Saving Slugs & Improving Personal Character in 20-30 Swoops
Walking the fern-lined path, following the steps of my dog, I come foot to foot with a slug- yellowish brown with black markings. Bending to the pull of gravity, my gaze is focused on the creature's optical tentacles. I watch them move about, surveying the scene and I observe that this little being is on it's way to a particular place. Of course, that place is unknown to me, but nonetheless it's clearly headed to the other side of this well-traveled hiking and jogging path. To survive the morning, all this slug needs is to get to the across without paw or hiking boot landing on the whole or even just a part of it. Especially after rain, when the ground is still moist enough for them to travel easily along their mucus-lined path, I see lots of these shell-less terrestrial gastropod molluscs. There are times when I bend down 20-30 times in an hour just to assist them! Each of those times is a practice for me in humility, in patience, in removing critical judgements, and in kindness.
Quite a few people have questioned this practice of mine. There are many popular challenges and objections and I can see why, at first, it seems silly to do such a thing.
Of course, people have numerous charges against the slug- first, (and only first because our culture gives so much darn credit to looks)... slugs are considered distasteful in appearance. I suppose primarily the slime turns most people off. It's shape is typical for any pulmonate land gastropod, which are, to say the least, odd looking compared to other creatures. However, in this family is also the snail, another air-breather, thanks to the pallial lung, whose appearance we seem to like, if only because of that sexy shell. What is it about that shell that we like so much? The swirl? Those who love gardening tend to have a wicked disdain especially for the shell-less creatures, for they've sometimes eaten more salad greens than the family who tends the garden. I've known some generally compassionate people that delight in the torture of slugs, people like humane-issue-motivated vegetarians and the like. An argument I've heard time and time again regards the sheer number of slugs. The typical claim is "there are so many, so why should we care about the ones who get squished on the trail?" or another popular ending to the question, "about the ones I drown in soapy water?"
In college, when I learned about the Jain teachings on reverence for life in all forms, I was inspired in a way people are only when wisdom touches a place of deep soul-level understanding. I mean this not to claim a universal truth in any way, but to state that for me, as an individual, these teachings were profoundly in line with my own ethics. “Ahimsa parmo dharmah” means "Non-violence is the supreme religion." This concept is not only expressed in the negative, so as to avoid causing pain. Compassion, empathy, and care, should also be proactively applied.
Why did the Jain teachings touch me so deeply? At that time, I was already old enough to have come to understand, with my own eyes, the immense suffering of people and animals in the world. The topic was broken open for me one night when, despite my parent's objections to me seeing the film, I peered down from where the stairs meets the basement ceiling to watch as much as I could of "Gorillas in the Mist," the 1988 film starring Sigourney Weaver as Jane Fossey. She lives in Rwanda with the Mountain Gorillas as poachers inflict terror, taking Gorilla hands, feet, and hides, and ultimately murdering Fossey brutally. With young eyes of a 9 or 10 year old girl, I saw a great deal of suffering on the screen and knew these stories were true. My sensitivities were heightened as I witnessed anonymous bodies and faces against sidewalks during cold winter nights, or looked in textbooks at the human skeletons pictured during the Holocaust. The nightmarish examples of the sufferings of others, meaning little to nothing to many of those who had the ability to help, were part of the coming-of-age curriculum for any young child in our culture, as I studied atrocities, violence, abuse, and genocide every day through news story after news story. Each and every one of the feeling beings I observed and learned about actually felt those experiences they lived through or died from, and I knew it.
And there were "so many of them." Those people who did and did not look like me, us. The numbers argument just doesn't compute or matter when we are truly considering the suffering of an individual, which is by itself immeasurable. The individual accounts, the case studies, the qualitative research said everything and still nothing at all about their experiences as I studied psychology and ethics. Desensitization is a scary thing, often a really terrible thing. We simply can't feel and relate to our brothers and sisters any longer.
When I'm working with groups, assuming I still have my wits about me at the end of the session, one of my practices is to bow to everyone and tell them, "I see you" while looking each person in the eye. Just as important as the act, is the explanation. "In today's world, in which we rush around and demand the things we want and need from others, we often don't recognize each other as sentient, feeling beings. Right now, as we close our session together, I want to express that I've seen you, you are important, you are a unique and feeling individual." I know my clients are coming to me with all kinds of personal, spiritual, and professional challenges. Youth I worked with recently had undergone some horrific personal traumas, most of which I was not even aware of. After our sessions together doing meditation in nature, it was important for me to look at them and transfer the feeling of genuine care and love for them through my eyes. It is my sincere hope that they take the gifts I gave them and apply those tools to the hardships of life as they move forward. Through my eyes, I hugged each and every one of the 25 students.
Maybe you recall the words of a genocide survivor, "If you had really known me and known yourself, you would not have killed me." It's vital to see each other in as intimate a way as possible and to cultivate the eyes through which we can see others with sensitivity and concern, even when we do not fully know or understand them. My practice is to do the same with those who are of a different culture, species, or those who are anonymous. Meta meditations, for loving-kindness, assist me in this effort. Through these meditations, I work on seeing people as they are, for the ways in which we are different or the same and sending them positive sentiments, whether my feelings for them are positive, neutral, or negative.
