When Animals Are Our Teachers
Syndicated from awakin.org, Mar 15, 2015

33 minute read

Anne Veh: For more than 40 years Steve Karlin has introduced hundreds of thousands of children and adults to the wonders of science and nature. His work has brought him into school assembly programs where animals travel as teachers and he has also led hands on programs at the Wild Life Sanctuary, where he brings in at-risk children and young adults to learn to trust and to heal through the presence of the animals.

Steve is a visionary and has pioneered a methodology to reconnect to our inner teacher and to fall in love with life and all its mystery. What we will learn from Steve is a methodology he has created from a lifetime of living and being with animals and we can all access our wild nature. His first teachers were two robins living in a tree next door to his childhood home and from the age of nine he knew his path. His greatest teacher was a 300 pound American, black bear named Susie Bear who continues to teach him lessons he didn't quite understand while she was living.

About six years ago, Steve was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a debilitating disease that affects the neurological pathways to the brain. The symptoms can be really severe at times where Steve can only access 10 percent of his conscious so it’s changed his day to day living and routine. He can no longer work with many of the animals but the disease has become another kind of teacher for Steve. His devoted meditation practice for decades and decades has been a constant anchor and sometimes focusing on his breathing his all he can do.

What makes him come alive is his teaching and over the past two years he has spearheaded an amazing expansion of the sanctuary's programs. I thought it was wonderful when he was creating his new business cards. He refers to himself as "founder and storyteller". With Steve, I typically fall into silence because being with him is such a powerful experience and the stories are just spellbinding.

Steve Karlin: Thank you everybody for being here and giving me the opportunity to share and the platform from which to teach because that is what I need to do in my life.

Anne: Can you share a little about your early life and a few pivotal moments that led you to devote your life to wild animals?

Steve: As a very young child I was always testing the world. I knew that there was something out there that wasn't being shown to me, that wasn't being told to me. There was some sort of secret lingering around the corners of reality and I'm talking about when we used to go to department stores with my mother and father, as soon as we walked outside, I would run back inside as fast as I could and just look. My parents never knew what I was doing but I thought it was so weird that I lived on a planet where all you do is either sell something or buy something. That couldn't be real, something had to be tricking me so I thought if I ran back in the store, I would see people frozen or nobody would be there because it didn't seem to be the reality of existence to me as a five or six year old kid. I never caught them but I never said I was wrong, I always said I wasn't fast enough. I kept doing it and at some point I stopped because I started looking at other places for the bits of reality.

In second grade, I remember looking out a window of the classroom and there was an amazing snowstorm going on. I was looking at all the snowflakes coming down and the teacher said, "Steve, will you pay attention?" and I said, "I am paying attention." I wasn't trying to be a wise mouth but I was really paying attention to the snow. She said, "Ok Steve, you've seen one snowflake, you've seen them all." I stood up because I just saw something on TV the night before and I wanted to share it with the teacher and the class and I said, "No, really, every single one of those snowflakes is different, it's different!" And she sent me to the principal. In my heart I was just connecting to the joy of realizing that every snowflake had a different crystalline form; the beauty of everything in nature was just overwhelming me and it just grabbed my attention more than what was going on in the classroom.

I remember as you mentioned, the backyard was an open lot with some trees in it and that became my wilderness area. Even though it was in the middle of the suburbs, even though it was probably only 60 by 40 feet, I knew every insect, every plant, every bird that flew by, every raccoon and every possum that came over at night time. I catalogued all of them in my head and they all became my friends. These two robins one year started to become my friends, they started getting closer and closer to me. As I was climbing trees and hanging by my favorite branch, they decided to build a nest within three feet of where I would sit everyday. That was my lookout and I watched them build their nest. I would run home from school and I caught them laying the last of 3 eggs and then I watched the babies hatch and one day the mother and father who normally take turns finding food and taking care of the babies, they left me to protect the babies. I knew what was going on and my eyes started tearing up because I realized that they trust me so much to protect their babies.

One day I was so excited and I ran home from school and I heard a big noise, some sort of truck noise. I saw black smoke in the sky, I ran faster and faster and when I got back to my wilderness area, it was all torn up by this big bulldozer that was getting it ready to have this new house built on it. The tree was knocked down. The babies were dead. The mother and father robins were flying over the top of my head, screaming and screaming in anguish and I ran in front of the bulldozer and I put my hands on my hips because I remember the old Superman theory. He put one hand on his hips to get his power and I put one hand forward to literally touch the bulldozer because I wasn't going to let that bulldozer destroy anymore of the planet and I started screaming at that man, "How can you kill my family, how can you do this?" He jumped out of the bulldozer thinking he hit a person and he saw the little bird and said, "You're just a silly kid. Go home." And I said, "I'm not going anywhere. You can't destroy the Earth."

