When I first heard the term “Animal Chaplaincy” my heart jumped. Though the term felt so familiar to me, a life-long animal lover and steward of the earth, I needed to know more about what Animal Chaplaincy actually embraced. I started off on a journey to find out. Luck was with me, as my advisor in my Masters of Divinity program agreed to let me formally study Animal Chaplaincy as an Independent Study project. Below is an excerpt from my report, along with some stories sharing some of my Animal Chaplaincy experiences.
My studies into the meanings of Animal Chaplaincy led me through a variety of terrain. In response to a verbal and on-line request, I received dozens of stories from pet owners and animal lovers. All the stories had in common a variety of ways that they, the humans, had been brought to a closer and deeper experience of oneness, interconnectedness and harmony with all species thanks to their interactions with animals. These experiences had reshaped people’s beliefs, ethics, how they lived their lives and raised their families.
Cultures throughout world history have attributed sacred qualities to animals that parallel those of angels or Bodhisattvas.The use of totem animals or animals as archetypes permeates mankind’s psyche no matter the era. Often these animals are seen as messengers to and from other realms of existence such as the Tibetan Wind Horse, appearing on every prayer flag as the deliverer of our prayers and the answers of those prayers.
Sometimes animals come to us to deliver a realization or message, something we have hungered for or need for our healing. Other times they offer their lives up seemingly as an act of sacrifice as you will see in the stories ahead.
In the modern world, animals are kept by humans as pets, raised for food, or exist in the wild in diminishing natural habitats. Our pets commonly provide companionship and friendship, but also are chaplains to our lonely hearts and souls. Sometimes they even take on the diseases and addictions of their human stewards.
Every day more and more animals are being trained as service or companion animals, from hospice care to assistants in the process of healing physical or emotional ailments such, depression, behavior modification, trauma, cancer, cerebral palsy, and more. The number of equine-assisted therapeutic centers is increasing by leaps and bounds as people become aware of the enormous benefit horses have in healing people of psychological traumas of all kinds. Equine assisted therapy is also used with inmates in a training program, teaching positive behavioral patterns and relationships, at risk youth to develop awareness of self and others, and veterans, in helping them heal from the traumatic effects of war.
Why Animal Chaplaincy is Important
The condition of the world today mandates that we find a new role for animals of all species. Many species have vanished already due directly or indirectly to mankind’s greed and ignorance. With the decline of the planet’s resources animals are losing ground at a rapid pace. Complications of global warming and climate change combined with an unchecked increase in human population have already eliminated the natural conditions necessary for the proliferation of many animal and insects. Honeybees, crucial to the ongoing supply of our fruits and vegetables, have suffered greatly in the past years. All proposed reasons proven or not, from cell phones to crop spraying, point to the ignorance, lack of foresight, and myopic nature of humankind.
It is quite possible that grandchildren will never witness the serene scene of a deer, horse, cow, goat or sheep grazing in a lush pasture. Some scientists have stated they feel the human species will be extinct within one hundred years. As more and more humans disconnect from our natural world, the sacred “outer-net” and plug their time and identities in the “inner-net” our great outdoors will continue to be developed, minimized and even further destroyed by the ravaging effects of human greed.
It is said that in the animal kingdom no species consumes more than they need. This poses a stark difference from the human world, historically claiming more and giving back less. For us to learn from animals now more than ever will allow us to co-exist and find spirit with the animal species whom are still with us. The survival of animals on this planet is crucial for us to create a more sustainable world. In doing so we are preserving the elements necessary for our inner and our outer worlds to co-exist. Not to learn these teachings immediately continues our plunge towards an artificially produced, lifeless, monotone existence where humans eat synthetically produced food and animal species are limited to what serves or feeds us.
It is for these reasons that we must collectively elevate our relationships with animals. Not only do they need our prayers and conscious intention to survive and thrive, but we need their wisdom and midwifery to higher realms of divine consciousness and experience, which they offer to us ever so generously. We must all become allies and advocate of Animal Ministry; bringing humans closer to spirit by fostering connections through co-existing and learning from animals.
Letting Go Of The Idea That We Are Superior to Animals
A prerequisite to accepting the ministry of animals is to let go of the idea that humans are superior in any way to animals or insects. Buddhists believe that humans are superior only in that they have the ability to make cognitive choices. It has been argued that many animals can also make cognitive choices. Chimpanzees can figure out how to cobble materials together to make a fishing line. A tame deer will decide if it wants a salty snack or a vegetable. Many of us have seen our pets cobble together various means to reach a hidden snack or toy.
My own dog Sadie once decided which items to pile together in her message to me that she missed our bike-rides. I came home one day to a pile containing my bike gloves, pump, toolbag and helmet, which she had stacked in my path to get her message across.
