Carli’s exclamation overlaps the immediate din of cat-dog conflict by the food room’s door. “Bad girl!” Swiftly admonishing the dog and swooping up the cat, Carli seizes control of the situation. She parents and socializes our pets as naturally and spontaneously as any mother would her rather geriatric children. It had to be done. Karma snapped at Finn. She’s getting older, lazier, and crankier. Finn, also old, cranky, and not known for manners, still didn’t deserve the aggressive act. He’s part of the pack, but these altercations had been happening more often, especially where food was concerned. Regardless, Carli defended the apparent innocent while punishing the guilty – but wait, these are just animals right? And so are we: the human animal. I will use this article to take a look at this creature, and what it is that makes us similar to or different from the other animal earthlings.
I specialize in humans, but as an opportunistic animal lover and amateur animal bodyworker, I have learned scads from working with the other animals who, like us, are earthlings. I love it. There’s just something about working with the other, with the not-quite-self, that brings us into a space of receptivity for revelation about ourselves. Working with animals informs my perspective about working with, and being, a human animal.
While studying physical and cultural anthropology at the University of Texas, I was struck by the degree to which humans share animals’ dilemmas. Our thriving has a lot to do with being social and manipulating the environment. Our brains make us special and uniquely human, but ultimately we’re still animals. We all deal with survival threats and mating opportunities, have strategies for making families, have partners and competitors. Even if it doesn’t look the same, we have the same needs. Of course we also deal with many of the same forces of nature. As earthlings, humans and animals alike share constant gravity, twenty-four-hour cycles of light and dark, temperature fluctuations, and phenomena of motion, pressure, and tension. As physical beings, we all exhibit structure and function, which by design have reciprocal consequences on each other. In this way all earthlings navigate and respond to physical reality. This reality is both constant and constantly changing.
From a structural perspective, studying comparative anatomy provides insight similar to that gained from studying a foreign language to better understand one’s own native tongue. The slings and arrows of semantics and culture all demand certain strategies of expression, from lowly grammar to high art. Similarly the animal body is an expression of the earthling body that must accommodate all this physicality. Enter fascia, layers, tensional and pressure regimes, and the mechanism of mechanical input to produce change.
Like a binocular vision, the twin lenses of human and animal anatomical study let us see more clearly the role of fascia, and our physical reality. Animal connective tissue seems to exhibit similar physical properties and behaviors, and performs similarly to human connective tissue. It wraps, envelopes, shapes, divides, and connects every muscle, organ, and bone, down to their individual cells, just as it does our own. Similarly, animal fascial structures, structures like a horse’s ligamentum nuchae or the latissimus on a house cat, describe that animal’s motion, even while standing still.
Sharing all the same names, but none of the same proportions, we’re invited to evaluate our own morphology objectively. What do we do better than anyone? The answer to this question marches forth from the fossil record quite literally in the form of the broad pelves and femurs angling midline to the knees that belonged to our first walking ancestors. These details describe the management of the center of gravity of a bipedal being (Wayman 2012). We were probably walking upright before we were smart: the shape and arrangement of our bones show a propensity for gait though human brainboxes remained small at first. How did this happen? Some mechanism, be it genetic mutation, tissue yielding from the new function of a new structure, or some sheer stubbornness, gave rise to apes that stood up and walked. That’s one option for dealing with gravity.
Speaking of brains, nature builds upon a theme. One of the first brains was the reptilian brain, and we still carry that little guy just under our mammalian brain, which in turn supports our neocortex. We still use all of the faculties of the reptile brain; flight, fight, and other fearless and fearful endeavors find function here. We first learned social behavior, to cuddle and mean it, as mammals [though there is evidence that reptiles do experience emotion as measured by heartbeat and body temperature (Cabanac 1999)]. Our tribe instinct seems to originate from this mammalian brain, as does our fear of rejection. However, the ability to put a story on these feelings – which may further twist our fear into anxiety, or turn it into love – is probably exclusive to people.
Observations made from watching our animals interact with one another show that they share many of our human qualities, including guile, concern, impatience, affection, aggression, and whimsy. Watch your pets. They get up for no reason and go to the other room just to lay down somewhere else. They tear off running to chase some unseen animal. Haven’t you seen this before in humans as well? Okay, well maybe we don’t randomly chase squirrels, but a yellow traffic light might as well be the same thing. This automatic behavior will certainly indicate the pathways whereby function becomes structure, and whereby structure may represent something deeper, like feeling or belief. When we’re working with our fellow human animals, maybe it is appropriate to ask ourselves, “What squirrel has this person been chasing?”
Today my pets teach me about Rolfing® Structural Integration, just as they taught me about massage, just as they teach me about being human. For example, when I work with my pets I can ask myself questions about my efficacy as a Rolfer. Did I come on too strong? What intervention do these guys need? Was the intervention I used useful to them? How do they behave after touch? Feedback seems more immediate with animals, and more reliable. They have no formal means of speech, no psychologizing of their experience. They may want to please me, sure, but they’re not going to tell me what I want to hear. I also don’t have to battle their assumptions concerning whether what we’re doing is going to help or not. Finally, I am able to see patterns for which I wasn’t trained, but that I see nonetheless. It’s easier, in a way, to see animals move and know something isn’t quite right.
I remember one day I reached for my cranky, shuffling dog’s psoas. Something looked strange on the surface of her lumbars. They were too far inferior, sagging, and the motion was weird. I began to reach in. As her eyes grew, I found it somewhat reassuring to see she was human – I mean earthling – enough to show trepidation over the whole thing. Walleyed as she was, I could tell I was probably on her psoas. In the end she took it like a champ. I worked on softening my touch, and I could feel her psoas soften in kind. Her gaze became less concerned, and turned more thankful and sleepy. Slowly withdrawing my hands, Karma’s tail began to beat the cushion on which she’d been luxuriating. Funny thing, after that she stopped snapping at Finn. I guess the pain had made her a little ornery.
Of course it’s not just the raw data of our lives here on spaceship Earth that’s interesting. It’s not just our emotional and behavioral commonalties that render an interesting study of our fellow earthlings either. For me it’s our incarnated thrust toward heart and spiritual evolution that keeps the plot so interesting. I find my relationship with my animals epitomizes this value within me. I see a progression. I don’t suppose we’ll be the last, or highest, expression of life on this planet. There’s more yet to come, a constant invitation for Life to fulfill its potential.
As I see it, our relationship with animals deepens and enriches our lives, but more importantly it can expose us to a world of inquiry based on what it means to be a life form on Earth. We can’t ignore either physics or primal drives, nor should we forget our spirituality. Isn’t this incarnate situation so mysterious? We are examples of the life force itself moving through some strangely specific forms! As a Rolfer and a human being humbly hoping for some awareness of self, I hold this presentation in life as worthy for contemplation.
Matt Walker lives and practices in Austin, Texas. More information can be found at his website, www.walkerrolfing.com.
Cabanac, M. 1999 . “ Emotion and Phylogeny.” The Japanese Journal of Physiology 49(1):1-10 (Feb 1999). Abstract available at www.oxytocin.org/oxy/emotion.html.
Wayman, E. 2012. “Becoming Human: The Evolution of Walking Upright.” Smithsonian.com, 8/6/2012. Available at www.smithsonianmag.com/science- nature/becoming-human-the-evolution- of-walking-upright-13837658/?no-ist (retrieved 9/28/2015).
The Human Animal[:]