“It is only for the purity of the animals themselves that we [humans] are allowed to still live.” ~ Salvatore Gencarelle
Popular media like the New York Times contains an ever greater number of articles about animal sentience. Most recently, on January 29, 2016 Sally McGrane wrote “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.” The evidence is everywhere: much more goes on in the minds of living things in the natural world than we have been educated to believe.
A dozen years ago I wasn’t looking for a psychic way to communicate; I was just trying to manage my daughter’s Thoroughbred mare, Ginger. I wanted to speak ‘horse’, which seemed to be a matter of learning the right body language, plus some horse psychology. However much I learned from books and from human instructors — I realized that I was learning even more from Ginger. Her intelligence, although different from mine, was extraordinary. I eventually found that I didn’t need to use body language, Ginger read my mind. Could it be that my 8 year-old daughter had picked out a very special horse?
Then my son wanted a parrot, so I started reading about this species. Combining what I had learned from Ginger with what I learned from Irene Pepperberg, author of “Alex and Me” I found that rather than training our infant parrot, I was once again a student of the being that I set out to train. At a very young age Ttac would learn the name of a visitor with no prompting, in a couple of days. He is always the first to get a joke (watch out, his “heh-heh-heh” will give you away!), and he even knew when a family member passed away across the ocean, whistling the way that Grandpa had taught him, which we had not heard since the last time they saw each other two years earlier.
My husband wanted chickens, who are supposedly on the opposite end of the avian intelligence spectrum from parrots — and then our six hens taught me about their rich lives. The crows who would sometimes get stuck in the hen enclosure taught me how wild birds think and repaid my assistance to them with extraordinary favors.
Willing wild crows and pigeons have stepped into my bare hands. Feral mallards have shown me their hatchlings. Dogs, fish, cats, dolphins, trees, sharks and elephants have been among my teachers. When you show others your willingness to listen they seek to befriend you, and to cause you to hear.
Each time I read books from top researchers of a particular species, I notice one common feature: They all believe that the species that they are studying is the species closest to humans in terms of intelligence, empathy, loyalty and other measures of what we tend to call ‘human’ traits. I noticed something else: No matter the species, when I get to know an animal well I find individual character and reasoning intelligence, free will, morality — attributes my schooling taught me to believe were limited to human beings.
In 2014 I began studying Interspecies Communication with Anna Breytenbach, Jon Young and Wynter Worsthorne. None of us really considers that we are “learning” to communicate this way, rather we are simply remembering how to do so. Every human, every being that exists, is equipped to communicate with or without the use of verbal, written language and sound. Our educational system teaches us humans that we can’t do it, but we can. And we must now re-member how, for listening to our brothers and sisters is crucial to the survival of all.
This past summer, a friend Ann-Sofi Carlborn wrote me an email telling me of the Global Peace Initiative of Women [from which the Contemplative Alliance emerged] and their intention to attend the climate conference in Paris. At the time I was visiting with two elephant friends in Tanzania, so I spent part of my evening reading about GPIW’s mission of peace and learning about their members. The following morning and continuing for the next ten days, various species of wild animals told me some of their own notions of peace and harmony, in order that I share them with GPIW. As they ‘spoke’ to me, I wrote in my journal; this understanding is what I shared with the faith leaders that joined GPIW during COP21.
Elephant: Notice the hierarchy. It serves a purpose in peacekeeping. Notice how accepting everyone is. How respectful.
Baboon: Notice how calmly we all accept our place. You [humans] have forgotten how to position yourselves and what your status means. No one owns the waterhole.
January 29th, 2015
Zebra: Learn about herd unity. Learn about the power and value of Approach and Retreat. Let time be timeless. The urgency is in the transformation, not in your sense of time. If the birds and insects and frogs are singing, that is the time to accomplish what is needed. Push gently into your comfort until you are reaching outside of it to others.
Wildebeest: Why are our energies separated? It is right and good this way. For balance. Look at the shape of our energies now. Always ask for permission when your energies are different/varied. To blend must be consensual. The more singular dominant energy must declare loudly his intention, as a way of asking. He shall then accept if the answer is no, even if he intends to return and ask again. Withdraw. Approach and ask. Withdraw. Approach. Thus, through the blending of energies does creation occur. It has been so for ages. Now is the time for returning closer to Oneness. Your kind is ready. Now is the time to approach. And blend. Be not afraid.
