Because people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World.
-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
My childhood was enriched by the raw wilderness I was surrounded by. The mountains, valleys, creeks, rivers, lakes, rocks, trees, and even the howling winds of southern Alberta all seemed alive and magical to me. Wild animals in particular invoked my curiosity and captured my imagination. Those I did see in the flesh were cherished moments, and when confined to the indoors, I would read about wild animals in our science encyclopedias. It is only in retrospect that it has struck me as ironic that I pursued a career path working with people, the many years of socialization having impressed upon me the notion that animals and people are entirely separate entities in this sprawling world. Amongst therapist friends, I have felt like an outlier in my rapture with nature, and particularly in my affinity with animals. But the enchantment persisted, and after some years of becoming more established in my career working with people, my general interest in animals returned full force and included a new fascination with the notion that we could possibly communicate with them on some level.
Since stumbling upon the book Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and The Challenge of Healing Trauma (2005), by Jungian Analyst Jerome S. Bernstein, I now acknowledge that perhaps I am speaking to all of this from the place that Bernstein has dubbed borderland consciousness. According to Bernstein, borderland consciousness is a state of being for those who regularly experience the trans-rational aspects of life, often within the context of a compellingly strong relationship to the natural world. Bernstein defines trans-rational reality as “objective non-personal, non-rational phenomena occurring in the natural universe, information and experience that does not readily fit into standard cause and effect logical structure” (p. 11).
Furthermore, these experiences—historically unquestioned and commonplace within indigenous cultures—are not only more real to the borderland individual than those of the mundane, human-created world, they are regarded as sacred, in spite of the sense of isolation created by this orientation in the context of modern Western life. Bernstein feels that those who fit the profile of the borderland personality have been called to carry an imperative for cultural transformation. With this in mind, I can discern my own journey in the stories that follow as that of one who is attempting to reconcile what connections already exist, let alone what are possible, between the human and more-than-human world.1
Several years ago, I had read an online article about a woman who performs Reiki, a Japanese method of healing work that focuses on channeling energy through touch, on injured wildlife. With this in my mind, I went for a walk in the river valley behind my home.
I spot a beaver in the river and stop to watch it. I think of the article I just read and, feeling playful and ready to experiment, I crouch down and put my hands up, with the intent of offering the beaver some “good vibes”. Astonishingly, it lifts out of the water and begins walking up the bank toward me. It is coming closer and closer. I inch myself quietly toward a full sitting position behind tall grasses. The beaver is now a mere few metres away from me. At one point, it actually sees me, and startles, its body lurching back a bit. But after a moment it continues toward me, creeping quietly, as though it is certain I have not seen it. It is now stalking me. Eventually, it comes to sit right beside me, no more than three feet from my left side. We look at each other for what seems like an impossibly long time – probably a full 30 seconds. There is a fleeting moment of anxiety for me. We are on the same level, and I can see the formidable teeth that earn them their title as engineers of the landscape, and I recall a recent story about the death of a man in Belarus whose artery was severed by a beaver he harassed into having his picture taken with. But ultimately, any fear on my part is overshadowed by utter curiosity and wonder. Eventually, the beaver continues on its path up the hill, padding along gently, stopping once to look back at me with same wonderment in its eyes.
In the years since, I have told a handful of people about this encounter, and found myself feeling it was important to somehow convey the depth of what I saw beaming back at me from beaver’s eyes. But I struggled with this, and was only able to reduce that essence down to what I perceived as a mixture of awe and sadness. When I recall those moments with beaver, I am often still deeply moved—swept up in an experience of loss that I cannot even fully name or comprehend.
Around the same time in my life, I had been visiting the community I grew up in for the first time in many years. It was an early summer evening and I planned to visit a friend who was staying in a cabin just off the main highway through town.
