Multispecies Empathy: Practice with a Gopher Tortoise

This week's practice is multispecies empathy to grow our multispecies intelligence.  Here is a video highlighting that practice with a gopher tortoise in Florida, USA.

Multispecies Empathy: Journal Practice

Last week I spoke of the importance and theory behind multispecies empathy. This week I offer a practice that can develop your general sense of empathy, and especially that towards other species.

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

The Practice

1.  Think of an individual with whom you have a relationship. Write here 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?

What is this plush-crested jay thinking and feeling?

 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.

Please let me know how this exercise was for you, and if you have any suggestions or creative idea on how to use it.

In hope for all beings,

LoraKim Joyner

Multispecies Empathy: Introduction

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

Is it possible that we can grow empathy for other species? Yes!  Steven Pinker cites multiple examples of how violence towards other animals has decreased in the last 100-200 years, including laws and policies reducing animal cruelty, dog and rooster fighting, animal experimentation, and whale hunting along with the rise of vegetarianism. We still have much further go in regards to the loss of biodiversity, extinction, the wildlife trade, and the suffering of animals held in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Earth and her beings call out to us to increase our empathy for others, which we can do intentionally and encourage others to do so as well.

 A study a few years suggests how we might go about this.* In the study, one group of students were asked to imagine what a bird was feeling for 15 minutes. The control group was given no directions. Those who pretended they were the bird showed increased levels of empathy and a stronger perceived obligation to help nature.

What is this bird feeling?

Putting yourself into the shoes, fins, wings, hoofs, paws, claws, or talons of another is a powerful exercise which doesn't take a lot of time. You can also do it anywhere as life is all around us. Such a practice is good for others, but also for ourselves as it is also a mindfulness practice. By being open to the other, we still our inner chatter and come to the present moment. Thus we improve our own health and relationships while also growing our sense of the inherent worth and dignity of others. In turn this grows our individual and collective compassionate action in the world.

Coming next: journal and videos to guide you through multispecies empathy exercises and experiences.

*Berenguer, J. 2007. The effect of empathy in proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. Environment and Behavior 39,269-283.