Animals as Teachers: Learning How to Have Compassion

Can we learn from our animals compassion?

In my many years of working with clients and their animals, I have heard numerous times from animal companions an encouragement, if you will, for their humans to tend to themselves (or treat themselves) like a beloved pet and perhaps we, as humans, will care for themselves better. I have been exploring this idea: what does it mean to treat ourselves as well as we treat our animals?  The animals hold compassionate, unconditional love for us and it is reciprocated by dedicated human companions spending countless hours a week exercising, feeding, playing with and loving up their animals. We take the time to really get to know and understand our beloved animals and what makes them happy.  Can we accept the invitation they have given us and learn to have compassionate, unconditional love for ourselves?  Can we meet ourselves and patiently explore what makes us happy?  Can we accept ourselves, as we do our pets, when they are doing something we don’t like? How easily we shake our heads and think, “Ah, he is so Charlie.”

In the past, when I was doing something I didn’t like, such as eating just one more piece of chocolate, fully knowing it will start the sugar crash and loss of focus, the inner critic would come out in full force and I would lambast myself about my chocolate consumption. A typical inner critic tirade would be  “What is wrong with me? Don’t I have any willpower?  Certainly,, I do not want to succeed?”  Usually, I would end up feeling worse and agree with that inner critic and turn towards more chocolate – commiserating it is hopeless anyway – and might as well enjoy something like chocolate when amongst all this misery. In this scenario, there is no shaking my head and thinking, “Ah, I am so Neave.”

To replay that scenario from a compassionate unconditional love place for myself.  In those moments of the chocolate oblivion,  there is the opportunity to curiously ask , “Can I tenderly question myself about what am I feeling, truly feeling in those moments of mindlessly reaching for one more handful of chocolate that is the tipping point? Do I have the willingness to explore why the chocolate holds such allure for me? Can I admit in those moments I am struggling and that it hard and I just want to zone out and chocolate is the fast trapdoor out?”  With each answer, can I still stay present with myself and accept the answers…Not analyzing, criticizing, ridiculing but actually be present with self and my experience and love myself through it.  My dog helps me practice this every day, especially when he watches me struggling with self-doubt/guilt. He provides support, non-judgment, and ease – shaking off whatever negativity surrounds me.

Getting to this compassionate space was highlighted for me during a conversation I had with a dachshund and his person.  I heard his voice quite clearly and he had a thick accent.  The love he had for his person was incredible – it was different than other love I have witnessed between animals and their humans.  This was a romantic, adoring love.  As we finished up the conversation I asked him if he could teach me on how to allow such deep love to flow from my heart.  He agreed and asked me to show him the love I had for my husband.  I let it flow and then he said “Your poor husband.”  After much laughter – he asked me to show him the love I had for my children which I did – “Ah, lucky kids.”  Then he asked me to show him the love I had for myself. Upon witnessing my self-love he replied like a  wise, old elder, “This is the place of your personal inner work.  Can you learn to love yourself and be compassionate with yourself?  For then the love will flow easily to others.”

Since that conversation, I have been on a journey of learning to love myself.  It has been a journey of getting to know myself and letting go of many old beliefs, limitations and thought forms that defined me a certain way.  Shattering the old patterns that suppressed my creative self-expression.  The inner judge and inner critic do not have the reins to my life anymore as I turn towards myself and lovingly accept who I am.   It is meeting myself as witness and observer asking tender questions for greater understand.  It has been a journey on a road filled with potholes and detours to old ways of being that tries to keep me sidetracked and the only way back to myself is through loving self-compassion.  Holding a space for myself, like the animals hold from me, full of goodwill as I turn towards myself searching for a greater understanding and willingness to listen and take care of what is needed to bring me peace…And sometimes that means taking a nap in the sunshine.

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