From that day I made an oath that I would spend my life teaching people so they would understand that these living beings are not faceless and mindless. These animals have feelings of their own, they have a conscious of their own, and they have the ability to form relationships on their own. And they live in this interconnected world of ours where they and we are fellow travelers on this beautiful planet going through the universe at a tremendous speed around the Sun and this galaxy of wonderment and that's what I've done with my life. They've really mentored me through that pain, they've taught me, they've foraged me like a blacksmith does in fire. When you come out, you're honed and ready to do your craft in this world.

Anne: Every time you share that story, it just brings tears. You are blessed in a way by being awakened at such an early age and doing what you've done with your life. The way you have shared your love, what you have experienced, and how to form relationships with not only wild animals but with every living being is a great gift. Maybe you can speak a little more to how we as humans can form a relationship with a wild animal?

Steve: First of all, what is a wild animal and what is a pet or a companion animal? It has a lot to do with respect, number one, and not just orally giving respect and intellectually giving respect, but understanding the living being that's in front of you and that it is alive, so it has all the rights that it needs to exist. It doesn't need a manifesto so that humans can prove that it has some sort of benefit to humans so we can keep this animal alive rather than letting it become extinct. These animals are extremely aware and conscious animals for what they have to do in this world. They're not aware like humans are but we're not aware like they are. The bear knows rules and how to survive in the wilderness better than any human can and all animals have abilities beyond what they need to survive on this planet.

To have a relationship with a wild creature, first you have to have a relationship with yourself. You have to know who you are and go through the process of working inside and clearing out as much as you can because these animals are not going to automatically trust anything. They're out there living in the wild whether it's outside of our house or in the middle of a wilderness area where no human goes or very rarely goes. These animals have to worry about survival and they have to worry about being eaten and eating and accomplishing the task of new babies to perpetuate the species and so forth. When we go out into nature and we sit there, a lot of people will want animals to come to them. In their mind, they're saying, "Come here, come here, come here." If you went to a shopping mall and you saw someone attractive that you wanted to start a conversation with, would you walk over to them and say, "Come here, come here, come here, I love you, I love you, I love you?" No, you would be the biggest creep in the world. Why do we think that's all right to do with the animals outside? If we're always pushing and domineering the landscape with our presence, these other living beings are just going to move away from us. They are not going to want deal with our arrogance or the energy we're putting out there. They will just ignore us or go off and do their own business.

A recent story, I have an orange cat that was a Ferrell cat and it decided to live on the ranch. If he saw a human being he would run as fast as he could to get away. I made it my long-term goal to work with him and see if I could help him out because he's a beautiful cat. Everyday if I saw him I would walk around him and give him space for him to see what I was doing and develop curiosity and stop running away. Over time, I got closer to him; it took about four or five months to get within six feet of him. Then I started feeding him some food and within a year and a half he was banging on the door to come sit with me. It took about a year and a half but he pretty much only liked me and one other person. He's a very beautiful, wonderful cat.

I have another cat, Smokey, who is very elderly. I was sitting out on the porch one morning before the sun rose and one of the cats was in my lap and another cat was in front of me and another cat was sitting at my foot and I realized, "Wait a minute, I only have two cats." I looked down and it was a grey fox sitting on my foot. I've seen the grey fox through the windows at night and it's actually good friends with the cat. They drink water together and they have this amazing relationship. The fox wouldn't look at my face or acknowledge that I exist other than as a backdrop. That is the role I've taken in my relationship with this fox. I don't reach out to touch him, I don't talk to him, I just let him be there and let the cats be there and I'm there. A lot of times it just takes being who you are, why do you always have to touch something? Is that a selfless act or a selfish act that we always have to reach out and touch? Maybe we just have to sit there and have these animals come to us. That's what happens sometimes, you sit there in what I call a zero state. If you have a meditation practice, it's when things pretty much quiet down inside.

