Jean sits with Teton Totem the grizzly bearPhoto by: Earthfire

 by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

I keep thinking of offering a duct tape retreat, where we place metaphoric duct tape across our mouths so we are reminded to only speak when something comes from the depths of us; and when we are with the animals, we do not speak at all. When I mention such a retreat some people look at me in horror; others with great appreciation.

When we speak from the depths, what we have to say will be something that enriches the group. It comes from our own unique reception of an inner wisdom. Social chatter and informational questions remove us from direct experience. Speaking in general activates a different part of the brain than one that senses. Unless we are very mindful of what we are saying it takes us away from direct experience into abstract thought. It is an enormous human gift but one that, if we overindulge, costs us some of the richness and meaning of life, which comes from non-verbal heart and energy connections.

When we meet animals, we need to sink into another place; one without words; one that we long for but also feels scary and alien because the culture doesn’t support it. We also are so conditioned that visitors to Earthfire, who have gone to great lengths to come here, may need to be reminded, “You are with a bear for perhaps the only time in your life. Don’t talk to each other…..” By talking to another human we are taking the experience and immediately leaving it by shifting to sharing it with another human, rather than keeping it between us and the animal. Shifting our attention to another brain mode and to a human breaks the connection. The sharing can come later.

Teton Totem, our huge grizzly bear, is particularly sensitive to this. He gets upset when people look “at” him as a fascinating object (“Wow—look at those paws. Those nails…”). The temptation is understandable, especially if you have never been up close to a bear before. But he doesn’t care about that- he wants us to acknowledge him. It is as if a human meets another human and instead of greeting them, we look at their fingernails and comment about them. Good manners are good manners across species. And he gets really upset when we are disconnected chattering heads. A part of it is that is he is a bit of a prima donna. He is totally magnificent and expects to be appreciated and have your full attention, which he loves. If you don’t attend to him he will make beckoning motions with his paw. But it is more than that. He is insulted when he is looked at as an object rather than met as a being. He may even lose his temper. He can’t communicate with us if we shift from tuning in to him to talking with other humans. We in turn miss the point of a visit and leave feeling somehow still hollow, cheated of what we hoped to find, without quite knowing why. We miss the gift of experiencing feeling the emotions the animals have and they in turn feeling ours in a responsive back and forth. But it is very hard for us, with a lifetime of conditioning, and our brilliant overactive human brains set on high idle.

I think all animals are sensitive to this “insensitivity” in humans. They are confused by it. They don’t like it. (There’s the wonderful example of the chimpanzee who throws feces at visitors in a particular zoo, whose name I can’t remember, when people look at him as a curiosity, pointing and laughing). Domestic animals are more used to it but wild ones I think wonder at us in their own nonverbal way… “how come they don’t hear us? How come they are so out of it?” It is one reason I limit visits here –so people can try to really listen. It is difficult to achieve that in larger groups with the electricity of many human brains buzzing, and it is tiring for the animals to receive too many guests who need to be re-oriented.

I took a horse pack trip with three artists deep in the heart of a trackless wilderness in northern British Columbia for a month. No trails, no overhead planes, no satellite communications, no other humans. Two things struck me powerfully; the immense humming resonant exquisite communion that goes on in true wilderness – and my mind constantly chattering about ridiculous and irrelevant things. Things I could do nothing about until I returned. I’d catch it, stop it, and find myself doing it again. Laundry? Really? The tremendous push for our brains to chatter was made vividly apparent to me. It is hard to resist.*

One of the main goals of eastern meditation practice is to quiet our hyperactive, constantly firing brains so that we can hear quieter voices, and it is a lifetime practice. It is not easy. Our very own brains lead us astray, and culture leads us towards distraction and disruption rather than deep feeling and intuitive sensing. There are indigenous cultures where a visit consists of traveling to your friend, sitting next to them without a word for a few hours drinking tea, enjoying one another’s presence, and leaving. We have forgotten how to do this.

Animals help bring us back to ourselves, and wild animals even more so. They force us to attend. Our beloved domestic ones let us get away with too much. Convenient for us, but not good for us. Spending quiet time with a grizzly bear, wolf, lynx or any wild animal who feels comfortable and respected, can be a life changing, profoundly rich experience. As can just sitting quietly in nature surrounded by the whispers of other living beings.

* (I wrote about the effect of days and weeks of silence in the wilderness in “Into the Space and Silence“)

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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