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Healing by interspecies communion

When I was very young, about 4 or 5 years old, my family lived on an acre of land that was surrounded on three sides by farms. Not having other children to hang out with, I recall walking along the fence calling to the cows that meandered through the fields to come and visit me. Using the long grasses that grew along the fences, I was able to gently lure them over, where I would perform songs and dances to entertain my rapt audience. What stands out to me most about these memories was the feeling that I was looking into someone else’s eyes that connected with me. I felt the presence of these gentle, slow-moving creatures. I felt calm being close to them. I also felt less alone. I felt love and curiosity towards them and their young.

I connected easily and deeply with other animal species as a child, including our family dogs and cats, fish, and hamsters. When I was only 13, I stopped eating animals, much to my family’s chagrin. This was not from a sense of moral superiority. I simply could not separate the animals from the food products they became. Later in life, I studied animal consciousness and selfhood as part the work to earn my PhD. I have a deep desire to find intellectual evidence to support my intuitive understanding of other animals. I experience their fear, vulnerability, and pain as a form of resonance.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I read Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy: Awareness, Breath, Resonance, Movement, and Touch in Practice (North Atlantic Books, 2020) by Susan McConnell and Dick Schwartz, that I recognized the resonance I was feeling was with the parts of animals. Could it be that animals also have vulnerable, scared, and wounded parts and that my own parts resonate with?

I work with many clients who have suffered from traumatic wounds of various kinds, commonly from childhood. It’s common for them to have a particularly strong resonance with others who have been victimized due to their less-powerful status. McConnell and Schwartz write, “The implicit stories of the parts’ neuronally based and embodied relational patterns floating in the intersubjective, often turbulent waters of the therapeutic relationship compel a response that may require therapists to descend into the mysteries of their own bodymind… Rather than being an observer or even an experienced guide, the therapist reverberates with the tremors of abuse, neglect, betrayal and abandonment.” I believe this holds true for human-animal relationships, as well.

Some non-human animals, like mammals and birds, have nervous systems and brain structures that are similar to ours. In fact, their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can be understood by us and vice versa. Humans typically define themselves as distinct from animals, but this gap is more cultural than biological. Objectively, we are animals. We think and feel in similar ways as other species do.

From my perspective, animals have parts, too. This includes some that are burdened and some that are not. We humans have parts that not only resonate with animals, but these parts can also come into conflict with animal parts. Our human/animal relationships can be impacted and shaped in the very same ways that our parts respond and react to the parts of the humans around us. In my study of selfhood, I was fascinated with the idea (and evolutionary claim) that animals and humans are on a continuum of self-awareness and self-consciousness. I believe now that Self is present in animals, humans, and in greater nature. When my inner parts and Self are connected, I begin to sense Self in other species and in the natural world more keenly.

In No Bad Parts (Sounds True, 2021), Dick Schwartz writes, “Currently, we view ourselves and our fellow humans as fundamentally selfish and flawed, which leads to dog-eat-dog, ruthless economic and social systems. And because we approach our problems out of context (that is, non-systemically), our attempted solutions to those problems often make things worse—namely, harming the planet and creating masses of exiled people. Exiling is toxic to any system. It severs our connection to our own bodies, to the Earth, and to the divine.” I would add to this that we also sever our connection to animals. As we heal our own inner systems, we regain our connection to other life on the planet.

Other IFS therapists or coaches have described the same experience to me. I’ve gained a sense of their profound love for planet Earth and all its animals. I’ve had many discussions about how connecting with animals and just being in nature can help us connect with Self-Energy. Environmental philosophy presents the concept of biophilia, or the desire to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature, the tendency to commune with nature. Call it love for nature and life itself. From my perspective, this results from the fact that we are fundamentally made up of the same stuff, the same biological components and elements. We have all evolved together on this planet. A sense of Self—including the macro ecological Self—is who we are.

The burdened parts we humans embody (by experiences or the legacies of our families and ancestors) are analogous to the burdened parts animals express. And animals have an inner source of healing for themselves and others. Inter-species healing is possible. I have experienced it and, most likely, so have you. If we accepted that other animals have a Self and parts, how might this affect our relationships with them?

As we work to heal ourselves, we heal others and we heal society. It can be hard to find hope in a world where species are currently going extinct at an alarming pace. And the cruelty that humans display towards creatures—human and non-human—has profound impacts on our ourselves and our relationships with others. And yet, the compassionate, calm, and connected moments we share with each other, between our own Self and parts and with those of other species, can feel like divine touch. It’s my hope that we deepen the resonance with other species to find some healing for all of us.

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