July 31, Day of Thanks
Elizabeth: Do you have advice for us?
Eland, Zebra and Wildebeest: (Wildebeest singing) Listen. Listen all you can and trust. Then and only then will you find the way home for us all. Fear not. You will be surprised by the ease with which change comes, and the simplicity with which it may be implemented. Listen and heed.
Voice of the Waterhole: You! You are welcome. You people cannot spoil my calm, my depth.
Warthog: With regard to the question of private property and ownership. It is not so much a question of never owning or making claim of territory. It is more a question of understanding that that claim is temporary. That eventually you must, you will, give it back. The humility in this equation is what you often lack. Search for it and keep searching, for it is there in you.
Vervets: Hear this. Because you are not usually present/consistent, there is great power of intention when you DO focus your love and thanksgiving. And when many more of you do, the results will be astounding to you. We, your brethren in the other nations, have been waiting for you.
August 1, 2015
Eland, Zebra and Wildebeest: See how we all come together. (Wildebeest singing) We welcome your desire to rekindle the peace between our nations. Know that there are those of your kind here (in Africa and elsewhere on Earth) who never lost it.
“We are called to return to the root of our being where the sacred is born. Then, standing in both the inner and outer worlds, we will find our self to be part of the momentous synchronicity of life giving birth to itself.”
In listening to each other’s experiences we recognize that we are all different. We perceive the worlds through different colors while truth shines through the veils of every single experience and yet is beyond them – it just is. There is subjectivity and a relativity to all experiences, those of the outer worlds as well as those of the inner worlds, the visible and invisible. And still there is much more than we can ever imagine that we can listen to, that speaks to us. I share here a fragment of a personal experience. May it serve to fill in a little piece in this great kaleidoscope.
As I write down these reflections it’s been forty days since a group of nearly 20 people – spiritual teachers, young leaders, and contemplatives from different spiritual traditions and regions of the world came to Paris. As a delegation of the Global Peace Initiative of Women we joined many NGOs and civil society leaders from around the world at COP 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
We gathered to share and discuss spiritual perspectives on climate change and give attention to its inner dimension. This included an afternoon event at the Climate Generations Area with a panel of faith leaders, contemplatives and young activists.
Unlike the outer events that were well documented, I would like to share some of my inner experiences from our time in Paris – experiences perceived by the heart.
We all have these experiences, but, as we all know too well, the inner worlds that are invisible to our outer eyes have become covered and obscured from our human perception in today’s world. It is difficult to even speak of the inner world as it has been so neglected and is no longer valued in our culture. And as feeling is not valued as much as thinking, and as we define ourselves more through doing rather than being, by sharing inner experiences we are always taking a certain risk of being misunderstood or – depending on the audience – even risk a response of doubt or disrespect. Perhaps one of the reasons we rarely dare share them.
Yet as it was important to us as a group to offer a unique contribution to this event, an emphasis on the inner dimensions of climate change, approaching the question as to the roots as well as solutions from an inner perspective, so I feel that speaking about inner experiences along with what we were outwardly engaged in might round off the picture.
During my first morning in Paris, several hours before we were to sit at a Tibetan temple to pray for the Earth, I strolled with my husband in the Jardin du Luxembourg, situated close to our hotel. We walked among trees, flowerbeds and statues, among people enjoying their Sunday morning sports and families who were out to walk like us. I wanted to greet the place, the Earth here, which I always do, silently, when I travel and my feet first touch the ground of a new place. It is similar to showing our respect when we enter the house of a friend we visit, like taking off our shoes and thanking our host for being welcomed as a guest. And as we came to Paris for a climate conference, I felt a particular need to feel the Earth in Paris, not only in the beauty of her buildings and cathedrals, but first in a spot of nature.
Sometimes, in an initial greeting, there is a response, in the form of a feeling or a sense of the spirit of the place. I can feel being welcomed by the Earth through a particular fragrance in the air or a special tree that draws my attention. This Sunday morning in Paris it was a sudden cry that cut into my thoughts and abruptly took me straight into a different realm of perception. It woke me up. I was drawn into a deeper awareness and immediately knew this was a response and it was a call at the same time.