I was up in Yosemite Park a few years ago hiking in the trails and I walked off the trail about 20 feet and sat on this log and went into a meditative zero space with my eyes open and all of a sudden what I thought was just a landscape started becoming full of all these critters. These little critters started coming out to eat the leaves and the birds started coming out to eat the insects and there was this multitude and incredible activity going on around me that wasn't happening until I settled myself into that zero state. I was sitting there for fifteen minutes watching all this go on when I heard what sounded like a father and his son walking down a trail and talking. As soon as their voices were heard, all these little things scattered away and camouflaged with the environment as if they didn't exist. The father and son walked over and saw me with my eyes open looking very intently and they asked, "What are you looking at?" I looked at them and said, "Nothing." As soon as they walked away and it was quiet again, they came back out.

Most of the time we stop ourselves from seeing what's really going on outside of us. Or we use the filters that we put in place and what we see is the projection of what we want to see out in nature. What we need to do is sit down and just go to that zero point, that place of quietness inside where we can have relationships and understand what is going on around us.

Anne: Listening to your story reminds me of when you were five years old and running into the department store, knowing that life was so rich and so it couldn't just be this, there had to be more.

Steve: There really is so much more out there and the anchor is the practice of being quiet inside. We listen to ourselves thinking all the time. We have that moderator in our head always telling us what to do and it's not really our friend. I'm not talking about the brain that calculates and helps us, that's our friend and we need that to survive on this planet. I'm not talking about intellect because we need that to survive as human beings in today's society. I'm talking about that constant judge that is telling you to eat the pizza and then yells at you for eating the pizza. It's not your friend, what I've found is I need to come to a real quiet place inside in order to see what is going on outside. I need to drop all the social norms and go to your authentic self, it is the essence of being a human being.

Anne: Can you share a story about Susie Bear and how your relationship deepened?

Steve: Susie Bear was incredible, such an incredible teacher for me. She was born in the wild and some poachers were chasing her mother and I believe shot and killed her mother and she was chased by them until she ran off a cliff and hit the ground and pretty much broke her body quite a bit. Some backpacker saw her, emptied out her entire backpack, and then put the cub in her backpack.

She backpacked this cub up into a wildlife center and they did all sorts of operations and worked with her and then she was given to a lady who worked with wild animals right outside of Los Angeles for the motion picture industry. Susie Bear became a famous movie star. She was in "Wilderness Family" and "Grizzly Adams" and dozens and dozens of movies. Whey they shoot movies with bears, they use different types of bears. They use bears that run, bears that fight, and bears that just sit there and hang out and don't bother anyone and eat and that was Susie Bear. She had such a good personality that she was the one that was just allowed to go and have interactions with these actors. But as time went on, this lady's ranch was surrounded by suburbs and she couldn't keep Susie Bear any more and she didn't want her to go to other owners that worked for movies because Susie was very sensitive. A friend of mine told me about her and I flew down to Los Angeles and met Susie.

She lived with us at Wildlife Associates and immediately she challenged me. The first day I went in there, she stood up on her hind legs and she started walking towards me and making a bear noise that wasn't that friendly. It was an aggressive noise, which means she saying, “I'm going to break you.” I started walking toward her yelling, "No, no, no" and she kept making her noises and at the last moment I yelled at her and she put her face right up to my face and yelled at me and then she sat down and leaned against me. I concentrated and studied that day and I realized what she was doing was seeing if I really wanted to be in relationship with her, a bear. Bears are very territorial, very strongly based on the planet. They believe they own where they're standing and if they're going to share it with you, there has to be some sort of deep bond and relationship. She saw that I was going to stand my own with her and if we had arguments, I wasn't going to leave or back down. I was going to be there and be present in this relationship and she respected that. From that moment on, the relationship started getting deeper.

We would go for daily walks in the woods and I would sit down and she would sit next to me and put her arm around my shoulders and lean her head on my shoulders and kiss me. She was such a beautiful, loving being and that relationship grew and grew and there were so many lessons she taught me about being human. It's really these animals that teach us and truly understand what it's like to be a human being. She raised me up and I lived with her for 13 years and everyday was a sense of mystery and excitement and joy. She did travel around to the schools for educational programs and I still get principals that see me at shopping centers and walk over and tell me what a difference it made for them personally and for their students. I get emails from students who were in elementary school and are now professionals in the field as biologists and all sorts of professional capabilities and they tell me that they're out there trying to save the planet in their own way and they draw back to their experience with Susie Bear. She was a beautiful being who took me and transformed me into a better human being.