On our most recent "Wind-Down" hike in Portland, during which I facilitate mindfulness and nature-reconnection activities, I recalled a story I heard years ago, which has become a primary reminder for me in "sluggy situations." In the story, there was woman on the beach after a storm, throwing starfish back into the ocean. There were thousands of them washed up on shore, so to the next passerby, the woman's actions seemed useless. When questioned, the she tossed another starfish back into the sea and replied, "It mattered to that one." Every time I get sick of bending down and want to pass by a slug, I think of that story.
Now, I know that slugs are a different species than humans. But this is not a black and white issues. Just because they are not human doesn't mean that they are useless or worthy of extinction simply because they eat up our salad greens, among other things. Still unknown to us humans, are many many things about the world around us. Particularly regarding animals, including many details on how much and/or the quality of how they feel or think, their scientific value, their place in the ecosystem, or how they communicate with each other. This brings to mind a recent podcast I listened to which reported on the projects currently in place around the world to eradicate the mosquito. Of course, malaria is a terrible disease. At the same time, we do need to be certain that something is, without a doubt, worthy of destruction before carrying it out. We're far from that kind of certainty about anything in this world. This is just one of the obvious reasons why the larger issue of extinction is so frightening.
Considering all that is unknown, I will err on the side of caution and assume that when a slug gets the back half of its tail crushed, it's not experiencing a pleasant end, no pun intended. So, why not just save a creature from a preventable suffering? It's amazing to me how much we try to convince ourselves that creatures aren't really in pain because they don't express pain the way we do.
And now I can turn this reflection back to myself, let's just forget the other for a moment. I know, I know- all that consideration of the other is really tiring!
Numerous studies have shown that giving, helping, caring benefits us. A participant on one of my programs recently inquired about my slug-saving. I replied that I do not have all the answers regarding the slug's value or its ability to feel, but I do know for sure that I am a better person for doing this. Cultivating kindness and preventing the onset of desensitization benefits me! My internal voice- the dialogue of running commentary in my own head becomes kinder toward myself and more understanding of the world around me when I nurture these virtues. Those filters through which I perceive each and every thing in the world become clearer, cleaner, kinder. In turn, my human experience moment to moment is transformed and I actually enjoy my aliveness more. In the words of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, I am "watering the seeds" of compassion within myself every time I act with compassion.
Lastly, on this thing of beauty... I have to admit, they look so "different" than you or I that I find them mesmerizing to watch. The slug feels really nice when you get used to it. It's body is very soft and squishy, not that I squeeze too hard. If you let them move across you, the sensation tickles just slightly, and as you observe their movements of muscles contracting in waves, gaining a sense of appreciation of them is inevitable. Their adaptations are amazing! For instance, consider the sensory tentacles or "feelers." Their upper tentacles are eyespots on the ends and the lower set are for their sense of smell. And, you may or may not have noticed, there is a hole on their mantle, usually only on the right side. Do you know what that is? A pneumostome- a respiratory opening. I know this is all quite amazing, and in fact, I find it beautiful.
I have to tell you something else, because no doubt you've never seen it before. Why? Don't worry, even the most committed slug-observer wouldn't have seen it because the phenomena only happens internally. Slugs undergo a 180* torsion of their internal organs during development! I'm in awe. What is beauty anyway? We've constructed and deconstructed it throughout time.
The only thing I know for sure: compassion is beautiful.
Other things to notice about them: Slugs move slowly, as if in another dimension of time. When I pick them up, I also do so slowly, allowing them to release the hold they have on something, so as not to harm them. Since they move slowly on their own, I assume that if I pick them up to fast, I could damage their foot. After-all, we know that they tend not to move on dry land in order to avoid injury. Tossing the little slug wouldn't be nice either, since they aren't adapted for crash landings as far as I know. I've yet to see one launch itself from a tall branch, or even from a long grass. I admire their steady pace, their predictable gait. At the same time, my humility recognizes that maybe to them, in one moment they're racing, while in another they're dragging. That in and of itself is a separate and fascinating study in relative time vs. absolute time. (And if that interests you, listen to this Radiolab podcast!)
When we visit other cultures, the good guest will observe all that is going on around them and try to blend in, act the part, take on the norms. Some cultures move more slowly than others. It's a similar practice with animals and in various ecosystems. Hunters and trackers have known this and practiced it for tens of thousands of years. I remember listening to a talk by my teacher Tara Brach in which she shared that when she walks her dog, when the sniffing of all things at snout level inevitably occurs, it is a reminder that she too can stop and smell the scents and take in the sensory experience. It feels good to accommodate the other beings we spend time with. Trying to do things their way teaches us personal lessons, sometimes pushes us beyond our own comfort zone, and helps us strengthen our own character.
Oh, and there is one other thing... have you ever seen slugs mating while hanging from slime cords in the moonlight on a warm summer night? That's beautiful too, really beautiful.