Instinctively I turned and looked up toward the treetops, high above where the cry had come from. I spotted an exotic and colourful bird, definitely not native to Europe. Perched on a branch it cried out three times, first a cry to draw my attention, then two more times, a strange and piercing call before it flew off. I wondered if it was a formerly caged bird from a far off continent that had escaped its cage, and now lost was searching for a place to stay in this unknown and chilly winter landscape. No one else seemed to notice it, though this cry was very loud and unusual.
A tremendous feeling of someone lost filled my heart. A bird is a symbol of the soul – that inherent part of each of us that has wings to fly and is not bound by gravity or limitations. It is free and belongs to the infinite sky. I felt the soul of the world, of which we are all a part, like a bird that is lost, estranged in a cold environment and unable to find its way. It felt an urgent call, the Earth was signalling for my attention. I could sense it in the cry of the bird calling us to relate to the Earth as a soul, as a sacred being whose divine essence and origin we have almost forgotten — a soul astray calling to us to include this relationship, this love and remembrance in all that we were here to do at this conference. This experience, with a language other than words and explanations used the symbolic world which can take us effortlessly into the realm of divine presence. I was thankfully made more present and attentive than I had been before.
As I followed the reports and watched what was taking place at the conference I realized that most participants, sincere and willing to make a difference to contribute to change for the planet with great effort, were nevertheless mostly concerned about themselves, about humanity. It seemed so much to be about what we as humans are doing, what we are thinking, what concepts we develop, how we are acting, and how we could be rescued. But what about the Earth herself? Was the Earth really present, even though there was much talk and action related to the planet? Did we feel the Earth as a being, with her anguish, her yearning to be related to? As a being that is made of light like us, that connects us all, that nourishes us, that we are a part of? Did we listen?
From a political perspective, the final outcome was a success —also due to much engagement of indigenous and environmental groups who gave a foundational energy to it — so much so that eventually they came to an agreement that all nations could sign. This process called for a tremendous amount of energy, and the many who worked and put their heart into this deserve our great respect. One could argue that — although the agreements on the necessary outer actions to be taken are far from sufficient — but since an agreement of all parties was a first priority aim, there was little or no space left for other concerns such as inviting in the presence of the Earth. To come to this consensus was work enough. However, if we look deeper things do not work in this way and are not as linear as we are accustomed to thinking. Could it not be the other way around? Is it that our approach is mainly from our human perspective, human centred, focusing on our own limited goals, and because it excludes the “presence” of the Earth that we need so much energy for agreements, so much effort to overcome our greed and competitiveness and antagonistic demands. I am convinced that if we had included the Earth, to which we are all interrelated and connected, and allowed her to be present in us, felt her suffering, acknowledged the light that we share with her, we would have spared much energy that we put into negotiations about our human needs and could have seen results far more easily.
The Earth was present. But she was not much present in the perception of the people–not present in a relationship. Shortly after returning home from the gathering I wrote to a friend, ” All the time in Paris my focus partly was on feeling the Earth, staying in close contact, listening to her soul – underneath the asphalt and the concrete, underneath the ceaseless talking and speeches and chatting, within the walls, the stones, the dirt, the numberless cars and traffic jams, and under the hopes and the dispair, the busyness, the talks and negotiations, the agitation and rage and the suffering. And she was there. She was waiting. She gave her love. I felt the Earth communicating her presence to me, her longing, her waiting. This was very touching”.
There was one experience in particular of this presence that left a deep imprint in my heart. It was when we walked with a small group of friends through the “ Climate Generations Area,” the space for civil society and NGOs that had been set up in a huge airplane hangar, where we were scheduled to have our panel discussion the next day. It was a crowded place with many events going on at the same time, noisy, chaotic, filled not only with exhibitions, talk and exclamations, but with the countless thoughts, emotions and the sorrows of people. It was like a big fair. Places like this are often difficult for me, and usually I am completely focused on coping with the overstimulation. But here in the midst of this noise and chaos there was suddenly a great silence in me. I turned my attention inwards and there was the Earth. She was here in this place, even though no one noticed. I listened. She conveyed not through words but again more through a feeling, how much she loves us – despite everything. In this place of so much action, of thinking, of outer engagement, far away from stillness was the depth and silence of the Earth’s love. It was as if she said, “I am here, I am so much waiting for you. Where are you? ” She was waiting for us to relate to her.
