A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Sixth Sense, or Just Paying Attention?

Why we should trade in the ear buds and tune back in to life

By Michael Mountain

I was with two other people at the Riparian Institute – a delightful 110-acre preserve just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. It’s literally an oasis in the desert, a haven for local animals and a refreshing stopover for birds on migration. There are lakes and ponds, trees and trails, and you can see remarkable creatures of all kinds.

Even though we were less than a mile from the bustle of our modern world, that all faded away as we walked along the trails and were filled with the sights and sounds of nature – especially all the different birds, from baby ducks to big, white Snowy Egrets.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice, though, was that every minute or two someone would jog past us, ear buds firmly in place, wired to their mp3 players and completely tuned out from the mini-paradise that was all around them. Maybe they’d say that it’s their regular jogging route and they already know what’s going on. Regardless, they clearly prefer their own artificial environment to the real one.

Of course, you don’t have to go to some exotic location or riparian preserve to be in the real world of nature. It’s all around us, even though we still tend to tune out it out. When we take the dogs out for a walk in the park, we’re likely to spend the time thinking about work or shopping or something that’s bothering us or what’s coming up next week. The dogs, meanwhile, have all their senses finely tuned, noses to the ground, checking out who else is in the park, what species, whether they’re healthy or sick, friendly or hostile, whether they’re carrying food, even what kind of mood they’re in. Beyond that, they may be picking up on something bigger that’s brewing – like a storm or even an impending earthquake.

That’s all part of what we mean when we say that other animals “live in the moment.” We find this very appealing, in part because we have such a hard time doing it ourselves. But living in the moment isn’t some kind of advanced spiritual practice. It’s mostly just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around us.

And it’s not just something to be doing in the park. Just like our pets, we can be doing it at home, at work, everywhere.

You don’t have to be psychic to tune in

Animals are so attuned to what’s going on around them that we often mistake their keen awareness for some kind of psychic ability. A recent poll by the AP/Petside (you can read about it here) posed the question, “Do Animals Have a Sixth Sense?”

One of the people who was polled described how her dog, Rocki, alerted the family to a fire that was about to break out in the kitchen. The family is very grateful to Rocki, and they reckon that she does indeed have a sixth sense.

That may be the case, but Rocki didn’t have to be psychic to know that trouble was brewing in the kitchen. While her family was in the den watching TV, she was doing what she always does: taking note of her five senses were telling her –in this case, that something was starting to burn. So, what may seem “extra-sensory” to us is, for them, nothing more than paying attention to what’s going on around us.

In fact, attributing a sixth sense to other animals may just be a good way of avoiding the fact that we’re not using the five we already know about. That’s because while Rocki and her kind have their senses finely attuned to what’s happening around them, we spend a lot of our time apparently doing everything we can to distract ourselves from all of that.

The “environment” isn’t just about carbon emissions and rain forests. It’s what’s happening all around us. So we’d do well to take out the ear buds, set aside some of the distractions, and pay more attention to what our senses are telling us – wherever we are. Our fellow animals are doing this all the time. It’s natural and instinctive for them. And it can be just as natural for us, too.

After all …

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night …

… A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

William H. Davies – 1871 – 1940