Animals, Heart, and Self
The equinox has passed and the weather, at home, and here at the Atlantic shore, has turned decidedly autumnal. Day after day has featured damp and chill. Fog shrouds the ocean. Fortunately, many trees and plants are wearing their fall raiment, providing bursts of brilliant color in the dimly lit landscape. Here and there a squirrel may be seen. Birdsong fills the air
Yesterday we were in Cambridge, MA, near Harvard Square, where I happened to notice a young rabbit grazing adjacent a busy sidewalk. The rabbit and I looked at each other, perhaps being four or five feet apart, as other people, many attached to cell phones, moved briskly past. The rabbit was about the size of a gray squirrel, and similar in color. This chance meeting deep in the heart of our urban universe left me wondering how many other denizens of nature we walk by each and every day.
Technological culture places animals outside, as other. We build cities of glass and concrete, and place most other species on reservations. We identify with a few wild species such as wolves, eagles and bears as totemic friends, sources of health and power, or apt emblems for our athletic teams or governments. When displaced species turn up in our urbanized environments we are amazed, often bewildered, and frequently inconvenienced. It is almost as though we are afraid of wildness, our own, or that of the other.
For many of the world’s Indigenous people, animals live in the heart. We are born with them. Each animal is a soul and contributes to our Selfhood. Perhaps one animal is understood to be a “power animal,” and the loss of that soul may result in illness or death. While wolf or bear may be such an animal, so might minnow or shrew, cockroach or cowbird.
Unlike the Western view of a person with a solitary soul, the Nativist view is often one of complexity. Just as mind is composed of many selves, each person may be perceived as containing multiple souls. Rather than unitary, both personality and Self may be understood to be vastly complex and collaboratory.
As we explore Self, we may discover we hold the world, and all Her myriad beings, within our hearts. As my Amazonian teachers might say, “We hold the rain forest within us”. To lose a species, no matter how apparently insignificant, is to lose an aspect of self. Yet, in another sense, nothing is lost. We hold ancient trilobites as self, as surely as we hold eagle.
What is truly lost is the sense that each of us, regardless of physical or social stature, is infinitely vast, and unimaginably complex. To put it another way, we may forget each of us is sacred. We are connected to all that is, has been, or will be. Self touches all species across all Earth time, the gods, and our Ancestors and progeny across all generations.
To forget these things is to be diminished, and to risk losing soul.
Traditionally, Western psychotherapies take these loses for granted, understanding them, when considering them at all, to be the inevitable consequence of progress. More often, the unitary focus of these therapies problematizes experiences of complexity, save for the many selves inherent in mind. Even Jung, who often suggested that world or nature underlies self, appeared to flinch at the possibility that the other might well be a requirement of Self.
Therapies and healers may also question the veracity of patience. Many patients who come to see therapists and healers report feeling diminished at heart. The term, “patient,” implies waiting, and imagines paying attention to the possibility of healing, even in the absence of a cure. Many of life’s most rewarding and mysterious tasks require patience: healing, waiting for a vision, raising children, and creating in the studio or kitchen to name a few.
This idea of patience and patients has been set aside by many, replaced by “client”, one who seeks instant relief and retains aid via payment. It is as though the idea that one may be attuned with, and connected to, the slow, ever-changing, play of life on this lovely plant, filled with mystery and amazement, has become subsumed in ideas of power, control and consumption. Even the Self, in its vastness, richness, and complexity, is reduced to “one who purchases and consumes”.
First Nations people in the Far North dread encounters with Windigo, spirit creatures with unquenchable appetites and hearts of ice. In their terrible hunger, Windigo threaten to consume the world, to devour every soul and living thing. Always eating, yet never filled, their hunger is never satisfied.
Windigo lack patience, self-control, and any awareness of the mystery and magnificence of others. They cannot stop searching for prey long enough to see the beauty in the small or mundane. They ceaselessly seek to devour the other, having no awareness of kinship and belonging. Nor do they realize that eventually Spring will return to melt their icy hearts and leave them bereft, all too aware of the costs of their all-consuming hunger.
Our culture has become Windigo. Those patients who come for aid, so often wish only a place of warmth and the opportunity to rediscover connection, to themselves and others. They long to remember the complexity and vastness of being, and to hold fast to that remembering. They hope to once again touch the varied souls alive in their hearts, to be filled with life and relatedness, and to be healed and whole.
Psychotherapy, at its best, offers the warmth of compassion and experiences of Self. Shamanism, and other forms of traditional healing, offer these, along with connection to souls, spirits, and all that is. Both provide refuge from Windigo, and the possibility of life lived with passion, mystery, and companionship. Supporting patience, they open doors to the sacred.