Being Animal

Practice of the Week
Being Animal

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

Your genetic similarity to any other human is about 99.9%. You’re about 96% genetically the same as a chimpanzee, about 90% the same as a cat, 85% the same as a mouse, 80% the same as a cow. How about a fruit fly, a chicken, or a banana? Each of these three is about 60% genetically the same as a human.

The common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos lived about 7 million years ago; the common ancestor of all primates, about 50 million years ago. Our branch split off from the branch that became reptiles and birds about 300 million years ago. We share common ancestors with all living creatures.

This understanding of the connectedness of life is recent. Darwin saw that we were connected, but he had no knowledge of chromosomes or genes. Only in the last couple decades have we sequenced genomes to get the details of our interconnection. The implications of our new understanding are profoundly spiritual and offer us new ways to see ourselves as a species.

We are kin to all that lives upon the Earth – not so different from other life as Westerners long presumed. Many nonwestern cultures have always had a stronger sense of connection and a perspective that was holistic, multisensory, and boundless in scope, enveloping the totality of the cosmos. Western thought is given more to compartmentalizing knowledge and emphasizing difference. Those tendencies led to the development of science, which is now telling us what other cultures assumed: the deep truth of interconnectedness and interdependence is clear.

Not only do we share common ancestors but we carry the story of all life within us. The story encoded within the base pair sequence of our DNA is like a song, written slowly, verse by verse, over eons. Our deepest ancestors wrote the original chorus, the basic chemical processes that made everything possible. Later verses of the song spoke of sense organs, backbones, and limbs. Later still, life sang the verses relating to thought and consciousness, spirit and transcendence.

We are deeply embedded in a grand story, an epic tale beyond any we could imagine -- a small part of which tells of our own waking up to the beauty of the interconnected web of which we are NOT at the center. Surely there is spiritual sustenance here: wonder, awe, and common ground to bind us. We have only begun to appreciate the fullness this spirituality offers.


1. Shape-Shifting. Find a quiet place and choose an animal you have some familiarity with. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, relax, breathe slowly and deeply, and imagine yourself becoming this animal. Imagine your body transforming, how you move, what you see, hear, and smell. Stay with it for 15-20 mins. When you are ready to end the visualization, acknowledge your kinship to this creature.

2. Discover Your Ancestors. If you wish to learn more about your particular place in the story of humanity, you can use DNA sequencing to discover some of the story of your ancient ancestors. “23 and Me,” National Geographic’s Genographic Project, or Ancestry.com offer genetic testing that will show what areas of the world your ancestors (just the human ones, so far) lived.

3. Mind Map. Journal about your own animal nature, emotions, instincts, and desires. Look past the surface layer of human cognition, and let your deeper inner animal speak. What wisdom does it offer? On the center of the page, write the words inner animal. Then, create a "mind map" by drawing lines radiating outward, and write other words or short phrases that connect or flow from the original phrase. More words or phrases can flow from these as well. The words can be emotions (anger, fear), behaviors (hibernate, hunt), needs, or experiences. Try to write without pausing, allowing your thoughts to fill up the page with words and phrases. When you're finished, look back at the whole page, and see where your thoughts took you. Are there any surprises? A variation on this exercise is to use your non-dominant hand, which sometimes results in fresh perspectives since it utilizes different neural pathways within the brain.

Group Activities

Tree of Life Mural. A group mural can be as simple as taping photos on a wall or as elaborate as a permanent painting in a worship or classroom space. Begin with an image of a bare tree on your wall, and have each participant add images of several animals or plants to the branches, sharing, as they do so, why they chose the particular animals or plants they did. Be sure to include humans somewhere on the tree.

Variation: Use a bare tree branch, either fallen or carefully cut, and create ornaments to hang on it representing the various forms of life on Earth. The finished product can decorate a meeting space.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • How much of human behavior —such as aggression, food choices, and moral decisions – do you think can be explained by evolutionary forces? What are the implications of such explanations?
  • Are there some forms of life, either plant or animal, to which you feel a particular connection or kinship? Why do you think this is so? What does the connection mean to you?
  • If we think of the Earth as one whole living being, completely interconnected, what role do humans play? Are we the mind of Gaia? The spirit? Or something else entirely?
  • Why is it difficult for WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democracies) people to relate to animals, plants, and the natural world with a sense of spiritual kinship? What is it about contemporary culture that makes this such a challenge?

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