Animals as Spiritual Teachers: Wisdom from the More-than-Human World

We have been meditating lately on empires and patriarchy and misogyny and theocracy and authoritarianism or fascism—heavy topics indeed.  But necessary lest we run and hide from the “signs of our times” which include signs that disturb. 

Pure love: a tender moment between lion and lioness, Tanzania. Photo by Maurits Bausenhart on Unsplash

I think it is time to interrupt these important meditations briefly and visit a bit at a spiritual oasis, to come up for air and renew ourselves amidst the dark news that is making headlines.  

In a recent DM, we heard from Martin Buber how, among all animal species, only humans indulge in lying.

A human-centered consciousness has pre-occupied us during the modern era and is deeply responsible for the eco-emergency we find ourselves in.  Invariably, our human narcissism considers other species as objects to be used by humans and ignores the many spiritual gifts that the more-than-human world bestows on us.

Animals gift us regularly.  They, like the rest of creation, are truly original blessings.  Do animals not need religion because they are already spiritual?

What lessons do animals teach us about spirituality?  Consider what Job has to say (12:7-10):

Ask the animals,
and they will teach you.
Ask the birds of the air,
          and they will tell you.

Biologist Nan Hauser tells Ellen DeGeneres of the whale that saved her life…and then reunited with her a year later. TheEllenShow

Ask the fish of the sea,
          and they will declare to you.
Who among you does not know
          that the hand of God has done all this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing,
          and the breath of every human being.

Job sees all of creation as a giant classroom of life and wisdom. Animals, birds, plants and fish all have something to teach us humans.  Think of your cat or your dog as starters.

Rabbi Heschel reminds us that “our kinship with nature is a kinship of praise.  All beings praise God.  We live in a community of praise.”  He talks about the “sound of holy joy” that is the work of the community at worship.  Worship is a community thing.

At Boulder Crest Equine Therapy Retreat in Bluemont, VA, horses help veterans heal the invisible wounds of war. National Geographic.

For Heschel, it falls on humans to lead the 

silent worship of the rest of creation.  We are its cantors.  The cosmos is a congregation in need of a Cantor….It is humans who are the Cantors of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed..  [And] when we sing we sing for all things….The universe is a score of eternal music, and we are the cry, we are the voice.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, p. 94.

See also Matthew Fox, “Animals and Compassion”, in Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 158-171. 

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Shelter dog Benjamin Arturo reclines in a nursing home resident’s lap, part of a visiting program to spur adoptions and ease elders’ loneliness. Photo by Eli Christman on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

What spiritual or life lessons do you learn from animals in your life?  When you sing is it for all things?  Are we the cry and voice for other species as well as our own?

Recommended Readings

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice

In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity.
“Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register

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13 thoughts on “Animals as Spiritual Teachers: Wisdom from the More-than-Human World”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you tell us it is time to interrupt these important meditations briefly and visit a bit at a spiritual oasis, where we will meditate on the spirituality of animals and how they effect us. You remind us that Martin Buber said that of all animal species, only humans indulge in lying–and don’t say that other forms of life lie too, such as Venus Fly Traps–lying involves intention and choice, but plants and animals respond the way that nature programed them too. In other words they do not choose to lie, they are programed via instinct. etc. You ask: “What lessons do animals teach us about spirituality?” The twelfth chapter of Job tells us to: “Ask the animals,
    and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the fish of the sea, and they will declare to you.” Then, Rabbi Heschel reminds us that “our kinship with nature is a kinship of praise. All beings praise God. We live in a community of praise.” He even says that humans are the Cantors of the universe. You ask: “Are we the cry and voice for other species as well as our own?” Yes! We are the voice for the voiceless ones and the poor ones–the anawim.

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    Our pets keep us in touch. As we touch them they touch us in our most basic rhythms deep within. They remind us of our inner need for playfulness, rest, relaxation and restoration. They are uncluttered by chattering thoughts and are attuned to the healing rhythms of the earth and those same earth rhythms within our bodies
    They live in these healing spaces throughout their lives and bring us back to those spaces moment to moment as they dance with us and share our lives. With our pets help, people can be rescued or reconnect through touch; the blind can be independent; our hearts and bodies can heal; and we can relax and go to sleep.
    It is estimated that more than one-third of our general population suffers from insomnia. Our pets remind us to return to the most basic rhythms that sustain us. They help us “let go” and heal. If we are having difficulty sleeping, all we have to do is watch our pets sleep. Their innocence and soothing comfort in their sleep quiets us and helps us to sleep. We may watch their breathing as they sleep and allow our own breathing to calm and match their gentle rhythms. They assist us in surrender and attunement to our nature, as we are both the same deep within. Observing our pets is a type of living meditation and that observation itself eases us into meditation or sleep whichever our mind and body needs in the moment. We are one with them and they are one with us. From:

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    I have a very close relationship with the animals in nature. I’ve held a red breasted grouse beak and a wren in the palms of my hand, sending them love and light. All this spring and summer two does with their fawns would come at dusk and dawn, to feast on the wild foliage, to romp and play, within 3 feet of me. I’ve greeted the dawn of a new day in prayer on an inlet bay on the St. Lawrence River, greeting a mink whale. I’ve called to grey horned owls in the moonlit night, to have them meet me, flying inches from my head, in which I could feel the swoosh of their wings. I’ve canoed down streams in the Algonquins, as a heron flew directly over me, so close I almost touched her underbelly as I reached up in childlike delight. I’ve been gifted with hawk feathers, falling from the sky, floating in the wind. I am so very grateful for the many encounters I have been blessed with, and I always pay attention, observing, and listening… for they do indeed teach me amazing things. My journals are filled with the lessons I have learnt from my encounters with each one. They are all my Beloved brothers and sisters, whom need all of our protection from those whom are unaware of each one’s beauty and the medicine gift each one carries and gives of itself.