I park my car in the area designated for visitors and start on foot up the narrow gravel road toward the cabin. A black bear appears out of the brush several yards in front of me, strolling out into the middle of the gravel road and plopping down, its head facing away from me. It is smallish, probably a juvenile. My shock seems ironic, as it is more a result of the relaxed appearance of the bear. After all, preparing for bear encounters means assessing the level of tension that follows after you have surprised and/or stumbled upon one another, and preparing for the sudden aggression that could follow.
There is none of this here – this bear is simply getting right busy with the business of lounging. I go to my textbook knowledge of what to do when faced with a bear, and begin talking in a low, calm voice, thinking it is still a good idea to alert it to my presence and thereby avoid surprising it. Its head twists around to look in my direction. Then it stands up, wheels around, and begins a casual, yet almost eager saunter toward me. Almost stubbornly, I am thinking of all I have ever learned about bear safety and the importance of “keeping them wild,” and combined with the obvious flash of instinctive fear, I make a quick decision that it will not be a good idea to allow it to come too close to me. I begin waving my arms slowly in the air, start backing up, and continue speaking, this time saying, “no, no, no”….
The bear stops, and I slowly back up all the way around a bend in the road, to the point where we are no longer in each other’s view. I then turn around and begin a forward motion back to my car. Meters from my car door, I turn around to see if it resumed its advance. At that exact moment, its head pops out from around the bend, and our eyes meet for one last look.
I have had an imaginal relationship to this animal for many years now. At a time in my life when my psychic world was intensifying, my dreams became more frequent and more vivid. The pinnacle was a dream in which I was being both followed and led by wolves. The dream was more or less forgotten until I was bombarded with the felt sense that wolf was to be a guiding entity in my life while in a sitting meditation a couple of weeks later. Shamanic practitioners I would later meet picked up on my connection to “wolf medicine” prior to me saying anything of what I had already experienced.
Regardless of whether one favors or sees as compatible shamanic notions of otherworldly communication versus Jungian concepts of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, wolves, with their needs for both independence and strong relationship connections, were highly relatable for me. Their presence in my psychic landscape was further solidified when, on a solitary outing on my 40th birthday, I saw my first ever, wild, free-roaming wolf, just meters away from the place I stopped my car to observe. I watched it stroll nonchalantly past me with wide-eyed wonder. But even more intimate encounters were yet to come, and it started several months ago, with another wolf dream.
I find myself in a large open meadow, ringed by an evergreen forest. It is dusk and the whole scene is darkened. As I stand alone in the middle of the meadow, a wolf appears some distance away. It is watching me, head hanging somewhat low. It maintains a slow, deliberate walk, watching me as it goes, circling around me, slow and steady. It is gradually closing the distance between us, coming closer with each round it makes. Soon, it is right in front of me. I ask myself if this is really ok, or if I am in danger. I realize I have a choice to make between fleeing and surrendering. I decide to remain still for now. The wolf then inches its head forward while maintaining eye contact with me, and gently takes my hand in its mouth. I can feel its teeth gently grazing against my skin. I succumb to my fear, and wake up with a faint sound coming from the back of my throat. I am trying to scream, but can’t.
Once fully awakened, I felt both regretful and a little ashamed. At around the same time, I was introduced to Stephen Aizenstat’s notion of “dream tending.” Aizenstat (2009) advocates “psychic reciprocity” between “the dreamer and the beings that reach out to communicate through dreams,” in which we abandon analysis in favor of an exploration based upon sensory awareness and patient listening (p. 262). Aizenstat’s diversion away from a focus on dreams as primarily a reflection of the human psyche, and toward a closer examination of “nature’s point of view” was monumentally resonant for me (p. 263), so it suddenly seemed as though the kinship I felt with this animal had been completely self-serving and therefore pathetically inauthentic. It was a troubling confirmation that, in my moment of succumbing to fear instead of choosing wonder, I had somehow let wolf down.