Anne: I think it's extraordinary that you've shared that you will wake up sometimes after having a dream or Susie Bear will come to you and you will say, "Aha, that's what you were teaching me!". These animals are teachers even after they pass.

Steve: It's really true. A Native American elder would explain a lot of stuff to me and a lot of times I would say, “I really don't understand,” and he would say, "That's ok, someday you will." I feel that's how it is with a lot of the wild teachers that I'm given the privilege to spend my life with. A lot of these lessons that we learn, it takes us to be in a certain place in order for them to be revealed to us. It is really true that these animals have really taken me in their wings and teach me a lot of things. The most important thing they taught me is how to be with them, how to be with these very different beings.

When they look out of their eyes they don't see what we see. They have a very different way of seeing the world around them. Some of them see ultraviolet light, some of them can see very clearly for hundreds of yards, some of them can't see further than a foot away from their heads, some of them see color, some of them don't see color. When they listen with their ears, what they hear is not the same as what we hear. When they taste, their taste buds are different. When they smell, some of them smell hundreds of times better than we can, some of them can't smell at all. They all have their own input of senses and their own sense of being who they are and how they react to the world around them. Then we as human beings have the ability to reach out to them and they have the ability to reach out to us and when those two things touch, when the being of that wild animal and the being inside you is yearning for a relationship and it touches, that's the magic.

For me and my life, that is the magic that just gives me the goose bumps and gives me the sense of what these people must have felt like who drew some of those original cave paintings 35,000 years ago on the walls. How must have they felt about these animals? Even today we can look at them and we don't use the word magical now but how incredible the reality and the senses and the consciousness of the animals and what they have to share with us! But that relationship has to be even. A lot of people have animals as "pets" but the relationship is master and servant. A lot of people think it's a good pet if they always listen when you tell it what to do. Well were we good pets to our parents as teenagers?

Anne: Can you share a healing story about one of the at-risk youth that you've experienced at the sanctuary? Every time I'm with you, especially when the groups of children are there, you see transformation after transformation of these children. Maybe you can share one story about a young person where you really witnessed that transformation happen.

Steve: What comes to mind is one group that came out from a middle school. We had about 12 kids, these were kids that were on the edge of being kicked out of school and some of them had actually been drawn into the probation system. At this point in their lives they could either make a right decision or wrong decision and that wrong decision would spell a disastrous way of living for them. There was one kid that was six foot two inches tall and for eighth graders that's a pretty big kid. None of the other kids were getting within six feet of him and if they came near him, they would just move around him as if were parting of the seas. I walked over to one of the teachers and I asked, "What's the story with the tall boy over here?" She responded, "He's been so abused by his father and mother who almost on a daily basis will beat him up and tell him he's worthless. His father would tell him that until he went to jai, he wasn't a man."

I had a feeling that my horse Little Thunder could help. He's a beautiful creature and I noticed that his talent was to find one of the most hurt and damaged kids in the groups and then he would know what to do, he's a healer. I went out and put on Little Thunder’s lead and brought him out and walked over to this boy. I didn't want him to say no so I said, "Hold this quick, I have to tie my shoes. Hold this quick." He just held it because he was reacting and I went down and pretended I was tying my shoes and then after I stood back up, he asked,

"Why is the horse looking at me?"
"The horse likes you."
"No he doesn't."
I said, "Start walking and see what happens."
"Why is the horse following me."
I said, "Stop and see what happens."
"Why did the horse stop?"

This went on and on and we had this road that went around the education center, it was the size of a football field. We were three quarters of the way around when this tall, fierce looking young man turned to me, tears had started coming down his eyes, and he said, "I think I'm going to cry." I said, "Why?" Thunder buried his head in this kid's chest and he gave Thunder a big hug and he started crying and he looked at me and said, "I've never been loved before."

Can you imagine that? There is this eighth grader who has never been loved before. How does that happen? My mother when I was being raised would hug me ten times a day and smile and feed me and always tell me what a wonderful person I was going to be. And this little boy had never been loved before. How did Thunder do that? Because that's what he loves to do. He loves to break down those boundaries and create bonds with people. Thunder really found his place here at Wildlife. We don't know what happened to that boy, he ended up moving to the Pacific Northwest but on that day something very powerful happened because of one of our wild teachers. It affected me too and it changed me.

Rahul: It's touching to me too to hear that story. We're going to open up the call for questions and reflections now.

