Giant squirrels, giant lessons? Animal chaplain Sarah Bowen explores what squirrels can show us about mindfulness.
Shortly after 2020’s presidential election, I was struck by a squirrel image while scrolling through the hubbub of my social feed. It’s important to note that my feed is usually filled with members of the Rodentia order, so a squirrel itself was not surprising. What caught my eye was that this furball seemed striped in wide swaths of alternating red and blue. After watching endless hours of election graphics carving the United States up into categories of these two colors, I thought the resemblance was uncanny. I wanted to know more about this zany-looking critter.
Malabar Giant Squirrels, also known as Indian Giant Squirrels, have a stunning multicolored body and can grow up to three feet in length. Their underbody and front legs are tan and their head brown or beige. Between their ears a white spot often appears, giving them the hint of a third eye. The color of the rest of their fur varies by subspecies.
Admittedly, without Instagram filters the Malabar Giant Squirrel is more maroon-reddish and blackish than red and blue, but light sometimes seems to illuminate just what you need to see.
In my case, as the political discourse continued to swirl post-election, all I saw was red versus blue. My heart broke as I saw friends attacking friends. Of course, I couldn’t lay all the disappointment at their feet. Each day I swore I would not check my social media or email before my morning yoga, meditation, and prayer. Many times I failed. I began to notice that throughout the day my hands tensed into fists as I navigated my to-do list, trying to maneuver in a world of political chaos, pandemic, death, and fear.
When I am in this mode—having a hard time grounding or sinking into my daily spiritual practices—I use my Plan B. When human beings are letting me down, I turn to animals.
Grabbing all my books on squirrels, I went looking for wisdom from the more-than-human world.
The squirrels in my yard differ visually and behaviorally from those high in the treetops of India. While our local critters bury their food underground— usually underneath my hostas—the Malabar Giant Squirrel creates food caches high up in trees. Around the world there is an incredible diversity of squirrel life. In fact, they show up in every country except Australia. Over 278 different species of squirrels share this world with us.
INSIGHT: Don’t presume other people feel like I do or think like I do. Allow people their own opinions. Ask curious questions of those whose ideas are different than mine to better understand what is driving their beliefs, rather than try to fight it out by doubling down on my own opinions. Use my precious time to make change in the real world instead of trying to change people’s opinions through unwinnable posting debates.
When faced with a predator, Malabar Giant Squirrels usually freeze or flatten against a tree trunk. They stop moving so that they cannot be seen by predators, who then move on.
INSIGHT: When someone starts to flare in my feed, I can feel my breath shorten and my fists clench. Instead of responding immediately, I flatten my phone against the sofa cushion and take a walk for a few minutes. A typical anger response only lasts about 90 seconds physiologically. Stopping to wait that out can bring more compassion to a response—or help me resist reacting at all.
Living primarily in treetop canopies, the Malabar Giant Squirrel can leap up to 20 feet. The Eastern Gray
Squirrels in my backyard can go about nine feet horizontally and about four feet straight up. Those little dudes rarely sit still—always on the move from one location to another when out in the yard, zigging and zagging to stay out of the mouth of the local Red-Tailed Hawk.
INSIGHT: Don’t stay in an echo chamber. Don’t get all your news in one place. Don’t look to one social group to fill all your needs for community—and likewise, don’t saddle one person with all your baggage or complaints. Keep your communication with the world diverse and wide.
Malabar Giant Squirrels are typically solitary animals. When it is breeding time, well, of course, they make some exceptions. But most of the time they hang out solo.
INSIGHT: It’s easy for me to think that I need more people around me when I am feeling stressed—or, more accurately, people to talk to about what is bothering me. Often the rehashing of stories or news works the opposite way, keeping me stuck in unhelpful emotions each time I retell the tidbit. Time away from people and devices means there is no one to tell. Instead, I can sink into mindfulness and reground or spend some time in a conversation with the Divine.