Paul Shepherd (1993) has stated that kinship “is the transcendent issue of maturity because of the necessary equilibrium between likeness and difference” (p. 297). I was able to grow and heal in various ways in having wolf’s qualities (similarities) mirrored to me, but fearfully withdrew as soon as I was confronted with the differences (safe to say that my human acquaintances don’t “shake hands” with their teeth). My dreamtime reaction seemed all the more ironic given that in recent times I have joined others in advocating for better treatment of wolves on the local landscape, where myths perpetuated justify their treatment as nothing more than vermin outside of provincial and national park boundaries. This endeavor has entailed educating myself even further about what wolves are and what they are not, so that I can disabuse others of notions they still may hold about the existence of the Big Bad Wolf.
If Aizenstat’s theory is worth heeding, then perhaps this dream (never mind all the others) was not just about me, and I had declined to fully hear wolf, and to participate in wolf’s story. What was wolf asking of me? I attempted to exercise “patient listening” but surprisingly came up with little that resonated with my sensory recall. So I vowed to myself that should a similar opportunity present itself again, in a dream or otherwise, that I would do it differently.
A few months later, I was on an extended exploration of northwestern British Columbia, and visiting the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, at a spot about 150 km from coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. At least 250 years ago, there was a volcanic eruption that wiped out a couple of Nisga’a villages, killing about 2000 people. My friend and I were walking through the wide open valley of the Nass River, filled in by the lava beds and ringed by lush coastal mountains, and found ourselves separating, to each be with our own private experience of a place where the sacredness of the life-death cycle lingers in both the earth and the air. I had tobacco with me and let the wind take it out of my open hand as an offering to the many souls who lived and died here. This accomplished, I sat down cross-legged on the hardened and blackened lava to contemplate a giant cottonwood tree directly across from me that suggested the presence of the mighty Nass River, just out of view.
To my left, about 20 feet northwest of where I sit, a wolf appears. Just simply appears, far from the cover of the forest. She walks with her head hanging low, keeping a slow but deliberate pace, and studying me as she goes. Looks away briefly, but keeps looking back. She is steadily arcing around me, now angling toward my southeast. For my part, there is momentary shock and that fleeting and now familiar moment of uncertainty, followed by a sliver of fear. It occurs to me to stand up, thinking I should at least try to make myself a little less vulnerable while I gage her intent. As I gently get to my feet, it so quickly becomes apparent that she has no predatory intent – just simple curiosity.
Fear instantaneously dissolves and I resolve to say yes this time. I am speaking to her, soft and friendly. I turn my body to stay in alignment with her as she moves around me. When she reaches my east side, we are face to face, and she stops. We gaze at each other for several seconds. I find myself wondering if she might decide to stay a while. But she turns and continues a relaxed trot to the southeast. With the least amount of volume as possible, I call for my friend’s attention, not wanting either to startle the other. Once I have successfully alerted my friend to the presence of the wolf, we meet in our shared awe and turn to watch the wolf as she moves further away. Losing sight of her momentarily, we re-locate her sitting perched on a high, jagged piece of lava, watching us for another few seconds. She then stands, turns, and disappears.2
The ongoing persecution of gray wolves in many parts of the world is a searing illustration of the kind of shadow projection we are capable of heaping onto wild animals in general and large carnivores in particular. But the “othering” of animals more commonly occurs in much more passive forms (such as in my own small example). Where animals are concerned, both depth psychology and new age shamanic views are at risk of perpetuating a symbolic relational style with animals that, to use the words of Paul Shepherd (1993), is “too easily characterized as archetypal and too casually dismissed as imagination” (p. 280). Symbolism can slide into objectification and therefore has consequences for how animals and their “rights” are regarded.
