We humans can’t see our bodies clearly. Think of the lovely young woman, already slender, who looks in a mirror and sees ugliness and fat. Or think of the poorly conditioned middle-aged man who acts like a swaggering college kid. Or think of religious traditions that once dismissed the notion that humans are related to so-called lower animals, even though such kinship looks pretty obvious.
Why we delude ourselves is a topic for another time. Today, I’d like to focus on one tactic that helps repair understanding. Most of us have cherished domestic animals at some point in our lives. Whether cat or dog, horse or hamster, we find it easy to bond with our mammalian kin. Birds, equally warm and wise, also make good friends. For that matter, some people grow attached to reptiles or fish. So most of us have a familiarity with the ways animals live, and how their lives differ from our own. We feel protective of these beings because they seem more innocent, less conflicted, and more trustworthy than humans.
We can use our understanding of non-human animals to better understand human ones. We can penetrate the fog that surrounds us when we look at our own bodies by considering the bodies of our domestic companions.
Let’s focus on one obvious fact: animals are sensitive. My wife and I live with an eleven pound dachshund-chihuahua mix. Our little Emily is generally adventuresome, but she frightens easily. Fireworks, alarms, and loud vehicles all trigger fear reactions: she trembles and seems unable to settle down.
Think of the noises the typical urban dweller experiences regularly: sirens, jackhammers, automotive roaring and honking, angry screaming, and so on. These days I dwell on the fringes of a major urban area, so I’m a little more protected. But in years past I lived in the midst of all that jarring sound, yet I never trembled from it.
Was that because I’m smarter than my little dog, who would feel debilitated by such clamor? Or was it because I tuned out my own animal reactions? On an unconscious level, was my body responding with muscle tension, heightened stress hormones, and so on? I believe it was.
Our bodies are profoundly attuned to their environments. They register every sight, sound, odor, and texture. They know, innately and immediately, when danger threatens.
You might wonder: isn’t the body often mistaken? Imagine you’re standing beneath an airport’s flight path: when a jet roars overhead, your bodily tension rises. Isn’t this a needless response? The chance of the aircraft crashing is remote.
Growing up I spent many weekends with my father measuring sound levels around Los Angeles International Airport. With decibel meters in hand, we visited playgrounds and classrooms, driveways and living rooms. My dad then ran statistical analyses that showed strong correlation between noise intensity and stress-related deaths, such as from heart attack and stroke. Noise pollution damaged local residents even though most of them took the thunderous clamor in stride, barely noticing the jets passing overhead every ninety seconds.
In this scenario, we could either say the body is reacting with needless stress, or that the mind is denying the impact of intense noise. It seems to me the latter interpretation is more plausible. That was always my dad’s position when opponents quibbled about details of study design. He acknowledged the work had limitations, but he pointed out that anyone who spent time under the flight path would feel disturbed by the awesome, bone-rattling racket. If visitors can’t wait to leave, how could residents stay without ill effect?
Intense noise is an extreme case, but it highlights the body’s sensitivity. The human organism feels stressed by circumstances the mind ignores. I believe this may be happening on a global scale, as we see rapidly rising rates of chronic illness, which is clearly stress-related. Rather than openly discussing the root causes of obesity, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, and cancer (such as economic disparity, employment insecurity, over-burdened families, health care dysfunction, environmental pollution, and so on), policy makers view the medical consequences in isolation. They deny what the body knows: modern society is toxic to life.
My little dog, if she could speak, would tell us that the hubbub of modernity is unhealthy. But we have trouble seeing (or, more accurately, feeling) the obvious, because we don’t listen to our biology.
We can’t encourage the entire culture to honor the wisdom of the body, but we can encourage ourselves. The first step is recognizing the organism’s responsiveness, the way it resonates with its environment. We can begin by remembering the sensitivity of non-human animals, using that insight to find the same sensitivity in our own bodies. By listening, mindfully, to bodily reactions, we can gradually determine what is healthy and what isn’t. We can begin to restructure our lives to limit the damage caused by modern life. We can adopt relaxation practices; we can choose livelihoods that bolster rather than betray our values; we can seek out like-minded souls for mutual support and validation.
The sensitive human animal knows what’s best. If we all learned to listen to it, the world would change. The wealthy and powerful would feel the suffering caused by unjust and ecologically irresponsible policies. The underclasses would band together, finding strength in non-violent action. Humanity would consume less and savor more.
Is this utopian? Perhaps. But it is what our bodies want. Don’t take my word for it: the next time you feel settled, calm, and unhurried, listen deeply to your own animal nature. A healing wisdom will be heard, murmuring in your sinews.