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What Every Animal Knows
(and most humans forget)
[art: Holy Mountain by Horace Pippin]
Recently, I heard someone I consider to be pretty spiritually awake note that “human beings are the only species that knows it is going to die.” This is actually a fairly common philosophical viewpoint about what separates us from the rest of creation and what causes us so much angst in our lives.
Only I’m just not sure it’s true.
A friend told me about her aged cat asking to go outside last week after eating breakfast. She watched as the old feline lay down under a bush. A few minutes later she checked on her and she was dead. I have watched many animals die over the years—and they have struggled, labored as we all do, with letting go. They have relished the last treats, the bites of ice cream and salmon, offered to them in their last days, tried to summon the energy for last kisses, fought for a few more last breaths. As with any being that loves another, they don’t want to say good-bye. Departures are hard and we all howl for a time when the door is shut between worlds.
But I think they know they are going to die.
[Sebastian and his sister Rosie at tea time]
My daughter acknowledged the death of her cat Sebastian in helping her bring through The Madonna Secret, her just-published novel. We were out on a walk together when we noticed Sebastian sauntering up our long driveway towards the road. As I often do, I walked toward him to shoo him back into the yard. I’ll never forget the look he gave me—direct, defiant, loving. The whole world paused for that millisecond before he sped past me right into the middle of the street where a speeding car hit him. We screamed and Sophie raced out to hold him. He died, convulsing in her arms, as we wailed our sorrow to the treetops—opening a portal through which poured, for Sophie, the entirety of her vision for her book. Eventually we would both acknowledge how deliberate and intentional was Sebastian’s gesture, as if he knew exactly what he was doing and had met his death willingly to give Sophie what she most needed at that moment.
[my son holding Sebastian after he died]
The Jataka Tales, folk legends about the Buddha’s many incrnations, repeatedly describe the animals that sacrifice themselves for the good of all beings…the hare that throws himself into the fire for the hungry traveler for instance. Lest we think that this is an exaggeration, I have a friend, new to chicken farming, who discovered that when he would go to kill a chicken for dinner, one would step forward and all the others would retreat. If he was paying attention and engaged with them. I have personally written about the cats I have known whose deaths have protected my family members—the cat who suddenly became paralyzed when my sister’s neck was broken and the fear was that she would be a quadriplegic, the indolent Persian who succumbed to the incurable cancer my mother recovered from.
What the plants and animals know, I am sure of it, with my whole being, is that we are all feeding each other with our bodies and our lives. They exist within the ecological equation which demands that every being that eats—whether it is sunlight or grubs or coq au vin—will in turn itself be eaten. We are all devouring each other and we are all, eventually, offering each other our bodies for dinner. In Life Everlasting, biologist Bernd Heinrich writes of the mouse corpse that becomes the singles bar for amorous beetles and ultimately the nursery for their offspring. One being dies and another is reborn.
For that is what the plants and the animals also remember. Not only does every body die—every plant body, every animal body, every stone body, every sun—but every soul is also reborn. Resurrection is not a singularity in nature but a ubiquity. The moon waxes and wanes, the tides go in and out, summer turns to winter which becomes spring. Even the universe, posits some of the most current research, does not begin and end, but, in likelihood, simply breaths—great inhales and exhales of eons and kalpas beyond measure.
It is only human beings entrapped in the simplistic narrative of patriarchal civilization that think we only have one life to get it right. No wonder we rail against that final end point—determined to suck every last bit of what we can get. No wonder we make endless monuments to our own importance and supremacy. No wonder we do want to imagine that we can defeat death and live forever.
We will eat right, find the right balance of drugs and exercise or maybe upload our consciousness to a machine, but we will survive. We will not die. We insist on claiming as much life as we can from a single life—even if it leads to the destruction of all life on earth. We will find a way not to die, and we will find a way not to sleep and not to dream. Not because we are the only species that knows it’s going to die but because we are the only species that cannot admit either its inevitability or its mercy. Every winter is a mercy for the soil. Every night of darkness is a mercy for the soul.
I am in conversation with the dead because I want to become fluent in the language of the dead—of those beings who know that death is what happens and so is rebirth. We all die and we are all reborn. Only when we truly remember this in our bones will we able to rejoing the regenerative rhythms of all this is. Our lives are not lived in straight lines but endless circles and cycles of becoming and blossoming.
This is the foundation of all that I write about and teach. We die and we are reborn—and the death can help us recover the wisdom that we have forgotten and all other beings remember.
My NEW website is LIVE today!!!! Visit takebackthemagic.com Celebrate its birth and let me know what you think! It is entirely due to the artistic and technical expertise of my beloved friend Mary Porter Kerns, who cajoled and enticed me, ordered me to get it done. She’s made the magic happen—and if you want to help me express my gratitude, sign up for her free Substack, The Flowers are Speaking, which is a joyous revelation in its own right. On my NEW WEBSITE you can find out about all of the WORKSHOPS I’m offering in the coming year and how to join The Conversation with the Unseen World. There’s also a page with all of my most recent interviews…with lots more to come in the months ahead.
Of course, I’m already planning more as of this brisk fall morning which you will find out about if you are subscribed to my newsletter. You are! Thank you!
A reminder, too, that I have a Paid Substack, that includes a front row seat as I work on my next books, as well as a monthly Zoom conversation about working with the dead. I’ll be offering a special PUBLICATION PARTY to all my paid subscribers on September 12th when my book comes out!!!!!! I hope you’ll join us.
And don’t forget that if you pre-order Take Back the Magic: Conversations with the Unseen World you are eligible to join my FREE workshop, How to Grow a Miracle. Details here.