The Courage to Listen
It is no secret that our planet and its inhabitants are facing a crucial time. Opening to any kind of intuitive communication can be paramount to a sideswipe of difficult emotions. The level of suffering that many animals have gone through or continue to endure can be unbearable. Opening ourselves to the hope of a brighter, more sustainable and peaceful world where many species flourish depends on all of us developing a deep feeling of interconnectedness with all species we share the earth with. We cannot attain that goal unless we are willing to close the valve of our denial reservoir. We need to be aware of the suffering of all beings in order to truly help all beings.
How can our interactions with animals open us up to the Divine? We must firmly state our intention of recognizing interdependence with all forms of life. State it in any way you want: through prayer, meditation, oral affirmation, writing etc. State it when you are enchanted with an animal, whether it be observing a bird or squirrel on a wire, your beloved pet, an animal in nature, or a prayer for a road kill. We must literally, consistently and repeatedly express our desire to learn from animals, in our own words, throughout each day.
We need to consciously make a shift and infuse new intention into our everyday experiences with animals. This intention can be created spontaneously or can have some elements of a blessing. In Buddhism, many prayers end or begin with an emphatic “may it be so! or “may it…” We can individually create a “boiler plate” prayer or affirmation ready to fly whenever we see an animal. Something like “Thank you, beautiful deer, for sharing this moment and vision of the Divine Embodied!” Or, “Thank you humble earthworm for being a symbol of the transformation of the mundane into the Divine! Garbage into Gold!”
How Do Animals Show Up For You?
Another step towards gaining awareness of the ways animals bring us to the sacred sense of interconnectedness is achieved by us paying more attention to the ways animal show up in our lives. Have you ever had an animal show up at a very symbolic time in your life? Do you have recurrent dreams with a certain animal? Is there an animal you consider your totem animal? Do you dream of a former family pet? What are they telling you, and in what context?
Our Animal Radar
We must also re-define and refine our animal radar. Even if we are seemingly unplugged from nature, animals are in our daily life. At the least we are aware of animals in our daily lives in more than one way that is not related to food. At best, we will have a developed and refined awareness that includes attention to these animals. We can make a practice out continuing to refine our awareness of animals.
Perhaps we have a compost pile. When we make a deposit of compost we consider the many organisms, which will feed on that compost and assist in breaking it down to vegetable matter so we can feed our garden. Tibetan monks say prayers for all forms of live which suffer from our footsteps, car tires or construction sites during daily activities. Not only does this inclusive awareness take into consideration all beings of the past and present, it opens us up to an awareness that is beyond linear time and space. For most of us, being around wild or domestic animals opens us to that awareness, which places us on the steps of the realization of interconnectedness. From that place of open heart and mind, we are at the threshold of all things divine.
Intersections of Science and Spirit
The most exciting aspect of these studies into Animal Ministry are the areas where science and spirit meet. My studies drew me deeply into the language of animals-not just how they communicate with each other, but how they communicate with us. Though animal communication is not usually considered a science, there are a few scientists and animal behaviorists who link animal communication with aspects of quantum physics. The concepts of field theory and matrix theory posit the existence of a fabric of vibration, which connects us all regardless of our species or where we think we are in time and space.
In quantum physics there is a concept called “The butterfly effect.” In the book The Divine Matrix” Gregg Braden describes this as
” a small shift in perception we can tap the most powerful force in the universe in order to address even seemingly impossible situations. This happens when we allow ourselves a new way to seeing our role in the world.”
With conscious intention we can expand the feeling of interconnectedness we feel with our pet or encountered animal to include all sentient beings. Our love for animals can be a gentle gateway opening to increased altruism and an overall increased sense of peace and acceptance. This small shift in how we respond to animals can, on a quantum level, add to the healing of the planet. By dedicating and offering the love we feel for animals to all beings in all space and time we are entering into the path of pure spirit, the path of one-ness.
A Simple Meditation on the Interconnectedness of Life
Sit or lie flat in a comfortable, quiet place where you will be undisturbed. This can also be done when waking up or before going to sleep. First, clear your mind of your own chatter in whatever way is comfortable. Relax your entire body with at least three deep abdominal breaths. Imagine you are in a natural environment that nourishes you and fills you with peace. Imagine a place in this environment designated for your invited animal guests. It can be a grove, a wall of flowers, a lush field, whatever would be perfect to nourish the animals you are going to invite in.
Visualize in your mind’s eye an animal. This can be an animal known or unknown to you and is not limited by confines of time and space. If your mind/heart produces a family pet from the past or present, or an animal you met in nature, your totem animal, even a mythic animal, let it be so! There are no limits to the number of times you can utilize this practice, so trust the image that produces itself first!