A second time when I felt the love of the Earth so fully was when our group went to pay respects at the memorial site for the victims of the Paris shootings. At Place de la République we prayed silently while some offered moving chants from the Lakota, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions. Even from across the street as we approached the memorial I could feel waves of love flowing through me and everything surrounding me, through all people, through stone and concrete, through a stray cat as well as the mild breeze of the early evening. The memorial site welcomed us as a place of sadness, of tears— and as a place of tremendous love. The grief of so many before us had been transformed into love, and this could be felt easily, but there was more to this love. I had the physical sensation of a love that rose from beneath my feet from the depths of the ground through the Earth flowing warmly to my heart.
Also here I felt the love of the Earth.
In this place where I sensed a violent rupture in the fabric of life, a deep wound that caused much grief and suffering, not only here but also in many other places of the world, I felt a tremendous love at the same time. The intensity of this love came from the Earth herself. I felt it in the cells of my body. I thought that it must be heart breaking and heart opening at the same time for many people who come here. In the midst of this great sadness I was left in awe at the wonder of this limitless love that is just present, prepared to transform and heal if we really opened to it.
The search for solutions to the crisis of our planet, and to climate change, is in large part based on suffering and deep wounds. It is not only we humans who suffer; it is the planet who suffers. Our planet Earth is being attacked every day, the Earth is being raped and plundered, violated and depleted on a daily basis. Humanity has forgotten the Earth is sacred, long forgotten this sacred relationship. The Earth suffers at this loss of relationship, and more and more, I hear people who tell me they hear the cries of the Earth.
To acknowledge this suffering is a first step in transforming it into love — a first step to access the tremendous love that is there waiting for us.
How can we do this? We can allow for space, listen to the Earth, relate to her and allow her to relate to us— and to feel. Feeling belongs to love. Without feeling, without acknowledging the pain, without feeling the grief, there is no love. When we allow for it, the suffering can be transformed, and then the love can flow into it.
At that moment when I felt the suffering as well as the love, the clarity and simplicity of what we all know but so often forget was deeply affirmed: there are no real solutions without love. No negotiations will be possible, will be fruitful and lasting if love is not present; not only love for our human fellow beings, but love for the Earth.
We all know that we need love and need to love. Great teachers of all traditions have stressed the importance of love and of relating to the Earth. We like to hear this, it gives comfort to the heart, we can agree so easily. And yet, while these teachings guide us and point us in the direction of where we need to go we must, in the end, go on our own two feet. We need to live the love, live it in our beating heart, coursing through our blood, pulsating in our cells. We must feel the pain and the joy and the heartbreak that comes with love and relationship. And sometimes it is also helpful to listen to each other so we don’t only understand it in an abstract way, but experience the love with the Earth concretely, how it speaks to us, how it touches us, what it feels like when the suffering is included. I am always moved listening to someone who experienced this relationship, this love. It reconnects us.
In beautiful and manifold ways all the friends on our panel stressed, explicit or implicit, from their different perspectives and traditions how important and crucial love is, when we are referring to the inner dimension of climate change. With gratitude I listened to the presentation holding the spark of hope in my heart and a prayer that the energy of love in these messages may spread everywhere, to the Earth and to those who were sitting day and night in the midst of negotiations for an agreement by the nations of this earth.
It is sad to realize that many of the decisions, politically as well as personally, are made out of fear. The need for action as a response to climate change is often emphasized through arguments of threat: “We are in danger. We are threatened to not survive.” We fear weather catastrophes, we fear the climate refugees, we fear hunger or those who are hungry. We act out of fear and fear divides and separates. What might happen if we were motivated not by fear but by love, not by separation or division, but by a sense of oneness?
Of course it would have been naive to expect all decision makers to fall in love with the Earth immediately or motivations changed instantly. But it is not naive to hope – acknowledging the oneness and interconnectedness of life – that by activating the feeling quality in our hearts of love for and from the Earth, recognizing Earth as a living and sacred being, could have added something to the whole and the whole of the process. By connecting with her light from the light within us could become an interwoven part of the way we work as humans, now and in the future and may bring about effect.
