Sometimes people say: ‘I’m better with animals than with people.’ What would it be like to really experience life the way an animal does?
British Charles Foster tried it, and learned a lot about the way he behaves around people. But more about that later – let’s focus on what he actually did. Charles started to live like an animal, literally. He swam like an otter in the river at night. He rummaged through London garbage bins like a fox. He slept in a hole in the woods like a badger, and crawled through the grass looking for food. If you think this is weird, wait until you’ve read how Charles describes his ‘animal life’ in his fascinating book ‘Being a Beast.’
If you crawl through the woods like a badger, you experience the woods in a completely different way. Grass and ferns brush your face, creating a new path, ‘every step is like a birth’. ‘You don’t just absorb the world, you create it.’ Badgers have their noses on the ground, they smell the citrusy smell of mice’ pee, or the salty odour of a snail trail, the laurel smell of a frog, the musk of a weasel. They smell the earth. The wood is much more intimate like this, then if you cross it as a human being.
Life as an otter is an entirely different experience. It’s like being on speed. ‘A bit like staying up for a couple of nights, drinking a double espresso every hour, taking a cold bath, having sushi, taking a nap and moving on. An otter has to eat a lot to keep their metabolism going and he sleeps three quarters of the day – it’s the equivalent of having a Big Mac every four hours. No wonder otters look like they never take the time to think.’
Shamans try to become an animal in a spiritual manner – Charles Foster really lived it. In the meantime, he learned a lot about animals. For instance, how foxes use magnetism to determine where they are. I loved Charles’ book, it really got me thinking. This is what it made me realise:
I don’t know about you, but I for one, won’t start sleeping in a hole in the woods, or eat a worm (simply writing this makes me shiver). But Charles Foster did it, and by describing it in his sensational way, I’m able to imagine what it’s like. Somewhere in your comfort zone a window opens, enabling you to look outside.
Since I’ve read Living like an animal, I regularly find myself looking at animals more attentively. A bird scurrying through the grass, a dog running through the woods – if you try to imagine you’re the animal, it’s not just a moment of mindfulness, but also a great thought experiment. It makes you see the world around you in a different light.
Would a book about animals teach us anything about people? Yes, it does. At the end of the book, Foster describes how he sometimes worries that he might be alone in the world. He feels like it’s impossible to really connect to other people, even his own children. ‘It’s like I don’t understand anyone, and no one understands me.’
This feeling of being estranged is recognisable. And when you’re feeling like that, imagining you’re an animal might help. Sometimes it’s easier to connect to animals, because the connection isn’t blurred by emotions. At the same time, animals live in a completely different world – which makes it easier to put yourself in other people’s shoes. And to believe others can actually put themselves in your shoes, if you share your experiences with them. That you actually understand them, and they understand you.
Isn’t it a miracle: the feeling that no one understands you, is probably understood by every living being. And if people get the best of you, just listen to Charles Foster and go outside more. You don’t have to live in a hole or swim in a cold river at night. Just take a long walk by the beach, listen to the birds in the forest for half an hour, or paddle with your feet in a stream. Sometimes, looking at an animal attentively, is enough to feel connected to the world around you.
It’s experiences like this that you can fall back on when you’re in situations or places ‘full of stress, emission and ambition,’ Foster writes. In traffic, in a crowded store, during a long meeting, ‘it’s comforting to know the badgers are asleep on a Welsh hill, the otter is sniffing clefts and holes near Rockford, a fox is looking into the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat…’
And if you can feel this connected to animals, you can feel this connected to people. Right?
Text: Anne Wesseling – Photo: Francisco Moreno
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