Annette: I would love to know either an experience or a story when something you have learned from an animal has impacted your ability to relate to a specific person? How has what animals have taught you affected your ability to relate to other humans?

Steve: The first thing that comes to mind is very important, it's not a particular person but it helped me, it shifted the way I'm being a human being. It was with Mingo the Coyote. Mingo passed away about 15 years ago when he was about 19 or 20 years old, which is extremely old for a coyote. In the wild they normally live 5-7 years because it's a tough life out there. He was like my son. He was very old and he could hardly walk around without a lot of pain and I knew it was time for him to be released back to where he came from.

I called up the vet who was going to come over at a certain time and I had a dream that I walked Mingo to a certain place in the sanctuary where he laid down and that's where he wanted to leave his body. Before the vet got there, I leashed up Mingo and he pulled me literally, walking to that exact same spot in my dream and he laid there in the exact same way that he did in my dream. This wasn't the first time it happened, and I really honored that and I respected it and pet him and told him how much I loved him and how so many people he's changed because of him going into the schools and doing educational programs. I prayed that wherever that being goes when an animal dies, it will be the highest realm possible because he deserved being there for the kindness he showed me and the hundreds and thousands of kids that he taught about himself and wild animals and why we should protect these creatures on our planet.

The vet came and we gave him a sedative and all of a sudden, all these cows, 30-40 cows stampeded from one part of the 20 acre ranch over to where we were. We heard the noise coming and they ran over and were at the perimeter of the sanctuary and they all came over to Mingo and started sniffing him and all of a sudden we gave him the shot to put him to sleep.

When an animal passes away, I always see a heat wave on top of the animal. I see it as maybe the life force leaving the body and then I said, "Mingo, don't worry about me, I'm ok, you just go where you're supposed to go. I'll be fine." It was the first time I ever said that and I meant it in a very selfless way. "You go, you be wherever you're supposed to be and be whoever you are. I'll be fine here. Yes I'll miss you but I'll be fine. You've done what you needed to do on this planet so thank you." All of a sudden my body started shaking and I felt these words in my head that said, "You are the coyote."

I realized what I had been told in the past is that when you're selfless, you're empty. But it's not true. When you become selfless and do a selfless act, you are filled with grace and joy and essence. That voice that said, "You are now a coyote," I felt that to mean that now that I've done my first act of selflessness, the coyote came into me and I became closer to him than ever before in ways that I never imagined.

Every person in every situation I've been in has been affected from that because I've realized the more I give in relationship, whether it's human or animal or tree or grass or the breath I take, the more I experience from that and the more I can see the beauty of life. So being selfless is not being empty, it's the opposite, it is the ultimate of joy, the ultimate of experiencing who you are as a human being and I owe that to Mingo the coyote. I owe that to those two robins that set me on my path. I owe that all to my ancestors who brought me to the place where I am today.

Rahul: Wow, what a beautiful insight to have arisen from those experiences. I have a question that is related to what you just shared and something you shared earlier around this process of listening to animals. I'm curious to how that connection was made for you between this idea of listening to animals and listening to yourself or getting to that meditative zero state that you talked about. Can you share about how those two things came together for you in your journey?

Steve: It wasn't intentional that they would go together. All throughout elementary, middle, and high school I was looking around the corners and looking for the sense of reality in places where people normally don't look. Some of my friends came back from starting this new meditation practice when I was in college back in 1972 and I started to realize that maybe this was something that was missing, this inner practice and working on the inside so I could become clearer. They told me about this meditation from this young man from India and so in 1973 I started to do the meditation practice and I've been doing the practice ever since.

I think that some sort of contemplative, meditative practice is extremely important for us as human beings, no matter what it is. This works for me, this path works for me and affects me. And you need to find what works for you and what affects you and stick with it. Just find something that works for you, whatever it is that makes your mind stop, because number one, it's incredible for mental health. Number two, it's an incredible way to clear yourself out so you can be there in a present state in a relationship. With my wolf, when Cheyenne was alive, she really helped me with a meditative, mindfulness practice because if I was in this wolf's enclosure and I started to think about something else, immediately within seconds that wolf knew I was not one hundred percent with her. And she would lift up her lip and start growling at me, telling me, "You are here with me now. You be here. Don't think about other things. Don't be outside this thing. Be with the magic that is taking place between me and you at this moment." And that lesson has carried me over because with her, she was physically telling me, "Meditate, be still."

