This week finds us right between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. So the veil between the everyday world and the spirit world is now at its thinnest, according to old Celtic traditions.
If you are a pet owner, or handle animals, you know animals also have spirits and experience feelings. They too can show affection, agitation, annoyance, contentment, fear, guilt, happiness, jealousy, and shame.
Consider this account about a dog from a Washington Post columnist, Gene Weingarten…
One day Weingarten’s wife was in their home rehearsing lines from Marsha Norman’s two person play, “Night, Mother” about a women attempting to talk her daughter out of committing suicide. The mother is a weak and bewildered woman trying to change her daughter’s mind, while coming to terms with her own failings as a parent and her paralyzing fear of being left alone.
Weingarten’s wife had to stop rehearsing mid-monologue. Their dog could not understand a single word she said, but he sensed his owner was upset and had become very distraught. The dog began whimpering, pawing at his wife’s leg, licking her hand, and trying his best to make things better. Weingarten concluded that you don’t need a (human) brain to have a heart.
Of course, we don’t just share an emotional connection with our pets. They also play an interesting role in human health as well. Dog owners, in particular, seem to reap terrific benefits.
For example, a wealth of evidence shows that contact with dogs helps slow the progress of dementia. In fact, in one study, dementia patients exposed to dogs had more interactive behaviors–albeit some interactions were directed at the dog rather than at a person. Plus, the patients had less agitation, increased physical activity, improved eating habits, and increased feelings of enjoyment and pleasure.
And according to the American Heart Association, dog ownership also benefits the heart. Just the presence of a dog in your home appears to help lower stress, reduce your heart rate, and protect against heart disease.
But getting back to the “animal spirit” that forms the basis of our relationships with our pets, the parts of the human brain that process feelings, known as the limbic system, have their counterparts in animals. In fact, neuroscientific evidence indicates all mammals are similar at the basic emotional level. One might argue other mammals are even more aware of feelings since they possess an innate, natural form of consciousness not censored by “higher” processing, such as reflection and rumination.
Some animal behavior experts say animals possess feelings with undiluted clarity compared to humans who have a far more opaque and complex thought process. We also have an ego, which may get in the way of experiencing undiluted feelings in the way that animals experience them.
Just listen to the birds twitter with joy. These sounds go well beyond fundamental communication or marking of territory. Joseph Wood Krutch, the famous naturalist once contemplated, “Whoever listens to birdsong and can say he does not believe there is any joy in it, has not proved anything about birds, but has revealed a good deal about himself.”
Krutch also said, “Perhaps certain of the animals can be both more joyful and more utterly desolate than any man ever was.”
Animals can certainly feel unfiltered desolation. Just witness any large animal confined in a zoo behind a fence, pacing back and forth monotonously with evident frustration. An animal denied use of its natural abilities to climb, run, or soar may be forced into a pathos only made worse by its inability to explain or understand its predicament even to itself. I have often thought animals may experience feelings more intensely than we do.
Humans can console themselves with reasoning and rationalization. We can also communicate verbally. Language can help set feelings away at a distance. The very act of saying, “I am sad,” with all the connotations of the words, may allow us to push the feelings away, perhaps making the experience a degree less personal and searing.
The ancient Celts seemed to have had their own feeling about this idea. In Celtic culture, once a year, animal spirits were thought to be allowed to roam free in a kind of expanded consciousness.
Perhaps this primal urge to let the animal spirit run free is one reason why some still dress in the different guises on Halloween night. Indeed, on Hallow’s Eve, spirits run free. And we allow ourselves to lift the veil a little between what we tell ourselves and what we allow ourselves to feel. No wonder this week, we still feel a bit of childhood abandon and a connection with universal spirits.
You can learn more about the science behind animal spirits and universal feelings and health in my book with Mike Jawer, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion. You can also learn more about how your own feelings relate to your health and to the natural treatments that will work best for you in our book Your Emotional Type.