Animal Grace: Entering a Spiritual Relationship with Our Fellow Creatures

Animal Grace: Entering a Spiritual Relationship with Our Fellow Creatures

by Mary Lou Randour, Susan Chernak McElroy
     
 

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Animal Grace explores the human-animal relationship as a path to enlightenment. The author calls for readers to ensure that their interactions with members of other species are based on compassion and respect. “Mary Lou Randour invites us to open our hearts and minds to the animal lives all around us.” — Jane Goodall

Overview

Animal Grace explores the human-animal relationship as a path to enlightenment. The author calls for readers to ensure that their interactions with members of other species are based on compassion and respect. “Mary Lou Randour invites us to open our hearts and minds to the animal lives all around us.” — Jane Goodall

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Following close on the heels of Linzey's Animal Gospel (LJ 1/00), psychologist and activist Randour's book moves beyond theological and moral assertions of the worth of animals to show how animals can help us heal from illnesses, learn to love, and deal with death itself. Randour's method is more narrative and anecdotal than advisory, but her ardor should be persuasive to many readers. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781577312253
Publisher:
New World Library
Publication date:
03/28/2002
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Animal Grace

Entering a Spiritual Relationship with Our Fellow Creatures


By Mary Lou Randour

New World Library

Copyright © 2000 Mary Lou Randour
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-322-9



CHAPTER 1

Animals have been the spiritual companions of humans since the beginning of recorded time. The earliest indication of the spiritual significance of the human-animal relationship can be found in the 20,000-year-old cave wall paintings of Cro-Magnon people. In many if not most cultures, animals have served a variety of spiritual functions: They have been linked with supernatural forces, acted as guardians and shamans, and appeared in images of an afterlife. They have even been worshipped as agents of gods and goddesses. Many ancient creation myths, for example, depict God with a dog. These stories do not explain the existence of the dog; like God, the dog is assumed to have existed from the beginning. In this assumption, these primordial people revealed their intense attachment to their animal companions.

That animals touch us in a deep, central place is not a modern-day phenomenon, but one that pervades the history of the human-animal relationship. We sense that we can benefit spiritually in our relationship with animals, and we are right. They offer us something fundamental: a direct and immediate sense of both the joy and wonder of creation. We recognize that animals seem to feel more intensely and purely than we do. Perhaps we yearn to express ourselves with such abandon and integrity. Animals fully reveal to us what we already glimpse: it is feeling — and the organization of feeling — that forms the core of self. We also sense that through our relationship to animals we can recover that which is true within us and, through the discovery of that truth, find our spiritual direction. Quite simply, animals teach us about love: how to love, how to enjoy being loved, how loving itself is an activity that generates more love, radiating out and encompassing an ever larger circle of others. Animals propel us into an "economy of abundance."

They teach us the language of the spirit. Through our contact with animals we can learn to overcome the limits imposed by difference; we can reach beyond the walls we have erected between the mundane and the sacred. They can even help us stretch ourselves to discover new frontiers of consciousness. Animals cannot "talk" to us, but they can communicate with us and commune with us in a language that does not require words. They help us understand that words might even stand in the way.

Lois Crisler did not use human words to achieve a spiritual connection with animals. Instead, she used their language. Sitting in a tent with her husband one twilight morning in Alaska, she heard a sound she had never heard before — the howl of a wolf. Thrilled, she stepped outside the tent and impulsively howled in return, "pouring out my wilderness loneliness." She was answered by a chorus of wolves' voices, yodeling in a range of low, medium, and high notes. Other wolves joined in, each at a different pitch. "The wild deep medley of chords," she recalls, "... the absence of treble, made a strange, savage, heart-stirring uproar." It was the "roar of nature," a roar that brings us back to an essential place we have known but lost. It returns us to nature and to creation, not intellectually but viscerally. We recollect in the cells of our bodies, not in our heads. If we open to it, we can make out the image of our animal kin by our side.

Fulfilling our longing for the wild, our primordial desire to hear "the roar of nature" within ourselves, does not require that we camp out in Alaska, or even encounter an animal in its natural habitat. Spiritual contact with an animal can happen under quite ordinary circumstances.

I once took a yoga class while visiting my sister in Sarasota, Florida, in a beautiful studio with floor-to-ceiling windows. As the class was engaged in exercise, we noticed a dog standing outside the window, innocently looking in. The dog seemed curious, and wagged his tail in a relaxed motion. Soon, he was joined by another dog, who also watched us through the window. Occasionally one or the other would bark — not a loud bark, but a "here I am" kind of bark. For the entire hour-and-a-half session they stood there, noses to the glass, looking in with interest. They seemed calm, but intensely attentive, and clearly interested in joining us. One could assign any number of explanations to their absorbed interest. I think, as did others in the class, that they picked up on some kind of "positive energy" generated by our collective yoga practice. I put quotes around "positive energy" because I don't have precise language to describe what I think the dogs sensed. And that is the point. They were able to perceive, and experience, something some of us are dimly aware of and would like to understand, but cannot find words to describe. Animals can teach us to live outside of words, to listen to other forms of consciousness, to tune into other rhythms.

