Fast Wisdom™, Newsletter of Holden Healing Studio
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May, 2016
By Lonner Holden

Empathy: Animals as Teachers and Healers

The fire-red clouds beyond the broad window panes held the color as silently as the rising of the sun. Dawn in southern Utah this morning was not shy, yet no sound came from it.  Until the dogs trotted in to the living room where I was enjoying being filled up by the view. Their claws on the hardwood floor, a random clatter, one wet cold snout after another came around the end of the comfortable sofa I had spent the night on. Kaibab nosed my hand, Rio my cheek, Pecos just looked into my eyes and huffed as she lay down on the floor next to me. They greeted me into their day with the acceptance of the most refined host. I felt completely relaxed and quietly happy as they invited me even deeper into the here and now. Effortlessly and with simple sincerity I was instantly surrounded by total hospitality.

I reached out and stroked these dusty ranch dogs.  A head pushing into the rub behind an ear; a paw lifting to ask for more; a slow, quiet moan as a hand slowly traversed the muscled ridge of a reclined spine, the four of us engaged in unspoken affectionate dialogue until Sue, my generous human host, came out to make the morning coffee and feed the dogs breakfast.

Ears up, alert and spying the chef, they read Sue’s every move for only seconds before the ritual dash to the kitchen erupted and I was left to admire alone the color fading from the clouds.

I was in Kanab, Utah to speak and teach for four of my five days visit. The focus was on animals and our healing relationship with them. What better company to reflect on the subject with than animals themselves.

Weeks before I was at a screening of the movie “Born Free”, a true story about the raising of rescued wild lion cubs in Kenya in the 1960’s and the destiny of one grown cub lioness Elsa, to finally be released at great risk to her survival back into the wild.  But the story, as most stories about animals, was about that indelible connection between humans and animals and how we cannot help ourselves but to care for them.

Human - animal relationship goes back very far a million years before even our hunter-gatherer past. We learned to discern threat and safety changes in the environment from the birds as they moved and vocalized in specific patterns. Tracks in the dirt led us to a meal and away from becoming one. Our language, how we adapted to the environment, our dances, music and tools were completely influenced by animals - you don’t hunt a lion with a fish hook and you don’t make your home in trees with leopards.

We learned to tame wild animals and use them as early warning of danger, to hunt, pull, carry and plow. Through domestication, they became dependent on us and we dependent on them.  Our connection to nature as sharing wildness with the animals shifted. As we bred wildness out of them, it faded from our veins too. The symbiotic inter-dependency deepened as we created populated centers and, no longer nomadic, protected from the threats of wild creatures, the animals we kept in those same walls with us became as fearful of the dark forest as we.

Humans lost connection with nature through the great capacity to create tools. As we became increasingly cognitive we became less sensory oriented to the environment.  Our ability to think in abstractions intensified the complexity of conceiving scenarios for outsmarting each other. We traded in instinct for calculation. Until we became experts at outsmarting ourselves. You know how hard it is sometimes to know the simple truth of what you even feel. That is an expression, I believe, of the commonplace difficulty of humans being present, where in the present no deception or confusion can survive.

Yet the animals we kept didn’t need to know how to make tools or fend for themselves  for we cared for them.  They inherited the gift of a blessed laziness in that regard. They got to stay in their senses - simple, present, honest, spontaneous and generous.

In preparation for this time in Kanab, I interviewed many people, asking the same question, “ What, for you personally, accounts for the connection between humans and animals?” I received a vast array of responses: “When I picked up a goat, Buddy, he just looked at me for the longest time. [He] studied every line and detail of my face.  I felt so seen by Buddy at my first meeting him.” “When I pet my cat and I am not present, she bites me. She knows when I am not present.” A quote from the philosopher Henry Beston, “Once you come to that realization that we all suffer - humans and animals alike - then you feel the connection.”

