Teaching What We Most Want to Know
"In all things, even in the most recondite mysteries of the soul, nature is the first and finest of teachers."
After the publication of my first book, Animals as Teachers and Healers
, my publisher, Maureen Michelson, had an alarming dream about me. She told me that in her dream, I told her I would be dying soon. "What do you mean?" Maureen had replied to the dream me. "There is too much work you need to do! You can't be leaving now!"
Her dream came as no surprise to me. When I completed my first book, I felt as though my life's work was finished. In fact, I was so certain that I was done that I had begun to fear my life would end soon, probably with a recurrence of the cancer that had visited me ten years before. The way I saw it, if I had done what I'd been put on earth to do, why would I expect to stay around much longer? I found these thoughts bizarre and troublesome. As a first-time author, I had no idea that it is not unusual for a writer to feel utterly "finished" at the end of a book project. When Maureen told me about her dream, I admitted to her my feeling of being "all done" and confided that I couldn't possibly imagine what work I still needed to do.
Maureen said, "Your work is just beginning. Stick around and you'll see."
That was more than two years ago, and with hindsight I can say that we were both correct. In one sense, I was
finished. The part of my life that existed before my book came into being died soon after the book reached the bookstores. Instead, I was reborn into a whole new life, one that demanded that I begin exploring more deeply the values I'd espoused in Animals as Teachers and Healers
. In truth, my work was
What I had committed to paper in my first book was the rough outline of a life-path: one nourished by contemplation of relationships other than human to human, a celebration of lessons learned at the four-footed threshold. In many ways, Animals as Teachers and Healers
was my personal mission statement. Creating a mission statement is one thing. Living it is quite another.
In Animals as Guides for the Soul
, I explore what it means to actually live a vision that acknowledges all living beings as gifted teachers and healers. Such an undertaking can be an enormous challenge in our obsessively human-focused culture. It is a commitment that enlists the soul.
By soul, I do not use the word in its religious dress. I have come to understand soul as the unseen, oftimes disowned inner guardian of our lives, a force weaving together the threads of heart, mind, and spirit that fashions us into an integrated piece of work. Thomas Moore describes the soul in this way: "`Soul' is not a thing, but a quality of dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance. ... We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth." Genuineness: This life quality surfaces repeatedly in my writing and in my life. To live in a manner that integrates conviction and action is to me the heart of a genuine life--a soul-full life.
Descartes said, "I think, therefore, I am." That
I am has never seemed to me worth ruminating about. Of far greater consequence is who
I am. Who I am is a woman who loves animals. This was not a choice, mind you. My enchantment with animals was a given from the moment I was born. My enchantment with animals dates back to before I could speak. My first stuttered word was parakeet
. Psychologist James Hillman writes: "Sooner or later, something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this `something' as a signal moment in childhood when an urge struck out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is ... who I am." My soul spoke to me early in life about my connection to animals. I spent the next several decades, as many people do, conveniently ignoring its wise voice.
My first book was a fresh acknowledgment of that soul's whisper. The next task of my life, then, became twofold: First, to see how fully I could live as a woman who loved animals. Then to chart the emergence of other animal-oriented souls. Such a collection of life stories would serve as guideposts to others on a similar four-footed sojourn.
Although I am committed to living my life through an animal-based philosophy, my experience makes one thing abundantly clear: Nothing that happens between humans and animals is separate from what happens in every other aspect of human life. Who we are with animals mirrors who we are--our fears, our joys, our dreams, our actions--in every other arena of our lives. "Each species is a master of a particular way of being that foreshadows something about ourselves," observes human ecologist Paul Shepard. A commitment to living a genuine life with animals cannot help but lead to richer human relationships.
