“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” ~ Mary Oliver
Animaste (exclamation): The traumatized animal in me recognizes and honors the traumatized animal in you.
The human animal
“The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.” ~ Ernest Becker
True health begins with honoring the animal within. But to do this, we must first admit that we are indeed animals. We must embrace the fact that we are stumbling naked apes fumbling over our evolved big brains.
We’re anxious mammals with mortal coils. We’re insatiable beasts with improbable reach. We’re domesticated creatures with frontal lobe features, which, more often than not, just gets in the way of what it means to be a vital aspect of a biotic environment.
We imagine that we are mature, evolved beings who are above our baser animal instincts. But we’re not. When it comes down to it, we are a laughably young species attempting to evolve on an extremely old planet which is hurtling through an unfathomably ancient universe.
In the grand scheme of things, we’re a floundering baby of a species. Yet we imagine we are gods, above nature, with the tendency to neglect the fact that we are nature. Through and through.
As Hunter S. Thompson said, “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God, and the only living thing that behaves like it doesn’t have one.”
This inability to both honor our animal nature and our spiritual nature can often lead to a troubling psychosis.
The troubled animal
“We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world.” ~ Iris Murdoch
We must be able to admit that we are, all of us, deeply troubled animals. Within each of us there is a distressed creature in need of a little loving kindness. We’re troubled because we are human. The human condition is itself a troubling thing. After all, we’re the only animal that’s aware of itself as a thing in time, with a past, present, and a future.
As such, we’re the only animal that’s aware of its own mortality. This creates a kind of mortal dread or existential angst, a death anxiety that can be quite crippling. Especially if the feeling is repressed or ignored, as most of us are inclined to do.
Just as our smallness can be a daunting thing, so too can our mortality be. We are creatures torn between life and death, crushed between past and future, and stretched between finitude and infinity. We feel the vulnerable beat of our heart, and yet we can’t help but imagine ways in which the “heart can go on,” despite death.
It’s a delicious ache. We’re doomed, and yet we’re more alive because we’re doomed. Life has meaning precisely because it is fleeting. Art arises out of the human condition as a response to pain and beauty: from pain as direct catharsis, and from beauty as indirect catharsis twice-removed from the pain of the transience inherent in beauty.
Our harried, short-lived lives get blanketed by culture. Which is fine if that blanket is warm, compassionate, loving, and healthy. Not so fine if that blanket is stifling, indifferent, malevolent, and unhealthy. Under the conditions of the latter, a traumatized animal emerges that is both at odds with itself and at odds with Nature.
The traumatized animal
“You need to stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start treating yourself like the traumatized little animal you are.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
The majority of us, raised as we were within unhealthy cultures which seek to transform everything into a commodity, to include human beings, are deeply traumatized animals.
The trauma can range from something as simple as being out of sync with Mother Nature to something as complex as physical and emotional abuse at the hands of parents or so-called authorities within the predominant unhealthy culture.
Let’s face it, we are a species out of sync with Nature. This has caused us immense physical (pollution), psychological, and spiritual anguish. Neurosis, anxiety, depression, and existential angst plague us all. Most of us subconsciously repress it at our further detriment.
Some of us are aware of it but we are in denial. Very few of us have reconciled the shadow energy of this repression, and even then, there is still the dwarfing universe and mortal dread to contend with. And there are no healthy symbols for us to hang our existential hats on.
As such, we have become a smugly vain and prideful species, even as we stare like deer in headlights into our own mortality. We have become solemn, self-important, overly-serious animals, even as we’re dwarfed by a suffocating and colossal universe. And maybe even because of it. But there is a solution. There is a way to heal the trauma: face it head-on. We heal it by embracing our inner animal.
As Elizabeth Gilbert magically surmised, “Sometimes the only way I can pull myself from the edge of terror or self-hatred is to ask myself, how does my animal feel right now? Then I notice my racing heart, my trembling hands, my shortened breath, my knotted stomach, my shaky legs, my clenched jaw…and I say, “This is no way for an animal to live.” I ask my animal what would make her feel better. A walk in the sunlight? A friendly voice? A treat? A nap? My animal teaches me how to take care of her, and she shows me how to care for myself.”
The symbolic animal
“The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you can hardly bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.” ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The doors we discover can open us up to new ways of seeing and being in the world. They are symbolic doors that open us up into getting out of our own way. They are doors that lead our minds out of thinking inside the box. Which is especially important when “the box” is an unhealthy culture.
In a “profoundly sick society” it is a measure of great courage and health to be re-adjusted to a new way of being human in a world that requires us to be in sync with it so that we may progressively evolve into a healthier species. This requires discovering symbolic doors that open us up to greater symbolism, a kind of meta-symbolism.
But being a symbolic animal is a double-edged sword. On the one side, we’re addicted to the unhealthy symbols we were raised with. On the other side, we are imaginative enough to create new and healthier symbols.
The trick is getting to a state of mind where we’ve already embraced our inner animal, we’ve accepted the fact that we’re troubled and often traumatized, and we are focused on becoming healthier beings with healthier symbols to guide our minds, bodies, and souls. Easier said than done of course, but doable.
When it comes down do it, becoming healthier as individuals, as a culture, and as a species begins with honoring the animal within each of us. It begins by getting back to the core of what it means to be human, to pay attention to the health of our bodies, our minds, and our souls as fragile, mortal creatures who need each other. And to keep coming back to that deep presence, again and again. Both for ourselves and for each other.
I honor the animal within me both as an example for you and as a way of being authentic toward you, so that you may be able to do the same for me. We’re all torn creatures, but the tearing is only bearable through each other.
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