Someone asked me my own question and I didn’t have an answer. In the airport on my way to Utah it came to me while watching a small boy with his father and observing how simple, present, honest, spontaneous and generous - how animal like he was: Emotion.

It is emotion which returns us to our sensory intelligence. When you are more aware of emotions are you also more aware of sights, sounds, smells and texture? Is the world more alive for you? And is the reciprocal also true? When you explore or notice the world in a sensory manner, are you more aware of emotions?

When we were trackers a long, long time ago, we would “put on the skin of the animal”, feel what the animal felt, engage in a deep empathy with them. This made it easier to “know” where they were going and to help ourselves procure food or avoid becoming it. When you pet your cat, ride a horse or watch your dog chase a Frisbee, do you not “feel” them, feel like them and appreciate the quality of that long nap, wild chase or enthusiastic, barely patient electric just-before-the-bowl-gets-put-down jazzed celebration of food in your own body? We know their delights because we are animals too.

Animals heal the bonding we lose along the way of living in our difficult world. They effortlessly allow re-connection to our senses and emotions through empathy we can trust. They may try to take the ball away, but they reliably never deceive. They accept us for who we are because they never deceive themselves of who they are. We can come back into our bodies, freer for a while from the entrapment of over-cognitive engagement with our world that severs bonds of connection.

I know I feel more human when I am in the presence of animals as they gift me back my humanity where honesty, spontaneity and being present arise naturally. The child in me, witnessed, gets to relax back into the solace of sensory simplicity, more present, reconnected. Especially sometimes at sunrise just before breakfast. What about you?


Jin Shin Jyutsu:

Each finger represents a season and a landscape:
  • Thumb - Hottest part of Summer - Deserts
  • Index: Winter - Rivers & Oceans
  • Middle: Spring - Mountains
  • Ring: Autumn - Forests
  • Little: Summer - Plains
Let your imagination go free as you wonder of what animals might be most associated with each season and landscape as you gently hold their representative finger for 2-3 minutes each (or longer if you feel so disposed). Restorative Nature Practice:
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, allow your breath to relax. Meditate on the animals you have known and how they affected your life.
  • What do you feel in your body?
  • Where do you feel it in your body?
  • Does that sensation have a voice and what might it say?

Nutrition: Let's let this month be about what the animals eat:
  • What food do you feed your pets?
  • Is it wholesome or over-processed?
  • What are the animals eating in the wild now?
  • How do these reflections bring awareness to your own sense of being part of the food chain as a consumer and a supplier?
  • How do you participate in being a nurturing presence when it comes to what animals eat?

NEXT MONTH:  Soil:  Home of all Life


Lonner Holden:
Being a Jin Shin Jyutsu acupressure practitioner for 24 years has helped me understand the healing potential of the body and the whole person.  A published poet and backcountry guide educated from early life by the natural elements and animals of the Alaskan wilderness, and with Animal Track & Sign certification, my knowledge of dance, trail running, yoga, meditation, body awareness disciplines and indigenous nature connection practices, I bring poetry, nature mentoring and a lifetime of nature awareness to Vive!  Nature Wander™ urban and wilderness treks to enhance awareness, creativity, vitality, health and well-being.


VIVE!  Nature Wander™
Marin County: June 25, July 23

Marin County Tracking Club,
Point Reyes: June 26, July 31

Marin Poetry Center Summer Traveling Show Poetry Reading: Larkspur Library July 21; 7:00 pm

Into the Wild Journeys:
Grand Canyon 2016
10% Early-Bird Discount & Video

Writing from Nature Within You
Workshop; Co-teaching with Jim Baldwin at Book Passage Book Store, Marin County, August 21, 2016


See events on calendar »




Fast Wisdom™ is the newsletter of my Holden Healing Studio practice.  Each issue explores a theme of living  in the context of healing so you can live a happier and more vital life infused with well-being, improved health and more effective and empowered recovery.

© 2016 Lonner Holden
Fast Wisdom™
Copyright © 2016 Holden Healing Studio, All rights reserved.

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