Why do I think of animals as guides for the soul? Because love for animals is who I am. Each person has a unique passion or soul-voice that cannot--must not--be denied. But for those like me who have a deep affinity for animals, I believe animals offer a particularly rich and rewarding track to personal awareness and to a more genuine and soul-filled life. Animals, for example, do not allow us the luxury of complete and total projection. Unlike many other time-tested devotions such as theology, art, philosophy, or meditation, animals are living beings with soul-lives of their own. They demand of us that we be in relationship with them. They remain--for all our current attempts to rid the world of many of them--in our faces. Although we can effortlessly project our ideal fantasy selves onto an evocative piece of writing, an inspired painting, or a religious icon, it is much harder to dismiss one's true nature in the presence of, say, a spewed-up hairball on the floor, an attic full of insulation-shredding racc
oons, or the sixth pile of puppy poop on one's white sofa.
Animals, in their blessed state of total presence, require our presence as well. All animals possess the enviable quality of complete acceptance of the moment--a quality some of us meditate on for a lifetime, only to achieve in small measure. Coming into animal presence, we may find ourselves refreshingly alert to living in the moment.
Over the centuries, many animals have achieved archetypal status, defining for us in their consistent purity of expression certain states of being. Snakes reveal to us the secret of casting off old life-skins for new ones. Crows and coyotes teach us the power of foolery and folly. No living creature defines a life of devotion and loyalty better than the dog. When we take the time to thoughtfully observe the lives of animals, these qualities speak to our spirits, inspire us, warn us, heal us.
In following an animal-inspired life-path, I find that the richest ground is often, coincidentally, the rockiest. Our relationships with animals are highly conflicted ones. "We adore them and we curse them. We caress them and we ravish them. We want them to acknowledge us and be with us. We want them to disappear and be autonomous. We abhor their viciousness and lack of pity, as we abhor our own viciousness and lack of pity. We love them and reproach them, just as we love and reproach ourselves," writes poet Pattiann Rogers. At the juncture of this conflict between humans and animals rests an enormous opportunity for self-revelation and growth. It is within the act of choosing where and how we will stand on this rough ground that our true spirit often reveals itself. When life plunges us into duality and confusion, the soul, whispering through the voice of our emotions, insights, symptoms, or dreams, encourages us to live in greater accord with what we value.
The challenges brought to my life by my animal family since the publication of my first book often feel like mine alone. However, if the hundreds of letters from my readers are any indication, these issues I claim as uniquely mine are shared by many: Is there a place in heaven for animals? Can we sometimes do a disservice to our animals in our exuberant efforts to communicate better with them? Do my dreams of animals mean anything? Why am I ashamed to share my joy of animals with other people? How can I better serve my animals, and is their service to me--to humankind--altruism or bondage? Is there healing for me in tragic events with animals--animals I am ashamed to say I have not served well? How can I help heal the relationship between humans and animals, between my animals and me?
These questions were the catalyst for Animals as Guides for the Soul
. The themes they evoked became the five stations along the four-footed path explored in this book: spirituality, communication, service, forgiveness, and transformation. These are life issues common not only to animal lovers but to everyone.
Because I believe that home is where our soul work is most richly cultivated, the first chapter of this book is an intimate introduction to my home and animal family. This place, my farm called Brightstar, is the anchor point of my life and work, and we will return in story and experience to Brightstar and my animal family many times.
Next along the animal path is a journey into spirit. All of my life I have been in conflict with much of Western theology, which excludes or minimizes animals. To welcome animals back into my spiritual arena has required a revising of my personal theology. The qualities of enchantment, grace, and blessing can be treasure maps to a new, personally defined connection with the divine. Animals, in their otherness, beckon us into new modes of awareness and are adept at leading us to these three spiritual gold mines.
As a woman who twice nearly lost her voice to cancer, I have been struggling with issues of communication for a long time. Because communication is such an enormous and complex topic, I have devoted two chapters to its exploration. Chapter 2 discusses communication with animals on a direct level, while Chapter 3 celebrates communication of a more symbolic nature. This second realm of communicating embraces dreams, sudden insights, "messengers," angels, or "signs." Although we have been culturally indoctrinated to dismiss these means of ancient knowing, we would do well to tune our inner ears to these abandoned frequencies. Animals and animal images seem to thrive in this inner universe and can serve as gentle and surprising guides to alternative ways of wisdom.
