Love is the only reality and it is not a mere sentiment. It is the ultimate truth that lies at the heart of creation.
I once spent thirty minutes or so at gunpoint. It was nothing personal. I was on a slow and crowded bus in Indonesia, trying to read, when an eruption of jabbering in the local language caused me to look up from my book. A passenger who had just boarded was engaged in a heated dispute with the driver. Since I didn’t speak the language, I couldn’t tell what the conflict was about. The jabbering continued as the bus started moving again and I went back to trying to read. Suddenly everyone around me was screaming. The irate passenger, still standing at the front of the bus, had pulled a gun. I remember wondering why the gun seemed to be aimed exactly in the direction of my forehead. The fight-or-flight response that could be expected under such circumstances didn’t happen, perhaps because it was obvious from the outset that there was nothing I could do to ensure my survival. Having nothing to do was strangely calming. I considered the possibility that these were the final minutes of my life, and thought that some summing-up was in order. What had been the point of my life? What had I loved most about it?
What immediately came to mind was a memory of riding my horse in the African bush. I was teaching school in Ghana at the time. Every afternoon when I got off work, I would rush to the stable, eager to be reunited with my equine friend. She was named Je t’aime, which means “I love you” in French. Most days I saddled her up, but on this occasion I just climbed on and rode bareback. I let her set the pace and lead the way over the rough trails meandering through the bush. Along the way, she would briefly turn and glance at me with one eye, reminding me that she was paying close attention for any snakes nearby; you didn’t want to step too close to them, especially since in this part of Africa there were many poisonous ones. She would also pause and glance back to let me know when she was about to change her pace. Confident that Je t’aime knew what she was doing, I never worried about my safety. In silent communion, we would share with each other the emotions of our day, both of us taking a lot of deep, contented sighs.
The sky in Africa has always seemed bigger to me, more expansive and majestic than the skies anywhere else I have lived in the world. On this particular day it was especially breathtaking: a stunningly deep shade of blue. The sun, low on the horizon, cast a golden light over everything. The scent of the bush grasses swishing in the wind was like a tonic to me. I knew that Je t’aime, too, was immersed in this beauty. Briefly she paused, letting me know that she wanted to break into a run. Was that okay? I bent forward, clasping my arms around her neck. “Let her rip, girl!” I could feel the joy rippling through her body at this permission to do what came most naturally to her. She took off, her mane flying in the warm wind. Deafened by the thundering of her hooves, I could no longer hear the gentle rustling of the grasses or the hum of insects. The joy that surged through her filled my own body as well. It reached a pitch of ecstasy that threatened to overwhelm me.
In those moments of exaltation, I had the curious sensation of being able to see myself from the outside. It wasn’t like being out of my body, for I was aware of the subtle muscular shifts in my body and Je t’aime’s as we effortlessly synchronized our movements. I was aware of our rapid breathing and of the pounding contact with the earth. I was totally in my body, yet able to witness it at the same time, because my senses had expanded to become one with the wind, the sun, the sky, and the Earth. There was no boundary, no place where I left off and the rest of the world began. I felt like I was made out of champagne bubbles, and everything else was made of champagne bubbles, and the forces that run the universe had just uncorked the bottle with a celebratory pop. The moment expanded. Like the African sky, time itself became more capacious. It swelled with an immense love until a minute became forever. I knew that love for a certainty, for I could feel it fizzing in my own bloodstream. And I knew for a certainty that Je t’aime was feeling it too. That moment of shared ecstasy sealed a soul bond between us that nothing in this world could ever break. It is the moment I chose to relive as I sat on the bus with a gun pointed at my head.
The bus pulled over to the side of the road and some men boarded, subdued the guy with the gun and hustled him off. By then I was feeling completely at peace, not because I was certain the incident would conclude harmlessly, but because I felt like I would be okay no matter what the outcome. I had felt a divine love, and that love was everywhere, so if some crazy person took it on himself to relocate me with a bullet there was nothing to fear. Je t’aime herself had transitioned years ago, and our love for each other had held firm. Her spirit was there for me on that bus.
Riding Je t’aime is the closest I’ve ever come to the blissful union with the divine that mystics seek through meditation. I meditate regularly, have been doing so most of my adult life, and highly recommend it. But the greatest moments of spiritual opening don’t usually happen then. Rather, meditation sows a seed of authentic presence with ourselves that explodes into spontaneous bloom, often when we least expect it. For me, these moments of awakening occur most often in relation to animals.
Many people believe that they ought to love God (in whatever form or whatever name they resonate with), but can’t tell whether God is loving them back. When they attempt to pray or meditate, nothing much happens by way of divine response. A relationship with someone who seldom returns our calls is difficult to sustain. Religions have taught us to expect the response to come from above, but I believe it is actually much closer to the ground. What we have trouble apprehending with our minds comes to us through our senses. Everything in the created world is a manifestation of God’s nature, the Source, love. You can hear the answer to your prayers in a chorus of starlings. You can hold God in your lap, feel God’s heartbeat, and stroke God’s fur. You can sense God’s delight in you when you are greeted by a wagging tail. You can climb on God’s back and go for a ride.
The Source of all expresses love by appearing to us in these loveable forms, forms that by their very nature open us to receiving love. When we believe ourselves to be undeserving of love—from our Source or from other people—our despondent hearts shut down and the message of love can’t get in. But animals are capable of startling us into a state of receptivity. When a companion animal licks us or rubs against our leg or jumps into our lap, a rush of feel-good hormones reduces our stress level and tells our bodies that all is well. When we are amused by the antics of a squirrel, charmed by the singing of birds, or enchanted by the magical appearance of a dragonfly, our pleasure is as spontaneous and unself-conscious as the creature who evokes it. To ask whether we are worthy of this pleasure doesn’t occur to us.
Contact with other creatures invites us into a world where human notions of deserving do not apply. Animals don’t judge themselves to be sinful, unworthy, or inadequate. They don’t lay such judgments on people either. Animals don’t care about how much you weigh, how smart you are, how much money you have, or what you are wearing. They don’t care what you believe, or what you may have done wrong in your life. If you are good to them, you are good, period. Love is their sole standard of judgment.
Most people have heard the words “an elephant never forgets.” What they never forget is love. Daphne Sheldrick tells us in Love, Life, and Elephants, the fact that elephants never forget has been proven to us time and time again, once by Eleanor in her forties, when she returned to the stockades after many years of wild living and a man who was a stranger to the incumbent keepers happened to be approaching from a distance. Up went Eleanor’s trunk, her ears stood out, and much to everyone’s alarm, she ran at speed toward the stranger, enveloping him with her trunk and treating him to a highly charged elephant greeting. It turned out that he had been her keeper when she was five years old, and even though thirty-seven years had passed since she had seen him last, her recognition was instant.
The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world.” Love is how the world is made, and what the world is made of. To love an animal—and feel an animal loving you back—is to know this for sure.
Compassion for animals is the reaction of an open heart. The poet Rumi adored animals, as the following story describes. A young disciple noticed Rumi kept leaving his house with rich food, and he immediately thought the worst—that Rumi was going off to eat the food himself, secretly. One day, he followed Rumi to a ruined mosque outside the walls of Konya. There he saw Rumi feeding an exhausted, emaciated dog and her six newborn, starving pups. Noticing the young man, Rumi smiled and said, “When your heart is awake, you hear the cries of animals from a long way off and you will come, and you will love, and administer unto them.”
Excerpted from Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals with the author’s permission.