I have witnessed animals being regarded as the benign “other” repeatedly in the mountains near my home, when people step out of their cars a few short paces to stand next to a bull elk, all the while failing to notice the animal much at all, as they are busy lining up a selfie that they will presumably later post on social media. Paul Shepherd may have viewed this as a transhistorical expression of love for animals that has been perverted by modern society (Fisher, 2013). I have been around many shamanically inclined people who, in spite of their great zeal for speaking about and identifying with their power animal or totem animal, appear thoroughly disconnected and unaware of the realities faced by the animals that live alongside us. The conversations rarely ever include the recognition that flesh-and-blood wolf is suffering needlessly and senselessly at the hands of humans, flesh-and-blood eagle keeps getting caught in barbed wire fences, and flesh-and-blood bear has nowhere left to go.
As ecopsychologist Andy Fisher (2013) states, when non-human life is excluded and somehow made alien, it is inevitably destroyed. Being congruent with our oft expressed values of the rights of animals to co-exist with us would mean not only shedding our strong shadow projections of animals such as wolf, but enhancing our appreciation of them in general beyond that of a self-serving form of symbolism. In discussing historical use of animal masks, Shepherd (1993) indicates that contained within the practice was both the recognition that we are at once both animal and human, and from this we can derive that “flesh and appearance mean more to our identity than ideology, that incarnation, not ideas or heaven, is what life and death are all about” (p. 297). This would entail that we hold space for the full expression of otherness of animals in the world, while allowing ourselves to be nourished by the awareness of our proximity, our kinship.
It’s the Cows
Susan Rowland (2009) frames the borderland experience as a reminder of the relationship between Western alienation from nature and colonialism, and the modern manifestation of it as a “marginalization of those whose psyche resists the hegemonic styles of rational consciousness” (p. 78).
It was the resistance of one of Bernstein’s own patients that was pivotal in the eventual formation of his borderland theory. A female patient he called Hannah, with a lengthy history of sexual abuse and subsequent psychotherapy, was relating her distress over having found herself driving behind a truck carrying two cows that she felt must have been on their way to slaughter. Bernstein (2005) relates how one of their sessions unfolded:
I pursued the standard approach of suggesting that she was projecting onto the cows, i.e., how she saw her life circumstances in the plight of these cows. She went along with me for a time. But then she protested in frustration: “But it’s the cows!” I pointed out to her that her response was an identification with animals she experienced as abused. She acknowledged the truth of my interpretations. She began to talk about all the animals in the world that only existed as domesticated beings, and their sadness. And again she burst out: “But it’s the cows!” After that last protest – by now at the end of the session – I became aware in myself of Hannah’s distress and her identification with the plight of these cows. And I also became aware of a different feeling in the room. The feeling was attached to Hannah, yet it was separate from her. It seemed of a different dimension. It was a new experience for me. (p. 7)
Hannah’s visceral experience allowed her to be able to ground into her own truth, and that of the cows, in the face of psychotherapeutic authority. And Bernstein was also able to tap into his own felt sense that alerted him to the very real presence of something unable to be explained or dismissed by the subject-object split prevalent in modern psychology. In his book, Bernstein acknowledges that his own discovery of borderland consciousness arose from the tandem influences of his clinical practice and his exposure to Navajo medicine and religion.
Joanna Macy, author, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist, has long been critical of mainstream analytic psychology’s tendency to view expressions of despair about the state of the world as an indicator of intrapsychic conflict and a “private neurosis” (Macy & Brown, 1998, p. 31); she has repeatedly asserted that feeling pain for the world is a healthy, realistic, and legitimate response that requires both attention and expression.3 So within depth psychology, it is significant that Bernstein (2005) came to understand that, for those he calls Borderlanders, they are personally experiencing and living out “the split from nature on which the western ego, as we know it, has been built”, and as such, “they feel (not feel about) the extinction of species, they feel (not feel about) the plight of animals…” (p. 9). For the borderland individual, as was/is the case for indigenous cultures, there is no separation between what is real (material) and what is sacred.
