaking from fear to falling asleep just by gently stroking them and singing to them. I have seen gratitude in the eyes of dogs who live in a shelter after taking them for a walk.
Animals teach us we can make a difference, even with a small gesture. Because small gestures matter greatly. Something really interesting happens when we do something for them: We feel that we matter because we are contributing to them, but also, we learn everyone matters, including a tiny baby bird, an insect or an abandoned dog.
This is a lesson in compassion: compassion for others and ourselves. Because if we are compassionate enough to help others in distress, we remember we deserve compassion as well, even when we’re struggling, even when we think the worst of ourselves. And as we care for others, we learn to care for ourselves too.
Lesson number three: Accept yourself the way you are.
Humans are constantly making up rules about how we’re supposed to be and act. Those of us who are a bit unconventional tend to get singled out for that, or at least we feel at odds when we’re around people. But other species teach us it’s okay to be who we are and express ourselves the way we feel inclined. With them, we feel accepted. We are free to be ourselves because they don’t judge us. We are at peace.
Sometimes an animal will stare at us curiously. I often think of how strange we might seem to them, but they are far more accepting than us. They can be playful and goofy and not feel embarrassed by it unless we humans shame them for it (believe me, they can get upset when we do that). They fall and make mistakes and we still love them but as soon as we make one mistake we want to vanish from the Earth.
Give yourself the right to fall. Give yourself the right to not be perfect. Realise your uniqueness is endearing and something to celebrate. Realise everyone’s uniqueness is endearing and something to celebrate.
Lesson number four: See the world through others’ perspective.
How different the world would be if we all stopped to put ourselves in someone else’s place and see things through their eyes. The level of collective healing would be astounding. We live the biggest lie of all: the lie of separateness. We all fall prey to it. We think we are right and others are wrong. We value some lives more than others. The cure to this lie? Empathy.
(Click here to read my piece on Elephant Journal about empathy and the importance of listening).
Animals are the best empathy teachers in the world. They share the same core emotions as us but have a different way of expressing them that varies from species to species, from individual to individual. Their communication is more physical than verbal, so it is up to us to learn to interpret their behaviour. This can be dangerous, as we might assume the wrong things. But that’s what makes them excellent teachers: They’re different from us and that requires a true effort on our part in learning to see the world through their eyes.
Nothing makes us grow and heal faster than seeing the world through others’ perspective. How about we practice that every time we encounter a member of another species?
Lesson number five: Be resilient.
Animals teach us resilience: They don’t fight their circumstances, they adapt. I have met three-legged dogs, cats who had lost their tail, blind roosters, goats with prosthetic legs… I have seen my companions grow old and sick —one of them was born with a murmur in his heart but that never stopped him. And that is the key: none of their circumstances ever stopped them.
Birds don’t fly against the wind: they fly with it. They work with the air currents, navigating them rather than charging ahead. When Bruce Lee said, “be water” he was speaking the language of animals and nature. Flow. Adapt. Work with what’s available to you. We are in the middle of a very challenging period in history but animals are facing an even darker reality. And yet they flow. They adapt. They work with what’s available to them. They are water.
And so are you, and so are we all.
How do animals help you heal in your life? What particular lessons have you learned from them? I’d love to hear your experience so leave me a comment or send me a message telling me your story!