Last year, I stumbled upon a quote that changed my life: "What is not given is lost." The truth of these few words becomes more evident to me every day, and their truth is particularly relevant to the theme of Chapter 4, service. Service is a critical station on the path to self-development and soulful living. But in my life, service has often been associated more with drudgery than with altruism. Animals have populated every real and imagined world of service, from the most ideal to the most tragic. Reflecting on animals' lives of ministry--and bondage--can bring us to a much deeper understanding of how service relates to feelings of freedom and imprisonment in our own lives.
Those who live most fully and most joyfully also know how to grieve. Yet culturally we are denied access to our grief. My former employer allowed three days of "grief leave" if an immediate family member died. Three days to do the work of years! Most difficult to mourn are the losses for which we feel responsible, actions of which we are ashamed. I remember striking my family dog repeatedly when I was very young. The memory, the shame, stings like icy rain forty years later. To forgive ourselves for our transgressions is the work of the soul. Because animals often suffer illness or accident or die in our care, they can serve as excellent missionaries to a place of reconciliation, healed grief, and forgiveness. Often, I believe animals come to our lives specifically to deliver this intimate gift, the awesome gift of their passing. Chapter 5 provides insight for reconciling these painful losses.
At a certain point in our personal development, we mature into a sense of reverence for the greater world. Enfolding the world into our circle of compassion, we recognize that the world needs healing as much as we do. Healing the relationship between humans and animals is crucial to restoring the health of the world. For many years, I have regarded my "enemies"--those who do not care for the world and for animals in the same manner that I do--with animosity. Upon reflection, I have observed that bitterness and hate are qualities I never witness in the animal kingdom. The antelope does not hate the wolf. Animals instruct me to put aside judgment, lick a wound whether it be mine or another's, give thanks for life, and make room for others at the manger. This is how the healing of the world begins, and how those committed to this transformation can go forward. The final chapter of Animals as Guides for the Soul
explores the nature of peace, of vision, and of transformation. Although the focus of this chap
ter is on transforming the relationship between humans and animals, the methods I suggest are universal in their application: stimulate transformation in one place and you initiate transformation in other places as well.
To travel along this five-stationed animal path to the soul, I have used the vehicle of story. When I had cancer, I learned quickly that stories were far more healing to me than statistics or information. Although stories are still frequently disparaged as anecdotal evidence in some professional circles, the winds are changing. Physician Rachel Naomi Remen "doctors" with the use of stories--telling them, listening to them. Dean Ornish, M.D., writes: "There is no meaning in facts. As a physician and a human being, I live in a world of stories. ... Stories are the language of community." Ornish also reminds us that if good information and facts were all it took to change human behavior, "no one would smoke"! Thomas Moore advises, "Stories offer a powerful way for the soul to find a space for itself."
Everyone's story is unique, yet all stories are the one story of our humanness. Not surprisingly, stories that tell of the lives of animals often seem universal as well, as though we can see the light of our dog's eyes in every creature's eyes. If we look with an unprejudiced heart, we may see our own eyes reflected in every creature's eyes, as well.
Real stories do not usually have tidy endings, or indeed, any endings. Many of the stories told in this book leave just as much untold. Animals enter, dwell for a time, leave, and become memories or dreams. Human companions are left to weave the meaning of the encounter into their hearts. As such, this is not a book of answers. It is instead an intimate exploration of issues that face us all: issues of relationship, integrity, conflict, and reconciliation, all told in the mythic form of story. All of these stories star an animal, a memory of an animal, a dream of an animal.
Each chapter ends in a story--one or two of my own and one or more from readers. These stories, some subtle and some dramatic, embody part of the essence of that chapter. Several are stories that reveal decades of accumulated life-experience.
It is my fervent hope that in reading these animal stories, both mine and others, you will be inspired to share your own. The world is hungry for stories that affirm the deep affinity between humans and animals. All of our stories--those that ended well and even those that ended with more confusion than we would have liked--offer great hope to a world longing to heal the relationship between animals and humans.
--SUSAN CHERNAK MCELROYBrightstar FarmFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Animals as Guides for the Soul by Susan Chernak McElroy. . Excerpted by permission of Wellspring/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.