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Duy Huynh

How can we live in sacred relationship with the more-than-human world?

Confession: I’ve always been more interested in Rudolph than in his two-legged companion. I picture his little hoofs lifting off the cold snow, his mind nervous—but full of purpose—as he courageously becomes his shiny-red-nosed true self.

Of course, the original Saint Nicholas didn’t have reindeer, what with him living in the Mediterranean and reindeer being native to the Arctic. No, the Greek bishop from whom our modern Santa evolved would have been more likely to ride a sleigh pulled by goats.

MEET THE MYSTICS

Beyond reindeer, stories of connections between animals and mystical saints abound. Sometimes, creatures help humans, like in the case of England’s Saint Cuthbert. As he exited a cleansing pre-prayer dip in the sea, otters followed to warm Cuthbert’s feet with their breath and dry him with their fur.

Sufi mystic Rumi used animals as metaphors for a relationship with divinity: “Be like the cat, so alive after the mouse, never wondering or questioning why, when there is really only God … touching our paws.”

Other zoological anecdotes reveal heartwarming moments of human compassion. Saint Melangell fled an arranged marriage in Ireland for a contemplative life in the Welsh wilderness. According to legend, one day hounds took off after a wild hare, who auspiciously found protection in the folds of Melangell’s skirt. Even today, it’s said that no one in that parish will kill a hare. A story is told of Muhammad’s beloved cat, Muezza, who had fallen asleep on the prophet’s shirt. Needing to dress for prayer time yet reticent to disturb the cat, Muhammad cut off the shirt’s sleeve.

Why should these age-old stories matter to us? Here are three eye-opening insights from the intersection of animals, spirituality, and science.

INSIGHT NO. 1.

Reality isn’t just what humans see and experience.

The mystics are mystics because they experienced something extraordinary. Wayne Teasdale, author of The Mystic Heart, suggests, “One can almost say that the real religion of humankind isn’t religion at all, rather it is a mystical spirituality … out of which the religions themselves have been born.” Each living being experiences the world in radically different ways that are infinitely ingenious, diverse, and awe-inspiring. Snails can’t focus or discern colors. Bats and dolphins navigate the world by sound. Bears and moles rely on their amazing sense of smell. Catfish taste the world, their bodies literally covered in taste buds.

The world is full of stuff that we can’t see, hear, smell, or experience. To live in sacred connection with the entirety of the cosmos—with all of being—we must first acknowledge this divine diversity.

INSIGHT NO. 2.

The world is fantastically nonhuman.

Geologists call our age the Anthropocene, pointing to humanity’s increasing impact on the Earth. But we must not interpret that as suggesting the Earth was made exclusively for people. After all, humans make up just 0.01 percent of life on this planet.

In spiritual circles, we are becoming aware of our disconnection from the natural world—our so-called nature deficit disorder. So, we forest bathe, gather to honor the new moon, and declare: “Nature is my spiritual practice.” We connect to Gaia and, often, something greater than ourselves. We speak of a mystical oneness (or nonduality) that transcends beliefs and words. Yet, we often interpret our experience as being between Divine and human. And just like that, a lot of someones are left out. Not for Persian poet Hafiz, though, who described his mystical experience as: “I hear the voice of every creature and plant, every world and sun and galaxy—singing the Beloved’s name!” Now imagine: What might this kind of inclusiveness look like? What if we thoughtfully gathered the other 99.99 percent of earthly life into our spirituality?

INSIGHT NO. 3.

We’re not the only spiritual beings.

News flash: We’re not the only animals capable of spiritual experiences. Enter primatologist and modern mystic Jane Goodall, who lived in the wild with chimpanzees. A notable pioneer in speculating on the inner lives of animals, she reflects in her memoir, Reason for Hope, about an unexpected mystical experience:

Lost in awe at the beauty around me … self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the Earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself. The air was filled with a feathered symphony, the evensong of birds. I heard new frequencies in their music and also in singing insects’ voices— notes so high and sweet I was amazed. … In a flash of “outsight,” I had known timelessness and quiet ecstasy sensed a truth of which mainstream science is merely a small fraction.

What’s more, Goodall suggests that chimpanzees might also experience feelings of awe, pointing to their manner of moving rhythmically back and forth at waterfalls.

James Harrod, director of the Center for Research on the Origins of Art and Religion, studied Goodall’s and other primatologists’ reports, asking a significant question: Do chimps engage in religious behavior? His analysis suggests yes, and Harrod advocates for a trans-species definition of religion based on reverence, wonder, and experiences of aliveness and animacy, rather than specific beliefs about God or venerable dogma. (Yes, friends, it appears chimps might be spiritual but not religious.)

