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Barbara Smuts and Safi

I just recently read an article by Barbara Smuts, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.  Unlike many articles I come across with the phrase “animal minds” in the title, this article was far from being a pretentious imposition of human privilege on nonhuman animal experience.  In fact, I would go so far as to say this article was amazing and profound and greatly contributes to an emergent body of knowledge in western thought surrounding the animal condition and reconceptualizing interspecies animal relationships.

The detailed narrative of her experiences working with baboons and chimpanzees and her intimate relationship with her dog companion Safi are wonderful explorations into animality,  intersubjectivity, and animal bonds.  The intimacy developed in her experiences confirmed that she “did indeed belong to this planet.”  In this post, I will focus primarily on her work surrounding animality.

Smuts described embracing her animality by resting her analytic mind and making way for the ancestral knowledge of her animal mind.

Learning to be more of an animal came easily as I let go of layers of thinking…

This lesson in embracing animality appears throughout the history of human knowledge.  It’s often been an aspect of traditional knowledge and indigenous experience of the world and has since relatively recent been a news flash to humans living in civilization.  In the book Honoring the Medicine, Native American elders describe this letting go of thoughts as “listening to silence.”  In this silence, the medicine person can commune with nonhuman living beings and the animate Earth.  Nowadays, we describe this space in between thoughts, this silence packed with insight and knowledge, as “spirit” or “intuition.”

Somewhere along our path to monocultures and civilization, we western civilized folk taught ourselves to avoid and ignore this experience (or associate “spirit” and “intuition” in anthropocentric biological terms like mind=brain=soul=spirit) and have since had to “re-learn” it in New Age Spirituality and Buddhist Dharma.  The importance of this experience is now permeating emergent interdisciplinary studies in academia–such as biosemiotics, phenomenology, and complexity studies.  And now with the rise of animal studies in the social sciences and humanities, there’s a growing topic of interest known as “animality.”

While all of these studies and spiritual practices bring us back to the notion of animality, nothing allows you to view the essence of your animality better than direct experience.  David Abrams, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, describes the phenomenon well in relation to traditional medicine people:

Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his culture can the sorcerer hope to enter into relation with other species on their own terms…

Now our biggest lesson in realizing our own animality, in its various contexts and individualities, is accepting our “selves” as they are, in the present moment, while nurturing respect for our shared existence with other “selves.”  For those of us living in civilization, under the weight of institutional oppressions, even with meditation practice, that is easier said than done.