In all of the encounters I have related, there was a fleeting moment of trepidation, but it was overshadowed by wonder and awe. I imagine that the basic ingredients of awe, wonder, and fear are nearly always present for people encountering a wild animal rarely seen, particularly large carnivores, but that the ratio of awe to fear might differ for each person depending on their socialization, conditioning, and experiences. Yet our capacity for awe seems as inbred and instinctual as fear is, a notion I recognize as similar to E.O. Wilson’s (1993) biophilia hypothesis, which proposes that human beings possess an innate emotional affiliation toward other living beings.
Another way of expressing the biophilia hypothesis would be to say that longing to know the Other is a part of our own inbred, though sometimes dormant instincts. And if, as Aizenstat and many other depth/eco psychologists say, psyche and world are commingled, then I wonder if longing to know an Other is actually an experience shared across species. I owe this recognition of longing to Craig Childs (2007), an author and naturalist. In reading his story of an encounter with a sea lion in his book The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, the following passage leapt out at me:
I remained cramped at the fire, looking over at a sea lion that was quick and capable in the water, washing back and forth, closer and farther away. I could see its ears, two small rolls of leather laid to the sides of its head. I saw no zoological necessity for it to remain so long in front of our fire. It had to be curious. I thought it must be like us in some way, driven by longing. (p. 257)
“Longing” is the word that I searched for every time I remembered the encounter with the beaver, and attempted to describe in words the look in its eyes as it looked at me. My own vague sense of what I was seeing and my self-doubt was fed somewhat by our scientific and technological epoch, in which many are quick to condemn any anthropomorphization of animals as ludicrous, unscientific, and childish. Childs is clearly a naturalist, and interweaves a great deal of scientific and factual knowledge into the narratives of his own encounters, yet seems to leave room for another type of story to emerge—one from the animals themselves. Canadian author Barbara Gowdy (2008) provides the basis for her 1998 novel, The White Bone, by arguing that the ethological research that confirms that animals possess emotions and consciousness means that animals likely also have stories (“An Elephant’s Story”).
For me, all this is support for my own perception that, in their encounters with me, beaver, bear, and wolf, may have been experiencing their own longing. And for those who still think that I may be caught in my own projection, it may be worthwhile to consider that Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, has been doing research and publishing his findings on animal behavior and emotions for many years now. Bekoff (2007) proposes that anthropomorphism is actually a complex phenomenon, and that our urge to impart emotions to animals may often reflect an accurate way of knowing that is in fact necessary in making ethical decisions where animals are concerned.
In spite of his conviction in biophilia, Wilson (1993) opts out of the endeavor of arguing for the “rights” of animals per se, contending that the notion of rights can be a philosophical rabbit hole.
While I can appreciate his viewpoint, I am nonetheless encouraged when I see Aizenstat (2009) noting that human “dreamers” who open themselves up to an exchange with the “living image” of their dreams may be moved to take action on their behalf, which he calls “archetypal activism” (p. 262). I am hopeful about the possibility that eco/depth psychology can possibly engage in a productive anthropomorphism that would serve as an antidote to self-serving and complacent relationships to animals. Perhaps these intertwined fields can even follow indigenous worldviews into muddled debates about “animal rights” and environmental ethics.
Epilogue: True Love
When I hear that my local provincial government, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, supports inhumane wolf bounties as an “effective management tool,” I have a visceral, embodied reaction. Like Hannah, I do not want my empathy somehow reduced to a purely intrapsychic phenomenon. In the midst of my endeavors in wolf advocacy, I resist giving any voice to my totemic relationship with wolf. Giving in to the symbolic viewpoint can seduce us away from the reality of their suffering.
Instead, I recognize my experiences as a call to something beyond my Self, my own lifeworld. I know that I have been exceedingly enriched by every one of these encounters; as Barbara Gowdy (n.d.) has said, “You look into the eye of a mammal or bird and you see that alien intelligence sizing you up. It’s thrilling.” (para. 3). It has indeed been thrilling in the humility that it has offered. So perhaps I was called by the animals in those moments – for acknowledgement, to carry the message of their request for co-existence, for kinship. Maybe—like us—they are able to know more of themselves by knowing more of us.
