This morning, Nature was lying next to me, upside down, paws in the air, with a slight smile that only a complete abandonment of responsibility can create.
As I reached over and threaded my fingers into the soft, dense fur under his chin, I could feel a wave of relaxation course through my body. My heart rate slowed, blood pressure dropped, and remnants of excess cortisol left over in my body from the previous day’s stresses disappeared. And the pair-bonding hormone oxytocin began to work its magic on both of us.
As I rubbed his soft tummy, his four limbs reached out as far as they could, creating a dog-and-a-half. I leaned over and mumbled sweet things into his ear. He responded with that sneeze of his and a full body wiggle, letting me know he concurred.
But there was something more in those eyes than just another animal looking back at me, something more than the simple enjoyment of having soft fur nearby. My dog provided an access to something very deep inside.
While there are many mutually beneficial relationships between species, the one we have with our four-legged companions is truly unique.
The stimulating release of natural drugs, dopamine, oxytocin, and others, provides a reward. They make us feel good. The sensations that pulse through our bodies when we play ball with our dog at the beach or feel the rumbling purr of our cat laying on our chest clearly involve the interaction between nerves and hormones.
But measuring our body’s reactions to the presence of our pets, the how, is the easy part. Discovering exactly why those reactions occur in the first place requires a much deeper examination, one that explores the origin of our instincts, the biological roots of atavistic behaviors and emotions.
Underlying our mutual feelings of connection, love, and support is an intimate relationship formed over hundreds of thousands of years, first on the periphery, then snuggled up right next to us as we told stories around the hearth. Our common need for community, collaboration, and faithfulness, established separately over the eons, formed an evolutionary imperative for friendship once we met. The friendship was so important that those of us who did not feel the connection were selected against. Those of us who did, sought out the pleasure of kinship and were rewarded in kind. Our friendship enhanced both of our chances for survival.
Feeling kinship with another species like our dogs, our cats, feels good because it taps into our collective unconscious, the inner sense of self shaped by the need, the ability, and the desire to listen to other animals. Our modern intellect may have convinced us that we belong to the world of buildings, cars, and the nine-to-five work day world, but our bodies and emotions know differently. The consequences of this conflict can be seen everywhere, from the egocentric way we exploit the environment to the anger and alienation many feel in their daily lives. It is the price we pay for denying who we are in order to function in the artificial environment we’ve created over the past several centuries.
Fortunately, sitting (or lying) right next to you is hope. Your pet provides one of the easiest pathways to reconnect with the inner wisdom deep inside. Your pet provides you a doorway back to Nature. You’ve been feeling it for a long time. Now you know what those feelings really mean.
It is perhaps not surprising then that as use of technology (computers, cell phones) and time indoors has increased, so has pet ownership. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households own a pet. That’s up 56% from 1988. The more distant we get from Nature, the greater the subliminal desire to find some way to stay connected with her. Our emotional selves are making a statement that our intellect needs to hear.
Interestingly, the mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership are nearly identical to the benefits of being in Nature. Perhaps this explains why walking one’s dog is such a popular outdoor activity, one that often leads to additional time outside doing Nature-based activities. Taking your dog for a walk provides a double dose of Nature connectivity.
The need to let our unconscious selves speak again was the basis of Carl Jung’s epic work in psychiatry. Social pathology exists primarily because we have suppressed our inner selves to survive our families and the constraints society has placed on us. Is it any wonder that spending time in the wilderness and embracing a loving pet can help heal emotional wounds? Nature and pets accept you for who you are. There is no judgement. You are free to be yourself.
“Together the patient and I address ourselves to the two million-year-old man that is in all of us,” Jung wrote. “In the last analysis, most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.”
So now you know. Spot, fluffy, or in my case, Cooper, are not what you think. Yes, our pets are fun, keep us company, and calm us. But they are so much more. Our pets provide access to the unconscious, to our primitive selves, a part of us that contemporary society has made every effort to suppress.
Let your pet help guide you to the door, the door back to Nature. Rediscover your beautiful, wild self. Be mindful of the kinship you share with a fellow traveler and know you are not alone. And make sure you let your pet know it.
If you feel so moved, please send us photos of you and your pet as he or she helps you open the door to Nature for you. We’ll add them to our post.
Suggested Additional Reading*
Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Sabini, Meredith (editor). The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung.
Stevens, Anthony. The Two Million-Year-Old Self.
*If you use Amazon, please go to Amazon Smile and list the California Chaparral Institute as your charity of choice.
Jung and his theory of a collective unconscious can be counter-intuitive for modern people. Capitalism is organized around economic exchange or contracts –and democracy is organized around a social/political contract. We see ourselves as fully formed individuals, having contractual relations with others.
Jung disagreed. The human sense of a fully differentiated self, with strong boundaries, emerged only recently, and that individual sense of self sits precariously on a multi-layered psyche of semiconscious and unconscious desires, rages, and modes of symbolization–dreams, for example.
Pre-modern peoples expressed their ties to animals as totemic kinship. Whole tribes had their totems, say bison, while at the same time each clan had its own totems. Rick argues that dogs are our totemic kin. I agree! The modern environmental movement’s underlying culture has two main wings. Establishing new forms of totemism with wild animals is one wing. Think about “Save the Whales” before that became a cliche (oh, one really can pet gray whale calves at San Ignacio Lagoon and it feels divine!)
Consecrating places as sacred comprises the second wing. Think about The Chaparral Institute’s effort to get people to see and feel the chaparral as a gateway to a transcendent Nature.
I develop these theories at some length in my 2009 book, A Reenchanted World.
It’s hard to hold onto positive conceptions of kinship ties with animals and sacred places when each day seems like a countdown to destruction. But we have to see the destruction and remind ourselves of what kind of world we really want.
Thank you. I loved reading this. It’s beautiful and touched my heart. I’ll pass it along to my pup and the native plants at Blue Sky Ranch!
OMG! Thanks for putting into words what we know inherently yet somehow and sometimes let slip away from ourselves! You are a good soul Rick, thanks for sharing this.