Meditation is not always with your eyes closed, being remote from humans, and remote from everything. Even though for me that’s an important part of it, a lot of it has to do with what happens when you're eyes are open and you're walking around in this world. Who are you? Are you out for yourself? Are you becoming a martyr? Who are you? Are you judging everything by standards that you're not even sure of? Maybe you can just be who you are and not have to worry and change that self-narrative because we all have a self narrative about who we are but like any story we can change it. We have the power of the pen, which is our consciousness. We have the power of rewriting our own story, which is inner work. And that's just as important as outer work. It really helps clear you out and when you're cleared out inside, these animals tend to want to look at you and they're attracted to you.

When I go out into a field and I sit there, I go to that zero point because then I can see that these animals are less worried about who I am and less concerned about me being a predator rather than just being a part of the landscape. Even with human beings it helps because people are threatened. People relax. People want to come over and talk to me because I'm not attacking them on an internal level and having all this mind stuff going on and all this activity. So I would say that silence inside is very important with any relationship, whether it be animals, humans, or even with the air.

Anne: Two things I wanted to make sure we include in this conversation. One, I would love for you to share with everyone how you introduce an animal into the sanctuary. And then, I want to discuss these new science standards that are being brought into the California education system. How are you working to collaborate to create curriculum in a different way of teaching to the children?

Steve: It's very important that we honor and respect these creatures that for no fault of their own have been injured and damaged or born in captivity. All these things happen so that these animals cannot survive on their own in the wild so when they come to us, I want to give them all the respect in the world and I want to let them know where they are. Of course, they're not understanding my words. I don't sit there and have these psychic discussions with these animals. They do understand intent and they do understand what you're paying attention to. So you're intent and your attention, they're very aware of. So when you go to a deep place inside and talk to them, they pick up the intent. They realize that something is going on.

I have this little ritual I do where I will sit with the animal and I'll talk to the animal. The latest one would be our new North American porcupine. I sat down in front of her and said, "Welcome to the Wildlife Sanctuary. I'm Steve and I'm going to be your friend and all these humans here are going to love you and care for you and feed you as much as we can and whenever you need medical treatment we will do whatever we can to make you healthy and give you a long and happy life and all I ask is that you help us in teaching the human beings to be better human beings so that we can protect the Earth and protect and honor all of the creatures in the wild and all I need from you is to please don't hurt us. Be kind to us." It's just an honoring that I do to set my intention so every time I see that beautiful creature this is a promise that I gave them and this is a promise that I will spend my life making sure that I can meet. The promise that all of us at the sanctuary say is that we're here to honor, respect, and enrich the lives of these animals, whatever that takes. The staff is here hours and hours after they should be so that they can add happiness to their existence.

I'm really excited about us going into the schools. We reach 300 schools a year in Northern California and we're getting a jumpstart on a new next generation science standard. We have a new vocabulary for the kids, new programs we're developing to teach them science in a way that they're excited about because science is extremely important for the economic and social future of these kids and even for social justice. These kids, if they don't learn science and don't get excited about it, their wage earning power is going to be a lot lower. But science in itself is not the answer to our problems. It's also empathy and caring because if we have science without empathy and caring, there will be more damage to the planet.

We need real human beings doing real science and understanding all of the implications and caring about all living things and having empathy for all forms of life. It's that whole big circle that we're bringing into existence in the schools because at a young age if this is integrated into who you are as a young person, it goes into the long-term memory and becomes who you are as an adult. So we're working toward helping the society come more science literate and empathetic at the same time.

Rahul: There was a teacher that Nipun recently met when he was in India who said, "The eighteenth century gave rights to man and the nineteenth century gave rights to slaves and the twentieth century gave rights to women. The twenty-first century will give rights to animals.” I'm wondering what you're thoughts are around that concept and just how you feel that concept relates to what seems to be the predominant culture most of the world over around not respecting animals, animal consumption, things of that sort. Can you share some of your thoughts around animal rights and some of the transformation that has happened in your last round of questions around what it means to respect these animals when we're in a culture that is predominantly animal consuming or at least one that doesn't recognize them as whole beings.

Steve: You're right we don't recognize them as beings. There was an event that I was invited to in the state capitol. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife invited me there with Susie Bear because we were trying to stop the hounds hunting of bear in California, which is where you can sit at home and pay people to unleash their dogs on bears that climb up the trees. Then they drive up there and shoot and kill the bear. It's a horrendous activity so I was more than happy to help with that.

