Practice of the Week
Multispecies Empathy

Category: WORTH A TRY, or OCCASIONAL, or MIGHT BE YOUR THING. These practices are "worth a try" at least once, or, say, for one week. Beyond that, different people will relate in different ways to the practices in this category. Some of these practices you will find great for "every once in a while" -- either because they are responses to a particular need that may arise or because they are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. Among these practices you may find the one particular practice that becomes your main and central spiritual practice -- or a Key Supporting Practice.

In an Animal Blessing service at at Community UU, Rev. LoraKim Joyner recommended a practice of empathizing, and explicitly including nonhuman species within our empathy.

It's not all bad news out there for all the critters in earth's choir. For instance, there is decreasing violence in the world, so says Steven Pinker in the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (MORE INFO). One of the main reasons, he says, is empathy. Empathy functions to help humans see each other's inherent worth and dignity, and then to enact social practices, expectations, and laws that curb our more violent propensities. Just because we can, doesn't mean we do.

Is it possible that we can grow empathy for other species? Yes! A study a few years ago asked students to pretend they were a bird in trouble for 15 minutes. The control group was given no directions. Those who pretended they were the bird showed increased levels of empathy and greater desire to help the environment than the control group.

Putting yourself into the shoes, fins, wings, hoofs, paws, or talons of another is a powerful meditation. It helps us see the inherent worth and dignity of others, and as such, is a Unitarian Universalist First Principle Practice.

You can do this as a longer journal exercise that incorporates science, or by simply going to the imagination step (#5). You can do this as an individual or with others.

1. Think of an individual with whom you have a relationship. Write what you know of the being. What is the species? Individual name? Gender? Age? Life stage (growing, juvenile, parent, etc). Health status? If you can't think of an individual, choose a species you would like to get to know better or understand.

2. Observe them over a period of time and write what you see them do. Explain what you see as if you were a reporter with as little judgment or human projection as possible. In other words, don’t try to interpret the behavior at this point. It may be easier to choose just a short period of time or one behavior for this exercise, although you might find it useful for your relationship to journal at some point about all behaviors you encounter.

3. Now guess what you imagine they are thinking and feeling. List your guesses here.

4. To help you understand what you observed, do some research on the species regarding behavior, communication, feelings, and thoughts. You may find it difficult to find information about emotions and thinking in nonhuman species. Did you discover any new feelings or thoughts that occurred in the individual?

5. Now imagine that you are the animal. Get into their paws, scales, fur, or feathers for about 15 minutes. Pick an animal that is in your yard or along a walk or a hike. You can also watch a video or nature documentary. You become them and now are doing what you have observed them doing. As this animal, what are you thinking and feeling? For these 15 minutes, just be them without analyzing too much why they do what they do. After you are done, ask yourself if you discovered anything new by pretending to be the animal? Share what you learned with another person and also invite them into this journal or imagination exercise.

6. Now looking over the list of feelings and thoughts, make a list of this individual’s needs. Try to be as complete as possible as you go through the behaviors observed or if you have the time, a normal day as this individual. How might these needs be different from another individual of the same species, or from the average needs of this species?

7. What feelings and needs arise in you when you consider the feelings and needs of this individual?

8. What have you discovered about this individual, this species, yourself, or life through this exercise? If you have discovered anything, what needs of yours or the individual does what you have learned meet, or not meet.

9. Go back and spend time connecting to the energy of the other being by reviewing their feelings and needs, and then do the same with yourself. Allow this to be a time of being and connecting to life, without thought of requests or demands.

10. Then consider possible actions or steps you might do, or ask of others, based on this multispecies empathy exercise.

11. Share what you have learned or experienced with others and invite them into the exercise.

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Here's LoraKim engaged in an empathy reflection with a gopher tortoise in Florida.

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