Find and acknowledge the place in your being where you are aware of the spaciousness of this animal’s consciousness and what it evokes in you. As Jean Houston states in the forward to Russel Targ’s book Limitless Mind,
“beyond the usual bandwith of local perception and memory and enter a field of knowing in which much larger information can be accessed.”
Once you can stabilize that image in your mind, take a few more deep belly breaths. Thank that animal for accepting your invitation into this sacred space, existing beyond the confines of linear time. Tell the animal that you have a deep reverence for how animals teach interconnectedness with all that is divine and ask that animal to help you learn this. State your intention in no uncertain terms. Let this animal know that you are intent on discovering and becoming a conduit for healing; of self, and of the planet. Ask this animal to engage with you in your explorations towards realizing Divine Interconnectedness. Ask them to give you guidance, or to be a symbol of new truth or realization. Utilize different verbal and non-verbal means to get your message across. This can include sending pictures, saying words, getting a waft of feeling or emotion or other ways.
Give permission to this animal to show up on an ongoing basis in your day or night dream life, your prayers, or any other way imaginable. Teachings from animals can come from a variety of ways. Allow your animal the same creative freedom in how they respond to you. Pledge to find the place inside yourself where you are open to all forms of communication. Be open to whatever the message is the animal has for you. You might have a dream, or silently hear words, or see images.
Imagine that next to you are other humans, experiencing the same thing. They can be your friends, loved ones, or family members. The people around you should also include people you have never met such as victims of war or disease. They should include some people you have had conflict with, or a group or community who hold opposing beliefs as you. Imagine then their friends and relatives, and on and on until your field of imagination is filled with infinite others who are directly experiencing and sharing with you the deep reverence and place of peace in the presence of this animal. Feel your chest expand with that deep love and reverence.
In a similar Buddhist practice , included would be people you love, people you hate, and people you have a neutral feeling for. For us to open to the spiritual gifts that animals offer us we must neutralize our human position to think of ourselves as equals to other species. Be creative with how you expand this visualization. Sometimes I take it further to imagine all the animals who served those imagined people as pets, work animals, coincidental encounters, or even as food. Break it down even more and include the forms of life that existed on those pets, such as their fleas, parasites, etc. Though their existence is probably habitually experienced as negative, imagining them now serves to expand our awareness beyond our judgments, identify and neutralize our aversion to include beings of all realms, releasing us from the limits of time and space.
Imagine that all beings are giving thanks and joy for the existence of all animals, represented here by the one you invited in. All these beings are pledging to preserve and serve the existence of all beings on our planet. We can now thank the animal for the role it took in helping us expand our awareness. We can dedicate the healing love we felt to all sentient beings, our difficult coworker, or family member. We can also dedicate any benefit that was derived from this exercise to a cause such as the global warming, war, cancer, Free Tibet. animal rights, whatever you wish.
After we dedicate this prayer, take a few more breaths, then resume our daily activities.
As you read through these stories, I think some of you will find that you, too, are Animal Chaplains/Animal Ministers. I look forward to hearing from you about how animals have played a role in bringing you closer to the Divine.
Animal Ministry Bibliography
- Boone, J. Allen, Kinship With All Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976)
- Braden, Gregg, The Divine Matrix; Bridging Time, Space, Miracles and Belief (New York: Hay House, Inc., 2007)
- Cotner, June, Animal Blessings; Prayers and Poems Celebrating Our Pets (New York; Harper Collins, 2000)
- Grandin, Temple, Animals in Translation (New York: First Mariner Books, 2006)
- Grandin, Temple, Animals Make Us Human (New York: First Mariner Books, 2010)
- Kohanov, Linda, Riding Between the Worlds (Novato, California: New World Library, 2003)
- Kohanov, Linda, The Tao of Equus (Novato, California: New World Library, 2003)
- Meeder, Kim, Hope Rising (Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc, 2003)
- McElroy, Susan Chernack, All My Relations; Living with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Novato, California: New World Library, 2004)
- McElroy, Susan Chernack, Animals as Teachers and Healers; True Stories and Reflections (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1997)
- McElroy, Susan Chernack, Animals Guides for the Soul; Stories of Life-Changing Encounters (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1998)
- Sheldrake, Rupert, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (New York; Random House, 1999)
- Talbot, Michael, The Holographic Universe, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)
- Targ, Russel, Limitless Mind; A Guide to Remote Viewing and Transformation of Consciousness (Novato, California: New World Library, 2004)
- Williams, Marta, Learning Their Language; Intuitive Communication with Animals and Nature (Novato, California: New World Library, 2003)
- Williams, Marta, Beyond Words; Talking With Animals and Nature (Novato, California: New World Library, 2005)
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