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Our Sacred Bond with Nature, Part 2: The Animal/Human Connection

Interview with Dr. Lisa Miller, Founder of Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute

  A Siberian boy and his husky.  ©Perhols/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Siberian boy and his husky. ©Perhols/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

E&I: How can we develop the animal/human bond through therapies with animals to help people who are really in anguish and, as you have said, show them the opportunity beyond their suffering?

At Columbia University Teachers College, I started The Spirituality Mind Body Institute to intentionally put spirituality first. That is because there is this deep way of being through which we will renew our way of living on our gorgeous, loving, guiding Earth through our awakened awareness.

Two of my classes are Equine Therapy and, indeed, Human/Animal Bond. In Human/Animal Bond, I welcome students from all over the world, from all the different faith traditions—some spiritual but not religious—who really come from a broad range of levels of opportunity to engage animals.

Some students have come from very large cities in our global community and have never met a horse, have never met a cow, geese, or a little goat, have never met anybody [of an animal species]. Others have had opportunities to meet animals in different settings. So, one of the first learning moments is to see the extraordinary delight—with wide open eyes—when young adults, sometimes in their thirties, for the first time encounter a sister or brother on four, or a sister or brother on wings, and it is sheer delight. And how wonderful for these students that their first introduction was one of equal respect.

We go to an animal sanctuary where every animal has been saved from near death, from hell. And, of course, the animals are very aware and very grateful for their lives in the sanctuary. And many of the animals choose to be healing and guiding to others who now seek their help.

A huge, white cow.   ©PixelAnarachy/Pixabay. Public Domain
A huge, white cow. ©PixelAnarachy/Pixabay. Public Domain

On our outings to the sanctuary—we have done this now for several years—there is this huge white cow who has been saved, named Tucker. As the instructor, I offer my first-person experience to the students. I do not want to have a posture that says, “You all have much to learn about being to the Earth.” I join and try to help hold the field of intersubjectivity and welcoming of Source, of life, of God—holy, sacred God. God works through us, God works as rays from the Sun, each student helps the teacher, each teacher helps the student, the students help the animals, the animals help the teacher, everybody helps everybody.

I will share with you that on one day I had come with a real pain in my heart over matters outside of work, matters that I was facing in my own life. I just felt drawn to Tucker, this huge white cow, truly a sacred cow, this big, beautiful white cow all by himself, probably twice the size of most of the cows.

I went over and stood on the other side of a very thin fence; I did not want to invade Tucker’s space right away. I sent out my heart to Tucker, “Please help the students communicate with the animals through their consciousness, through the heart,” and I sent my heart’s message to Tucker and I said, “Hello, and I come.” I did not want to just immediately say, “Can you help me?” I sent my love and said hello and Tucker knew, and we sat together for a while, and Tucker sent back an understanding. I would say that God sent it, through Tucker. Through Tucker came a very profound understanding, a rearrangement of meaning onto my personal crisis in my life through which my heart opened.

“Many of the students reported that day, through opening the field of knowing through the heart, they had started to communicate about their own struggles, started to give loving care to animals that needed support; it was a two-way street.”

Many of the students reported that day, through opening the field of knowing through the heart, they had started to communicate about their own struggles, started to give loving care to animals that needed support; it was a two-way street. So, these animals were going to be murdered, cut into pieces, and eaten, ok? But they were our teachers and we were their caretakers, and it was a beautiful relationship.

The students’ lives were changed in two days at the animal sanctuary, and some to living a different life. For instance, one student started a retreat center for humans in midlife, maybe having an existential crisis, “Where do I go from here? What is my life worth? What have I done?” It [the existential midlife crisis] is a hardwired second bridge in life—spiritual emergence.

And this student, who graduated from my program, formed not only a human-centered place of renewal, like many retreats might be, but he [also] chose to include “midlife, second-career” racehorses who were going to be killed. But, instead, these former racehorses were invited into the center and, together, the second-half-of-life horses and the second-half-of-life humans found common ground.

A thoroughbred horse. Luvmissile/Pixabay. Public Domain
A thoroughbred horse. Luvmissile/Pixabay. Public Domain

This is the type of therapy that we teach in my second class, Equine Therapy. Equine therapy is a broad term; some people sit on the horse, some people guide the horse [etc.]. We learn a type of equine therapy—through specialized teachers—called EAGALA through which the horse is a “knower.” The horse guides the session. And I can tell you that the horse as the knower is an extraordinary healer.

