Three teachings from my dog
Over recent months I have been struck and moved by sensing and listening to what I am calling an animal level of sensing. Meeting it has brought self compassion and a deeper trust in the body’s wisdom. What do I mean by this animal level? Eugene Gendlin is quoted as saying “we are at least plants” a quote I love by the way and I want to extend this by saying we are at least dogs (or maybe cats if you are a cat person) So to illustrate this level of experiencing, I want to share three teachings from my dog (pictured above):
1. Something bad happened here: My dog, Willow, has a strong sense of place and situation. If something bad has happened there, she remembers it. She shows me she remembers it by looking scared or refusing to go somewhere completely. Her limbic brain (or mammalian brain) is doing an amazing job of protecting her by tracking these places and situations so she knows what to expect. For example she won’t go into our local woods because she was hit by a mountain bike there. Unlike humans, sadly she doesn't have much of a rational self to also remind her that when there are no bikes there, it is safe. For her - these woods = unsafe. Like dogs, we also have that mammalian brain, not far beneath the surface, that can exert a huge influence on us. We avoid situations or steps because this part of our being gets activated. I was visiting a friend in hospital a few weeks ago and my body was really showing me this. I found myself scared and vigilant... feeling on some level something bad happened here, not literally in this specific hospital but in this kind of situation - by association. It does not have to be about places, it could be certain people that are “the situation”, or certain settings. Somehow our mammal brain says “it is bad here” and we get stuck.
2. Someone's missing. Willow has a very clear and definite knowing about this. If one of the pack (my family) goes out or leaves, she knows about it. She gets upset or looks about worriedly, she is unsettled until that person returns. It’s so direct and immediate. On a retreat last year, I had a powerful experience of this kind of knowing. I was away from my family for five days and even though the retreat was enjoyable, on some level I was unsettled but did not know why. After some Focusing sessions, it dawned on me that my animal body was sensing what was missing - specifically my son at that moment. That felt easy to sense, and brought relief, but then a deeper thread emerged. I remembered, not in a narrative way, but in a body way, my own childhood of being away from my own father and how that was in my body. Like I knew on a somatic level that he should have been close - in the house or nearby... like a dog would know who was where....but he wasn’t close and my body knew that, and felt it as distress. (My family separated when I was 3 and we only saw my father a few times a year after that.) It brought huge relief and self compassion to really get that was how it was for me for most of my childhood.. like a some part of me was always waiting and longing for my dad’s return, it was like some kind of half lit prolonged vigil going inside of me.
3. I feel your pain. If there is emotional distress in my house. my dog feels it. She might respond by hiding or by coming closer. Either way, she feels it without fail, and without knowing it’s content. I would say she is resonating at the level of the nervous system, with all the emotional ups and downs of family life. I sense it’s not that different at all for us humans. Our body’s are wired to be responsive in this way. We needed this responsiveness to survive and to evolve. I am sure you have all had the experience of being in an atmosphere that could be “cut with a knife” It’s an accurate description of this kind of knowing. We may not know what the situation is, but we sense it! or our animal body does.
This all might be quite obvious to you, but for me, knowing these “dog wisdoms” can takes the sting and blame out of what can be quite charged situations. These insights really help me to be compassionate to myself, to be kind and inclusive to those parts of me that feel these things. I can easily forget this level of experiencing - and find myself thinking and analysing a lot about what feels hard, when all it takes is a moment of sensing my animal body to really get what is going on. Here it is for you in a simple step. When you are stressed or troubled you might enquire “What would my dog feel or do here? (or cat) and see what comes.