It was the rhythm of music that one musician, Jim Nollman, used to communicate with whales. Along with several other musicians, he recorded hours of human-orca music in an underwater studio every summer for twelve years. Positioning their boat so that the whales would approach them, the group transmitted their music through the water. Most of the time the orcas made the same sounds, regardless of whether the music was played or not. But not all the time. For a few minutes every year, a "sparkling communication occurred. In one instance, the sound of an electric guitar note elicited responses from several whales. In another, an orca joined with the musicians, 'initiat[ing] a melody and rhythm over a blues progression, emphasizing the chord changes.'"

An uncanny meeting with a whale proved a decisive spiritual moment for another person, a retired female teacher who I have enjoyed hiking with in northern California. While hiking along the ocean, she decided to rest on a large, flat rock jutting out over the depths. She lay there, relaxed, listening to the sound of the water and the sensation of the breeze on her body when, she reports, she felt a presence: "The hairs on the back of my neck went up; I was compelled to sit up." Sitting up, she saw a whale, resting perpendicular on her fluke. As her eyes met the whale's, time stopped. As they gazed at each other, the woman entered an eternal stillness, feeling an unmatched intensity. Difference dissolved; words were irrelevant. She felt a deep sense of connection with all of life. No longer restricted by the categories of "them" and "us," she felt herself flow into a seamless web of existence in which all of life is one. In complete harmony with the whale, this retired teacher felt that she inhabited a web of relations some call "God." She had encountered God in, and through, the eyes of a whale.

Cross-species communication may be so extraordinary because we cannot rely on identifying with the creature the way we identify with human beings for connection. Our human relationships are often based on relating to a being like ourselves: We can identify and empathize with each other because we share similar experiences. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. The ability to identify with others forms the basis for personal relationships, social bonds, and social justice.

Animals, however, offer us a unique opportunity to transcend the boundaries of our human perspectives; they allow us to stretch our consciousness toward understanding what it is like to be different. This stretching enables us to grow beyond our narrow viewpoint. It allows us, I believe, to gain a spiritual advantage. How can we possibly appreciate and move toward spiritual wholeness if we cannot see beyond our own species? How can we come to know God, or grasp the interconnectedness of all life, if we limit ourselves to knowing only our own kind? The goal of compassion is not to care because someone is like us but to care because they are themselves.

Any spiritual discipline, in any tradition, invites us to open our hearts and minds. This invitation represents an ongoing exercise; the desire and attempt to open to others in our midst are the essence of the spiritual process.

Animals can lead us spiritually in a variety of ways. As we will see, they can teach us about death, participate in our social and moral development, enhance our physical and psychological well-being, and heighten our capacity to love and to experience joy.


Death Lessons

I recounted earlier how my dog, Toshi, howled inexplicably, seemingly without external provocation, a few minutes after a friend died in a distant city. Stephen Levine, Buddhist practitioner and author, writes:

Those who know the process directly — from experiences shared with the dying, from decades of meditation, from moments of spontaneous grace from eucharists of every description — do not speak of death as a single moment before which you are alive and after which you are not. They refer instead to a 'point of remembrance' in which the holding of life transforms into a letting go into death.


This is what Toshi taught me: that death is not a single moment, but a process of transformation, from a holding on to a letting go into some new form. Of course, I still do not exactly understand the transformation. And I am not entirely comfortable with any one particular system of thought that attempts to explain this phenomenon. But Toshi's howling — which I understand as his ability to tune into our friend's spirit as it was making its transformation — encouraged me to keep an open mind as I continue to pursue my questions about the meaning of death. This experience with Toshi, and others that have followed and built upon it, has also helped me to decide that when a loved one of mine has died, with their prior permission, I will not abandon his or her body. Instead I will stay with the body, meditating, praying, touching it, participating in the transition that the person's consciousness (human or animal) is making. And I want the same for myself.

Another experience with a dog, much earlier in my life, at age sixteen, also taught me a lesson about death. This time the dog was not my companion but a stranger who turned up in my backyard in the middle of the night. A few weeks prior to this nighttime visit, my paternal grandfather had died, the first death of a human member of our family.

Like many teenagers, in adolescence I became obsessed with death and dying; I wondered and worried about it. Basically I just didn't like the idea, or any of the subsequent options I envisioned for myself: death as extinction, death as "bliss" in some cartoon-like heaven, or, alternatively, death as hell. Living forever, which I understood wasn't an option, also didn't seem very desirable. I was stuck.