I will give you a story by way of example. I had brought a group of about thirty-five students to a ranch where the horses and the students were meeting for the first time. About four horses had been brought, about thirty-five students had [also] been brought, and as each student told their story, everyone listened respectfully. The horses were in the general arena. One woman said, “You know, I am a mom; I have four boys, three are at college, and my fourth son, the little one, I just do not feel that he loves me the way the others do. My heart aches. I do not know that he sees me and knows how much I love him.”

“Well, no sooner had [the mom] finished telling [her] story, than the youngest little horse walked across the stable, up to this mom, and started gently rubbing against her. Okay!? That is not a … random coincidence.”

That was her story. Well, no sooner had she finished telling that story, than the youngest little horse walked across the stable, up to this mom, and started gently rubbing against her. Okay!? That is not a radical materialist overlay that some random coincidence [had occurred]. That [view] does not hold water because there were thirty-five other students, there were three other horses, so if you multiply that out, it is beyond a slim chance [of occurring by chance] at that moment. That is a sacred, guided relationship. And the horse knew. And she [the mom] knew. She understood because she had opened her heart field of knowing, of unitive connection.

I will share with you another story of connection. My youngest child is very, very close to this beautiful, soft, very loving guinea pig named Phoelix, her love. And Phoelix, of course, had been rescued. He was in a pet store for months and months and [eventually] years and years. We walked in one day and the glaring fluorescent lights were on Phoelix. He was all alone in a cage, anxious, jumping, and quivering. And we said, “Oh, what about this little fellow?” And the owner of the pet store said, “Uh, he’s been there so long you can have him for the price of the cage.”

Well, Phoelix opened our lives with such love. My youngest child is capable of immense love and Phoelix had equal and profound love. They went everywhere together. She called him her precious little boy. And she carried Phoelix on her bicycle. She carried Phoelix when we would go to a restaurant and she carried Phoelix to soccer games. We would set up a special little protective area for Phoelix.

A girl and her guinea pig. livianovakova10/Pixabay. Public Domain
A girl and her guinea pig. livianovakova10/Pixabay. Public Domain

One day Phoelix got very sick, and I came home and my daughter was crying and said, “Mommy, something’s wrong with Phoelix.” I ran in and, sure enough, Phoelix had swollen up, probably twice his size. He looked very ill, and it did not look hopeful. We raced to what, believe it or not, was called The Exotic Vet…. We went to the vet, and the vet looked at me and pulled me aside and said, “This does not look good.” And I said to my child, “Just in case, let’s give Phoelix extra love and tell Phoelix how much we love him.” And Phoelix looked up and I could feel the message of “goodbye.” Phoelix was already seeing the sacred transcendent. He was sending this message of joy, that he was already seeing the other side.

My daughter did not know this, so we walk out of the vet’s office and are in the waiting room, all alone, on this Sunday, and over in the corner of the waiting room is a big cage with a magnificent elder grey parrot. And I turn to the parrot whom I know has been there a number of years and has seen many people come and go and knows just what this office does. I sent from my heart to the parrot, “Can you help us here?” And, as you know, communication with animals, it is a sentiment, it is a vector, it is a stance. You can use the words, “Can you help us?” in the felt sense.

And the parrot immediately looked up and was shocked because I have the feeling that the parrot watches a lot of people come and go and is basically ignored or talked to like [she gestures], but there is no real relationship. The parrot looked shocked. And I did it again, “Can you help us here?” And the parrot sort of tilts its head, and I go back and sit with my daughter and, suddenly, she says, “Mommy, I’m just going to go outside. I’m sure Phoelix will be okay; I just need to go outside.” She exits and I walk over to the parrot, and he looks at me and with his head tilted way down [she makes the sound of a grieving parrot’s cry] and he looks up again and repeats it [she makes the sound again]. It is a human cry. And I know he has communicated that Phoelix has crossed; Phoelix has passed.

An African grey parrot.  ©Ernst Vikne/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
An African grey parrot. ©Ernst Vikne/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, the parrot delivered the message; the parrot showed me that Phoelix had passed. I was then able to go out to my daughter to explain to her that I did not think Phoelix was going to make it. She was sad, but she was more prepared and, of course, the vet came out in that moment and said, “Phoelix has passed. I tried everything. I tried to restart his heart, I gave him multiple injections. There was nothing we could do.” So, we thanked the parrot. The parrot had been at our side, out of love.

We are guided, and we are never alone. And when we start to feel that way, it is an opportunity to reawaken our spiritual awareness, [to] use our awakened brain.


*Lisa Miller, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at the Teachers College and Founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute of Columbia University. She is also the best-selling author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.


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