Countless definitions of mysticism exist, generally within two broad categories: Essentialists suggest that each person accesses a similar experience, which then is individually interpreted after the event. Contextualists suggest, instead, that each of us brings our socio-religious context and interpretations with us into our mystical experiences.

Would a chimp tap into something universal? Or would his experience have a chimpness to it? And if we asked other creatures, would they describe a dogness, catness, or treeness? Or would all mystical unions contain the same absoluteness?

Of course, we cannot ask the chimp, dog, cat, or tree what they have experienced. But this shouldn’t derail us. One of the widely cited attributes of mystical experience is ineffability—that which is incapable of being described in words.

Further, neurological research on spiritual experience confirms it takes place in the primitive areas of our brains. So, what we call mysticism may be possible for other animals with similar brain structures, such as horses, cats, and dogs. Of course, animals do not need us to prove any of this. They do not need our permission to be mystical, spiritual, religious, or otherwise. But they do desperately need us to recognize and respect them.

TAPPING INTO SACRED FURRINESS AND FEATHEREDNESS.

When we practice spiritual animality, we become kinder to the furry, feathered, and other fantabulous beings around us. So, during this busy season of holidays and holy days, try these creative practices to tap into your inner mystic.

Exploring your animal nature

Samthann of Clonbroney, a seventh-century Irish abbess known for making peace between local animals and townspeople, was once asked whether a person should pray sitting, standing, or reclining. She answered, “in every position.”

We modern seekers can be endlessly rigid about our bodies, constantly perfecting the right meditation posture, disciplined prayer position, or correct mudra. What if we embraced our animality?

What might it be like to meditate curled up as a napping kitten? To pray while running through a field or nestled in a tree’s lower branches? Or to use one of the 66 recorded bonobo hand gestures as your mudra?

Relating to animals in your home

Saint Roch, a 14th-century patron saint of dogs, devoted his life to helping people during the deadly bubonic plague. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of saintly biographies, notes he eventually became sick and quarantined in the woods. A nobleman’s dog discovered him and healed Roch by visiting regularly to lick his wounds and bring him bread.

In the not-so-distant past, we might pass over a story of pandemic and quarantine. Today it begs our attention. A study from Banfield Pet Hospital reveals that due to the COVID-19 shutdown, 47 percent of those surveyed are talking to their pets more, and 44 percent feel more attentive toward the animals in their home. Yet, a whopping 59 percent worry their pet may suffer from separation anxiety as typical work schedules resume post-pandemic. Take the opportunity now to set up sacred routines with your pet.

Meditate each morning for a few minutes with your dog or cat. Sitting quietly, become aware of the animal’s body rising and lowering. From this awareness, synchronize your inhales and exhales. Become a melded being, resting in breath.

Set aside time each evening to spend together. Read aloud from a spiritual book. Pop on a soothing song and lie on the floor for an interspecies sound bath. Seek shared moments of wonder on the weekends. Take a pup on a waterfall hike. Birdwatch through a window with a feline.

Recognizing your relationship with wild beings

In the Jain tradition, it’s said that once Mahāvīra was born as an elephant.

When a fire raged through the forest in which he lived, all the animals packed tightly into a circle with him to seek refuge. Mahāvīra-as-elephant lifted one of his immense legs to scratch an itch. As he began to lower it, he noticed a little rabbit sitting where his foot had been. Out of compassion for all living beings, he kept his leg lifted for two and a half days until the fire was over. Tragically, as soon as he lowered it, he died from severe pain. As a result of his kindness, he was born next as a prince.

Wildfires, habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trade, and human encroachment wreak havoc in the lives of wild animals. Farmed animals face innumerable challenges as well. Recognizing our responsibility to them—as Mahāvīra modeled—can be arduous yet significant.

Engage in sacred activism on behalf of wild or captive animals. Join the Center for Biological Diversity, which fights for hundreds of rare animals and plants, as well as millions of acres of critical habitat to help them survive and recover. Read The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony by Will Tuttle.

If you pray, widen your scope, “Mother Father God, enlarge within me a sense of fellowship with all living beings so that I may act with universal compassion. Help me live in ways that heal and honor animal kind and the Earth we share.” Or embrace the enduring mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings in all universes be centered in happiness and joy, be free from suffering, and be unified in divine existence.