The Animal Soul of Life (Beneath the Human Clutter)

© Anne Benvenuti | May 2017
Photo © Thomas Espinosa

“I would say, if you’ve never seen a horse or touched a horse, just touch it. Because if you touch it, then you’ll feel the soul” (Farrah Akbar, age 8). The quotation is from a New York Times article that I read this morning about human-animal relations, Why Close Encounters With Animals Soothe Us, about urban kids in Los Angeles getting horse-fixed.

I had begun the morning resisting the urgent flashes of the latest headline news, and resisting, too, my own compulsion to fish for “likes.” I’ve been learning that my attention is my own most basic and precious resource and I too easily fritter it away. So I strive each day to conserve and to direct this most fundamental thing, my own attention, so that I actively take it back from insidious intrusions and give it intentionally to what I love.

This morning I had decided I would settle down to read for pleasure but first I found that I didn’t want to read at all. I wanted to look out the window, to engage the small female goldfinch who sat on my deck rail twittering gently under the gray sky and the newly green branches of the oak tree. I looked from the window and twittered ever so gently, watching the bird hop and cock her little head. She had apparently thought she was alone. I wondered what she might make of this huge creature affectionately twittering through the open window in the wall that separated us. She seemed to be expecting someone other than me and she never did seem to identify me as the source of the sound that moved her.

As I began reading, I found myself perusing a couple of short pieces about decluttering, a phenomenon that has been sweeping the cultural landscape. Everyone is decluttering, even my beloved rough and tumble handy-guy, Tim, who, I’m pretty sure, has never read Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I bought the book many months ago, and now that book is one of the things that must go; it doesn’t give me sufficient joy to keep it. I’m a little late to the decluttering party, partly because I have given my attention to a project that I love over the past year, and partly because I have been attempting to declutter my mind. So I have been in close encounters with the prefrontal cortex of my brain, the part which gives us our capacity to direct our own attention, and which is also home of the renowned “reward center” that allows my attention to be hijacked by informational candy.

When I found the article about the kids and the horses, I knew I’d found something worthy of my attention: this is something I love to think about, to read about, and to get out and actually do. When I got into it, I found the author making statements so close to those that I first expressed in Spirit Unleashed that I wondered for a moment why he didn’t cite it! The answer, I think, is that I am part of a wave, that Spirit Unleashed was on the front end of a wave, but that it and I are part of a very beautiful something bigger, a rediscovery by people all over the world of our animal souls. Yes, I think we are finding our lost selves in the company of other animals, and we simultaneously learn, as soul work requires, that the other is not me and not mine, but a sovereign of its own.

In medieval times the term vox anima, the voice of the soul, was understood to come from the deep life force that connects everything. The vox anima is not our thinking mind, but comes from a place deeper than the voice of culture, the media, politics, our own autobiographical recitations, and all the fracas of the human circus. It comes from some place other than those language processing regions of the brain that regurgitate stories we humans tell ourselves about the world, and about ourselves, and about who does and doesn’t like us. I continue to assert that the deep places in brain and body where we are connected to other animals is where our souls—and theirs—reside.

And yes, this desire to encounter other animals is some kind of phenomenon as humans all over the planet seek out other kinds of animals to be with. In fact, it’s what I have been doing with my own attention and all my other resources over the past year. I’ve traveled from the north of England to the bush of South Africa, from the Idaho mountains to the ocean lagoons of Mexico. I have sought out animals domestic and animals wild, and also I have found strange hybrid categories, like the “domesticated wild animals” of Earthfire Institute and the newly untethered and undomesticated farm animals of Farm Sanctuary. I’ve traveled and talked and listened to the animals and to the humans who love them. The encounters have been real: I’ve been bitten by one parrot and one fox and I have rubbed the baleen of a baby whale…and I’ve stepped on some human toes along the way.

An important thing I’ve noticed over and over again as I listen to people doing this labor of love is that there is a strong core value in this work, that individual lives matter—a sharp contrast to the robo-service world in which neither you nor I nor any given animal matters a damn. In the world of human-animal relations, every life matters, simply because it is a life, and because how we treat each life is the process that creates the whole of life for all the beings who are Life at any given moment. It is, in short and pointed language, the antidote to the machine and market metaphors that have almost killed our collective soul and our planet in recent decades.

The book that I’m working on now, Kindred Spirits, is about the particular lives of animals and people I’ve met all over the planet, about what happens when humans value and care for other kinds of animals. This story is, I think, one of the greatest happenings on Earth at this moment. It’s certainly got my attention, as I reach to encounter the soul of life beneath the clutter of my mind and the clutter of human ways.

As I look up now, I notice the little goldfinch is here again, now with a couple of her friends, enjoying the seed that I put out for her. Why is this simple thing a source of  joy, just being in her presence? I am especially pleased when we gradually and carefully relax together, so that I can write as she gives her attention to what nourishes her: the green on green of the forest, her community of birds, the moment, the seed.

I invite you to meet me here in this blog space over the coming weeks and months as Kindred Spirits takes its shape, and as I share stories and ideas that are part of it, yearning to express vox anima.

About Anne Benvenuti

My second book, "Kindred Spirits" is in gestation, soon to be delivered! My first book is called "Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations," June 2014, Wipf and Stock. From the book jacket: "In Spirit Unleashed, Anne Benvenuti uses analysis of real encounters with animals, wild and domestic, to take us on an intellectual tour of our thinking about animals by way of biological sciences, scientific psychology, philosophy, and theology to show that we have been wrong in our understanding of ourselves amongst other animals. The good news is that we can correct course and make ourselves happier in the process. Drawing us into encounters with a desert rattlesnake, an offended bonobo, an injured fawn, a curious whale, a determined woodpecker, and others, she gives us a glimpse of their souls. Anne Benvenuti strongly makes the case that to change the way that we think about animals—and our way of relating to them—holds the possibility of changing all life on Earth for the better."I am an integrative scholar and author, a licensed clinical psychologist, a priest of the Episcopal Church, a Trustee of the Parliament of the World's Religions (and representative to the United Nations), a published poet, and photographer. The New Archaic: A Neurophenomenological Approach to Religious Ways of Knowing," in A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field: Bridging the Humanities/Neurosciences Divide, ed. Barbara Maria Stafford, University of Chicago Press, 2011. My recent presentations include "Promise and Peril: Can Religious and Political Selves Be Reconciled?" at the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, Berlin, 2011; "The New Archaic: Neuroscience, Spiritual Practice, and Healing" at the Parliament for the World's Religions, Melbourne, 2009; and "Gratefully at Home in the Body: Neuroscience and Spiritual Practice," at Spiritual Directors International, San Francisco, 2010.
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