Learning from Animals: Why it Matters

We share a deep emotional connection with the rest of the animal world whether we choose to acknowledge this or not. We have evolved from and with the other animals sharing this planet with us and this fact has not been forgotten by the deeper part of our souls. Animals regularly show up in our dreams as symbolic of parts of our inner lives that may have been discarded. Animals also sometimes serve as guides in our dreams helping to take us into places in our inner lives, or outer world, that we may have forgotten about, but need to access nonetheless. Additionally, animals have vital information for us in helping us to navigate our lives and may even help us with survival in this modern world. We may have forgotten them, but they have not forgotten us.

A significantly depressed woman dreamed about a bear coming out of its den in the springtime. She discussed the bear in her dream and focused on how bears naturally need to hibernate each winter when food is scarce and to replenish energy. The woman had been feeling extremely tired and lacked energy in her life and was feeling guilty about this and her associated desire of wanting to sleep much more than was usual for her. Discussing and working with the dream and the bear image helped her to see that like the bear, it could be “natural” for her to have a phase in her life in which she accepted her need for more sleep and in effect a need for a “hibernating” period in her own life. The dream further suggests hope for her situation since after the hibernation, the bear does in fact come out of the den in the springtime into a renewed life.

For this woman the dream and animal figure was vital in guiding her into a behavior (embracing the need for more sleep) that was tailor-made for her at a critical point in her life and helped her with navigating a crippling depression. She did embrace her need for sleep and “hibernation” and several weeks later discovered significantly more energy present in her life as well as a return to a normal sleep pattern for her. The important idea from this dream example is that the bear in the dream had a message for the dreamer. It helped her to make meaning out of a specific symptom of her depression and suffering and guided her into getting more sleep-something that she had been resisting.

Why does it matter that we learn from animals? Partly because we seem to be hard-wired to do so and not doing so goes against this tendency. My own personal experience and that of many others that I have encountered in the clinical setting, seems to indicate this to be true. But more importantly, our connection to animals and our learning from animals can be a direct link in helping ease our suffering when we are managing some of the most significant and frightening events in our lives, like a depression, or a physical illness.

So far, I am discussing what we can gain from animals on an individual level. Equally as significant is how learning about and from animals can help with the survival of our planet. We will be more motivated to both protect and help in healing our environment and planet the more we make room for an emotional connection with the other animals that we share this planet with. When we project onto animals what they may be feeling when we play a role in destroying their homes, we will be less apt to do so. I also believe that we are hard-wired to project these feelings onto animals. (If we were not, would animals continue to have such important guiding and emotional roles in our dreams?)

When I was studying wildlife biology at the university, I remember one professor who, more than others, pointed out the pitfalls of being anthropomorphic (projecting human qualities onto animals) when studying animals and conducting research. I accepted this idea somewhat at the time. Years later my opinions have changed.  I remember reading about a wolf researcher and I don’t recall his name now, but he had an opposite philosophy which resonates much more with me at this point in my life. He said that he only wanted to hire research assistants who would allow themselves to project the so-called human emotions onto the wolves that they were studying. He felt that he would get much more accurate and meaningful results from the research by conducting his studies in this manner. By giving ourselves permission to wonder what animals may be feeling under specific situations, we learn more about them and about ourselves. Why? Because emotion equates to meaning and because this then helps the human species to be more open and interested in learning about the other animals in our lives.  This can help us to access the shared emotional language that we may have with many other species of animals, and this in turn can help us to understand certain animal behaviors, including our own.  Learning from animals in regard to anthropomorphism, should consist of a learner’s attitude and approach to animals that is both open and mindful.

Let’s go back to the dream example with the bear image. For the depressed woman, it was important that she had the knowledge about bears to begin with in order for her to get the most help from this image and from her dream. Had she had less knowledge about bears, her dream may still have used a bear image, but it likely would not have been as helpful for her if she would have had to have these traits about bears pointed out to her by someone else. It was much more productive for her specific life situation to have the knowledge about bears and to use this knowledge as a bridge into making a needed behavioral change (accepting the need for more sleep, etc.) which had a significant and positive effect on her life (increased energy, hopeful outlook from the bear exiting the den in the springtime).

It is important to make room in your life to spend time learning about animals. Your dream animals care about your well-being and survival. Ideally, learning about animals is done by observing animals in nature or spending more time with your pet. This learning could entail watching a herd of elk in a wilderness valley, sitting in an inner city park watching squirrels gathering nuts for the winter, or having peanut butter on the ledge of your prison cell window watching the birds that come to feed. Learning about animals can also be done through book study and reflection. The important thing is that we acknowledge the shared emotional connection that we have with the animals in our world. Doing so can help us to have a more meaningful relationship with our inner dream animals, which can also help us to both feel more deeply about animals in general and to feel more deeply about this planet that we must all share and protect.

© 2012, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

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