I was listening to some of the people, the bear hunters say that when they hunt the bear and shoot the bear the bear doesn't feel pain. I realized at that point that they had to believe that because if they really came to the realization of how much pain and suffering they're causing that animal, I don't think they could live with themselves. They have this false story they keep telling themselves.

I explained to the State Senate Committee that I stepped on Susie Bear's foot once by accident and she knocked me down on my butt because she felt it. If she could feel that, she could definitely feel a stick with a steel tip on it going into her body and puncturing her lungs. She would feel as much if not more pain and fear and anxiety than we would if she is being hunted down and shot.

I think that empathy is very important but you can't really teach empathy. You can nurture empathy, you can foster empathy but at a certain point, the person has to carry that with them and start to see what that feeling is to understand the pain of others. Empathy is an important part of being a human being and forming relationships with others. How can you form a relationship with an “other” unless you are empathic and realize that if you say something or do something, how it's going to affect them on a feeling basis?

So, it's a very hard thing to discuss because you have all these gazillions of chickens and cattle being eaten by human beings and you have all this suffering going on around it and I sure hope it's true that this is the century where we realize that animals have rights. We can't really let this turn us bitter. Yes there is a lot of suffering going on but we can't let it affect us in a bitter way. We can't even let it make us angry. When I saw those birds dead, my brothers and sisters, those robins dead on the ground, I never felt mad and angry and mean. I never wanted to hurt that man, I just wanted him to understand.

I lectured with Julia Butterfly Hill once, the young lady that spent more than a year on the redwood tree and she told me that she would stand outside this parking area and listen to people that were cutting these trees down and as the trees fell, they made this screaming noise and she would literally feel these huge redwood trees screaming as they died and smashed into the ground.

I asked her, "Why did you stay there all day and listen to this? Why didn't you just leave?" She said, "Unless you can feel the depths of despair, you can't feel the heights and beauty of love in your life." That taught me these feelings that we have as human beings, we should not stop them and let them plug up. Even if what we're feeling is pain, that's part of human existence and I really do believe that unless you let yourself go to these depths, you will never go to these heights. Just don't dwell there because it's not a fun place to be.

Pallavi: You talked about being in the zero state. I can feel your presence on the phone. I was curious to know, how have you learned to deal with crisis in your life?

Steve: The first thing that popped in my head is Parkinson's. Something that everybody expects they are going to be able to do is get up and walk and pick something up with their hands and dial the phone and type something. Everybody expects that these are things that we just tell our body to do and the body serves us. With Parkinson's the mind is telling the body to do other things. Instead of picking up the pen and writing with it, the hand shakes or the fingers don't work to pick up the pen. Many times I can't type on the computer. Some moments I can't walk 20 or 30 feet and then the next moment I can. Some moments it feels like my legs weigh a thousand pounds each and they're stuck to the ground and it's unpredictable when these things happen. Sometimes all I can do is sit there and breathe because even my automatic breath stops being automatic and I have to manually sit there and concentrate on breathing in and out, in and out. I would say that's a bit of a crisis, more than having to fundraise, more than if my car broke down on the freeway and I’m wondering what am I going to do?

What I've learned is part of impermanence. It's a real lesson in my face that nothing is permanent, nothing is going to stay the same, everything goes through constant changes and we can't really attach to these outward changes because it's a different part of being a human being. Having Parkinson's really brings people to that point where they just have to be grateful that they're alive. When all I can do is sit there and breathe, I think that this is just part of my practice, it's part of my way to follow the breath. With Parkinson's the mind does work slowly inside my head, which helps me in contemplative ways. It's still painful and frustrating at times but with that practice that I've been doing for over 40 years, I have the ability to be with that anger and discomfort and accept it as a part of existence.

Rahul: How can we as a community be of service to you? What can we do to make ourselves available and be of service in your work?

Steve: Here I am, I just turned 60, and I have Parkinson's. There is no way of telling how much longer I can teach and teaching is what I'm here to do on this planet. I need to share all these lessons that have been given to me by these animals. If everyone on this call and all the people that you meet can send me an email on what they think they would like to learn. What type of class or weekend seminar would they like to take, then I can get an idea of what's needed out there and I can teach as many people as possible.

This article is a transcript of an Awakin Call conversation. It is community of listeners, who start with the idea that by changing ourselves, we change the world. 

2 Past Reflections