Then, soon after my grandfather died, I awoke from a sound sleep in the middle of the night. I didn't know what had awakened me. I remember my room was filled with moonlight. I felt compelled to stand up and gaze out my window, which overlooked the backyard. My family lived in a row house, with a house on either side of us, and a fence dividing our backyards.

As I looked down I saw a collie, sitting, his face lifted toward my window. We stared at one another for one eternally long, still moment. I recall the intensity of that moment, and the brilliance of the moonlight. Although I looked down from the second floor, I felt as though the collie and I were separated only by inches. A thought flickered through my mind that perhaps I should be frightened. One part of my brain was observing this scene, noting its eerie quality. But the question of whether or not I should be afraid quickly dissolved into a realization: "There is no reason to be afraid; this is my grandfather." We sat for another long moment. Then the dog turned and jumped over the fence, clearing it by feet, not inches. But he never landed on the other side. As I watched, he seemed to evaporate into air.

I stood before the window, stunned. "I must be dreaming," I thought. Making a mental and physical check of myself, I confirmed that I wasn't. On reflection, my dead grandfather appearing to me in the form of a collie — fantastic in and of itself — was not as significant as the fact that I wasn't afraid. I, who was terrified and tortured by my thoughts of death, felt no apprehension. I felt calm and at peace. I returned to bed and fell asleep.

At first, I didn't speak to anyone about what happened, probably because it seemed too incredible to be believed. Eventually I told a few people. Each time I recounted the story, I didn't expect anyone to believe me. I almost don't believe me! Except that I was there, and when I recall that moment of inexplicable knowledge, which comes back so vividly, I have no doubts.

I can't say that the visit had any profound spiritual effect on me at the time. I don't think I was able to absorb the lesson that was offered to me. It has been only recently, with my experience of Toshi's howling and my continued spiritual seeking, that I have begun to assimilate this lesson. While a howling dog might not prove to be as decisive for others as it was for me, I think there are two reasons for my conclusion. First, I believe I was simply ready to find a lesson in Toshi's howling after our friend's death. I had been thinking about death, and what it means, since adolescence. After all those years of sorting through my thoughts and feelings, I was prepared to learn something from this experience. The other reason is that Toshi, more than any other dog I have known, possesses some quality — an intuition and sensitivity — that I find spiritual.

This is what I think it means for me: I may never know during this life the exact nature of the transformation of death, whether it is a type of reincarnation, or one's consciousness entering a vast stream of consciousness. Whatever it is, we don't have to be afraid of death. The body dies, and the spirit, or consciousness, transforms.

I also don't know why the lesson came to me in the form of a dog. What I do understand is that I received the most meaningful lesson possible: not to fear death. My job will be to wrestle with that lesson for the rest of my life — continually turning my mind over, opening myself to experience, reading all I can. I do all of this with gratitude for the extraordinary gift given to me by my dog teachers.

Lessons about dying are really lessons about living — living fully, openly, gratefully. This is the lesson that author Susan Chernak McElroy learned from Keesha, a German shepherd, who was her "confidant ... angel and ... teacher." Diagnosed in 1988 with a usually fatal neck cancer, McElroy was initially at a loss. Her doctors didn't expect her to survive two years. No one among her family or friends had ever faced a life-threatening illness. "Where," she wondered, "was I to find examples of how to live what was left of my life?" She turned to her memory of Keesha, who had died years earlier of cancer.

One of Keesha's pleasures as a healthy dog was swimming in the deep lagoons near her home. At the end of her illness, Keesha was severely debilitated and too frail to enjoy such play. But that didn't mean that Keesha was too frail to find joy in what she could do. Instead of the lagoon, Keesha found pleasure jumping in the puddles of water that filled the streets near their home. With a look of pure bliss, Keesha would frolic in the water, barking in joy, for as long as she was allowed. "From a dog splashing in a rain puddle," McElroy recounts, "I learned about choice. Regardless of how much time I had left, I could choose to celebrate whatever possibilities life had to offer me each moment.... The antidote to fear is to practice joy in the moment." Following Keesha's example, McElroy not only survived her cancer, she learned how to live — with less apprehension and with more wonder and joy.


Healing and Well-Being

I've seen the picture: a somewhat gangly teenage boy with closecropped hair and an impassive face clumsily holding a small black-and-white mutt. The dog, who is part of a pet-facilitated therapy program, has just been introduced to this fifteen-year-old boy. The hope is that by learning to comfortably touch, care for, and love this animal the boy can learn to love himself and others. The boy needs help badly; he is in this program because he has murdered someone.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Animal Grace by Mary Lou Randour. Copyright © 2000 Mary Lou Randour. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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