I’ve said before that animals are our greatest teachers. My beloved dog Dakota was my first animal Reiki teacher. And the animals I’ve worked with over the years have taught me so much about compassion and even guidance on meditation. But the other day, as I caught sight of my dog Mystic napping contentedly in her little dog bed, I realized the animals teach us other important lessons, too. Do any of these spiritual lessons from animals sound familiar to you?
1. Unconditional love. Mystic loves me when I’m in my PJs, grumpy, sick and even if the house is messy. No matter what mood I’m in, she’s there for me without judgement. It’s definitely a perk when you share your life with a dog, isn’t it? You can just be yourself. And it’s always been the same for the other dogs I’ve shared my life with, too (and also the cats!). Even my horses love and accept me for who I am. They don’t tell me, “Be different. Change who you are.” The wisdom of animals in rising above and embracing their humans (warts and all) is something for me to remember, learn and carry over into my life and those I share it with.
Every time I see a black-and-white sheltie dog, I think of my first dog Muffett. She was the best! We did everything together as kids. But we didn’t just play together. Looking back, I realize now that she was an amazing teacher who also taught me many important life lessons. I just didn’t know it at the time! (When learning is fun, you don’t even see it happening.) And now with my own daughter, Indigo, I can see her, too, starting to draw important lessons from spending time with our dog and horses. I’ve come to believe that animals truly are influential teachers for children—and I wish every child had the opportunity to grow up alongside an animal. Here are three key life lessons kids learn from spending time with animals—either their own dog or cat, or by spending time with homeless animals at a shelter or in a classroom setting:
1. Compassion. Kids who grow up with animals understand that animals have feelings, too, and that helps to foster compassion, love and kindness toward both animals and people. Children learn to have empathy for a pet that is hurting—and they also come to realize they are much bigger than the animal, so they have to be very careful or the animal might get hurt. These lessons in kindness and sensitivity then translate to friends at school and people they encounter in the world as they grow up.
2. Responsibility. Kids who grow up with a cat, dog or hamster in the home learn the importance of feeding and grooming the animal, as well as how vital it is for the animals to have a clean bed to sleep on and clean water to drink. Managing these various tasks really teaches kids lessons in time-management and responsibility. Indigo is now of an age where she can help me feed, clean up after and take our dog, Mystic, on walks.
3. Respect and acceptance. Anyone who grows up with a cat in the house learns fast about respect—respect the cat’s boundaries (and be gentle and kind!), or you’ll get scratched. Animals are also influential teachers when it comes to teaching diversity about race. Cats, dogs, guinea pigs and so on come in all shapes and colors and sizes—and children learn firsthand that the animals really aren’t that different based on how they look. The same idea holds true when an animal is injured or disabled; kids learn that the cat with three legs is just like the cat with four—which ultimately leads children to have open hearts toward those who might be in a wheelchair or have other physical challenges.
What important life lessons did you learn from animals when you were a child?
We all want to help our animals when they face tough times. But in order to do that, we have to be able to hold all things, good and bad, and to accept even the most difficult moments, rather than run from them. No one can live forever, and life always changes. All we have is this very moment. The more we can accept this reality and even embrace it, the more open our hearts become and the more we can support our animals when they face difficulties.
To accept things as they are, we must develop an inner spaciousness, where our hearts can open up. One way to do this is to reflect upon life’s impermanence so we can embrace the moment. Here are three quotes to help you. Contemplate them in meditation or write about them in your journal:
1. “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” – Rabindranath Tagore
This quote inspires me to ask questions such as: What is time? Is it the past? Is it the present? Is it the future, or is it more?
2. “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” – David Foster Wallace
What is movement and what is stillness? Can you experience stillness while you move? Can you experience movement while you are still?
3. “When you truly embrace your human impermanence, you connect with the power you have, and the influence you have, over the time you have.” – Steve Maraboli
What is true power? Power is often seen as something negative, but is this true power? Are you afraid of your own true power?
In one way, this present moment is illusory, as it always leads to the next moment, and the next and so on. And yet at the same time, there is so much depth to this present moment. There is so much love and goodness we can infuse into it. We must learn to see things with our hearts; in this way our fear of the impermanence of life loses its grip on us and we can live more fully in the present. For example, we might look at our animal who is ill or suffering and we can see the suffering with our eyes, but that is not all there is; it is only the surface of things. If we look deeper, with our hearts, we can also see our animal’s inner spirit: a perfect, bright and beautiful light. No outward, changing circumstance will dampen this wonderful light. We can connect to this light each and every moment. We can share compassion and peace right now.
Accepting things as they are means that we can be present with the outer circumstances, which even when they are difficult, are always changing. At the same time we can bring our awareness to the deeper truth of the spirit, which is always balanced, bright and harmonious. Focusing on the heart of things will help us embrace impermanence, while offering unwavering, courageous support to our animals when they need us most.