    1. Avatar

      Pets teach us how to live in the moment, how to greet loved ones with joy and enthusiasm, how to sleep when tired, how to thank those around us with loving eyes. What wonderful examples of how to live freely. Plants demonstrate the importance of following cycles of nature without complaint , how to cooperate with other beings , and how to radiate beauty. Much to learn if we pause and pay attention.

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    Another great consciousness-raising meditation from Dr. Fox. Animals possess consciousness that is “restricted,” compared to us, to the particular physical vehicles of their species. But they are of the consciousness that we all share. Rhetorical Question: If we were in a dog’s body what would we do? Jesus said “we must be like little children” and I might add that we should be like the unconditional love of puppies.
    Centuries ago when Natives lived in tribes it was much easier to be unconditionally loving – family-hunt-fish-work. Nowadays people are realizing the constraints on love. Puppies exude unconditional love and adult animals do too when they can trust us and that is the way we are! I have learned this over the years from my pets and the wild animals that I have fed most of my life.We are in the animals and they are in us as consciousness and matter.
    Anyone who buys a pet and gives it away is committing a deed of ignorance. Animals are devastated when we give them away. Picture ourselves in the dog or cat’s body!

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    Thank you Matthew and Carl Safina for reminding us of the sacredness and beauty of All of Mother Nature’s living creatures and that we’re all members of God’s family and Creation in Loving Diverse Oneness… We’re also reminded of the destruction/tragedies we have been committing as a human species to Mother Nature/Earth, all living species (thousands have already become extinct), and to one another, especially the last 500yrs. (whose historical roots of unbalanced, toxic patriarchy and values go back at least 6000yrs.). Now we are All (all living creatures in our Mother Earth) in an existential crises because our ongoing climate/environmental pollution and catastrophe continues to get worse. Our world industrial ‘civilization’ is definitely imminently ending (even though most of humanity is still unaware or in denial), and even our survival as a human species is truly in our Creator God’s Merciful Hands… As conscious human beings we have to continue having faith and praying in our daily lives of gratitude and compassion with one another and Mother Nature on our eternal spiritual journeys here on Mother Earth… Only faith in God’s Divine Love~Wisdom~Compassionate Mercy~Oneness can help us balance and integrate gratitude, joy, creativity, beauty, compassion, and sadness daily each in our unique human way in God’s Loving Eternal Diverse Creative Oneness….

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    Jenniffer- Beth Fulton

    We have as part of our household a dearest Golden Labrador, Selkie, who is constant companion, to lying on my feet at night, walking through the woods twice a day to lying with us as we retirees read, talk and meditate through our beautiful oceanside, elder lives.
    We have, ever since our marriage had one or more dogs living with us, and our most enduring lessons, especially those of unconditional love and compassion, have come from them. Horses too, when as a child and teen, I was a passionate rider and speaker with them.
    Thank you for your words / meditation, this morning.

    Thank you for your delightful communication this morning.

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    Animals can teach us pure being, if we can only pay attention. Many are sensitive to their human friends’ needs, not just those trained to be companion or therapeutic animals. I am not a dog person but am very much aware of what the reverse letters spell. My late husband was, and the last dog we had was a sweet miniature schnauzer, who came to lie down by my bed (even though I had mostly ignored her) in vigil as I was getting close to leaving this life. She was trying to comfort us.
    I also think animals can teach us lightheartedness and fun–just watch any young ones gambol and play. And, from what little I know from nature programs, bonobos spend a good deal of time having sex with whatever gender is available. They apparently are the least aggressive and warlike, unlike other apes. So, they literally model the command to make love, not war–other oldies will remember this mantra from the ’60’s.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Sue, you write today in part, “I know from nature programs, bonobos spend a good deal of time having sex with whatever gender is available. They apparently are the least aggressive and warlike, unlike other apes. So, they literally model the command to make love, not war–other oldies will remember this mantra from the ’60’s.” You are right about the bonobos, and because it is there nature to do so, they are a real problem for religious positions that say that sex is only for the purpose of procreation–for they show that sex just for pleasure is not “against nature.”

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    Dani Maron-Oliver

    I have most of my life believed that nature is our teacher. All animals, NH primates, birds, fish, insects, etc. The trees, plants, oceans, and land. It is said that if the birds and the bees become extinct, so does humankind. I believe that. Our planet, the Earth Gaia will always be here. We, heathen humans, may not. Respect for Nature has gone out of the window for greedy corporations. I have learned a lot from all of the creatures that have passed through my life.

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    Matthew, you quote Rabbi Heschel as saying, “The cosmos is a congregation in need of a Cantor….It is humans who are the Cantors of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed..” Since the sound of the big bang is still present everywhere, and the vibrations of all things in the universe produce sound, it seems doubtful to me that the cosmos “is in need” our voice. By listening to what is there, we can certainly join in with reverent respect, but the need is on our part. We need those sounds more than they need ours.

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