Which kind of effect—that of course, we will never know, as it is not in our hands, as it is not about us. Life remains a great mystery that we cannot plan for nor limit or define. We leave our prayers and experiences to that which goes far beyond ourselves. We leave it to love. We leave it to the great mystery of love. We offer it to God.
The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing. And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.
The state of the Earth is our most pressing concern. Our present ecological crisis is the greatest man-made disaster this planet has ever faced: the signs of global imbalance, climate change, and species depletion are all around us. The Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh calls these signs “the bells of mindfulness” calling us to be attentive, to wake up and listen. The Earth needs our attention—it needs us to help heal its body, damaged by our exploitation, and also its soul, wounded by our desecration, our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. We can no longer afford to ravage the Earth with our collective nightmare of consumerism, poisoning the soil and the soul of the world.
Our response to this crisis has been mainly within the arena of science, politics, and economics. But Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Praise Be to You: On Care for our Common Home, has helped to highlight the relationship between spirituality and ecology and to bring this understanding into the mainstream. The ecological crisis is, at its root, a spiritual and moral problem. As Pope Francis stated: “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.”
Science can show us the physical symptoms of a deep global imbalance, of a civilization no longer sustainable—and economic models illustrate how painfully this affects the poorest among us. But it is our sense of being separate from the Earth that has allowed us to abuse it. If we held the Earth as sacred, as part of the living oneness to which we belong, could we treat it in this way—would we pollute its rivers, kill off its species? Forgetfulness is a most potent poison, enabling our desires to destroy what is most precious. We need to remember that the Earth is whole as well as holy, and then, from a deepening sense of relatedness, we can engage in the vital work of “care for our common home.”
The Earth needs both physical and spiritual attention and awareness, our acts and prayers, our hands and hearts. Life is a self-sustaining organic whole of which we are a part, and once we reconnect with this whole we can find a different way to live—one that is not based upon a need for continual distraction and the illusions of material fulfillment, but rather a way to live that is sustaining for the whole. And this way to live in harmony with all of creation has at its core a remembrance, an awareness, of the sacred nature of creation, which is also our own sacred nature.
Hearing the cry of the Earth we are drawn together from all corners of the world, from different religions and spiritual paths. And in response we bring the single voice of our love for the Earth. May we remember our role as guardians of the Earth, custodian of its sacred ways, and return once again to live in harmony with its natural rhythms and laws.
Kevin Fisher lives and works as activist for global HIV treatment and prevention access in New York, but has begun the feel the pull of climate protection advocacy.
To experience the natural world in 2015 is to experience simultaneously its beauty and the stress, loss and pain caused by human action. How can we react? Is outrage consistent with contemplative practice? Is change possible without outrage?
On a warm Saturday night in September a few hundred people came together in New York City for an evening of singing, chanting and teaching entitled “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living” organized by Senior Monastics in Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition. The evening’s program, with its very “American” title as one monk wryly noted, had special significance coming during a month when Thich Nhat Hahn had spoken his first words after a year of debilitating illness. It was a time to stop waiting and to start talking. As we entered the auditorium and walked to find our seats, the monks exhorted us to sing with them immediately. We sang as we moved quickly to our seats. There would be no waiting.
The path to COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December, has been the story of talking and waiting over 20 years of UN negotiations. The aim of COP21 is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate among as many as 25,000 delegates from up to 190 countries to keep global warming below 2°C. An essential and critical goal, but how is consistent with mindfulness and living in the present. COP21 will come together to agree on a course of action for the next century that will engender conflicts of interpretation over decades. It would be difficult to envision a less “present” undertaking.
Yet if we engage and participate and contribute, is that work alien to contemplative practice? This issue was on the minds and the audience the monks shared their own experiences that night at “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living.” Can mindfulness co-exist with social activism. How does one bring oneself back to the present while also projecting out into the world? And what to do with anger that is so much a part of activism? The conversations that night left the impression that activism is one end of a seesaw that has at, it’s other end, mindfulness. This balance is one to be watched, managed and ultimately accepted. One thing is clear, a contemplative practice that embraces the notion that there is no waiting, is necessary, right and overdue as we approach COP21.