Depth psychology offers many ways to interpret my experiences of participation mystique, however, what I choose to carry forth is a call for reciprocity in our relating to animals that is nourished by the awareness that their fleshy existence in the world is indeed sacred. They offer us yet another opportunity to engage with a world psyche that holds up a mirror and points the way toward greater psychospiritual maturity, contained within which is the awareness that we are just one part of the web of life.
The poet David Whyte has said that his poem, “The True Love,” is a testament to that which calls us out of our proverbial boat, and that this can be a person, a new life, or some deep part of ourselves (in Kaeton, n.d.). I apply his words to the story between wolf and me:
…and I think of the story of the storm, and everyone waking and seeing
the distant yet familiar figure far across the water calling to them,
and how we are all preparing for that abrupt waking, and that calling,
and that moment we have to say yes,
except it will not come so grandly, so Biblically,
but more subtly and intimately in the face of the one you know you have to love…. 4
I am profoundly grateful for the gift of that moment on the lava beds of the Nass Valley, in which I received another opportunity to stretch my human limits, and to say a more resounding yes to the more-than-human world. Pivotal as that moment was, I cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that saying yes means that I will keep trying to see, hear, and feel the Other, in a wordless language—as much as is humanly possible.
1 I have ongoing gratitude to cultural ecologist David Abram for coining the phrase “more-than-human world” in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996).
2 Though I understand the convenience, simplicity, and even necessity of referring to animals as ‘it’ in ordinary discourse, I have often wondered about the extent to which it contributes to their objectification. As my own relating to wolf became increasingly intimate, I decided to assign a gender to the wolf I encountered on the lava beds. I chose ‘she’ because I believe that the historical persecution of wolves, when viewed through the symbolic aspect, mirrors an attack on the archetypal feminine.
3 I heard these sentiments expressed directly from Joanna Macy more than once during a workshop in Banff, Alberta, in 2009, and am aware it has been an integral part of her message.
4 David Whyte’s poem “The True Love” was originally published within his 1997 book, The House of Belonging.
Aizenstat, S. (2009). Dream tending and tending the world. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist (Eds.), Ecotherapy: healing with nature in mind (pp. 262-269). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
An Elephant’s Story: Gowdy Reflects on The White Bone. (2008). Retrieved from https://animalvoices.ca/2008/01/29/an-elephants-story-gowdy-reflects-on-the-white-bone/
Bekoff, M. (2007). The Emotional Lives of Animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy – and why they matter. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Bernstein, J. S. (2005). Living in the Borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. New York, NY: Routledge.
Childs, C. (2007). The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon encounters in the wild. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Fisher, Andy. (2013). Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life. (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Gowdy, B. (n.d.). A transcript of a conversation with Barbara and a British journalist about The White Bone. Retrieved from http://www.barbaragowdy.com/interviews/the-white-bone-interview/
Kaeton, E. David Whyte’s “The True Love”. Retrieved from http://telling-secrets.blogspot.ca/2009/04/david-whytes-true-love.html
Macy, J. & Brown, M. (1998). Coming Back to Life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Rowland, S. (Winter 2009). Review: Redemption through the Borderland. [Review of the book Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma, by Jerome S. Bernstein]. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 3 (1), 78-80.
Shepherd, P. (1993). On animal friends. In S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 275-300). Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Wilson, E.O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 275-300). Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Monica Dragosz is a psychotherapist living in the foothills of southern Alberta, Canada, and practicing in Calgary. Her interests lie in trauma-informed therapy, bringing a somatic/embodied focus to work with clients, and integrating cross-cultural shamanic principles into psychotherapy. Her lifelong love of wild places and wildlife has also evolved into an interest in ecopsychology as a culture-making project.