Jean Houston, a renowned scholar, philosopher, and teacher, has worked as a consultant to the United Nations, UNICEF, and other international agencies. She is the best-selling author of "A Mythic Life," "The Possible Human," and "Jump Time." She was a protégée of Margaret Mead and Joseph Campbell, and currently serves as co-director of the Foundation for Mind Research and the founder of the Mystery School -- an institution dedicated to education and the exploration of human potential.

In her latest book, "Mystical Dogs," Dr. Houston explores the ways in which the dogs in her life have guided her on each stage of the mystic path. She spoke with Beliefnet about how we can learn from our animal companions.

You say animals are part of the sacred flow of nature, while humans, on the other hand, are stuck in this "once-removed spirituality." Are dogs spiritually superior to humans?

[laughs] That's a funny question. I wouldn't say anything like that. I would just say that they are closer to nature and thus seem to be on a continuum with the natural flow of things. Obviously humans are much more complex in their spirituality, and in a sense it's almost the difference between the spirituality of a child and the spirituality of a grownup. Because as grownups we have eros, and aesthetic joy, and passion, and complexity, and the shadows of life that inform our brightness. And I think the same thing is true of animals; it's just that I think they serve as wonderful guides because of their simplicity and the naturalness of their being.

You seem to be saying that we go backwards spiritually as we evolve; why do you think that is?

I think it's the humdrum dailyness of everyday, isn't it, the muchness of our lives, a serial monotony; the living for the object, the goal, the thing. And of course, in our time, the too-muchness of it. At least in the West we've put so much of our emphasis on outwardness rather than inwardness and have disturbed the ecology between inner and outer spaces. This is why I think we turn so much to our pets because they remind us of our deeper nature, of what is truly important. And also in a strange way of what we can be. They rest us deeply and give us sudden joys that we have forgotten.

Have you seen the bumper sticker "Lord help me be the person my dog thinks I am"?

[laughs] Yes, I have that. And it's not a bad idea, that we could become what they see - what with their loyalty, their goodness, their constant presence, their availability to us even when we doubt ourselves. Not to [mention] the fact that they take us on our walks and keep us in shape and restore us to nature and the natural flow of things.

I happen to be a dog person, but I have to ask on behalf of cat lovers, what about cats? Can they also serve as spiritual guides?

Cats are very different from dogs, but I think equally evocative of our spiritual depths -- the way they will sit there and look at you and kneed bread on your chest and be so bright and shining. They have a kind of daemonic -- not demonic -- but a daemonic (as in the old Greek) aspect. They, too, are guides but at the same time they are tricksters who play games with us. Just like great saints and monks and people like Don Juan [laughs] are tricksters and fool our expectations and bring us to new ways of being.

Do you think that we can learn from any animal, or any pet -- does that include iguanas and rabbits and birds?

I've never had them for long periods of time so I can't respond to that. People who enter into any kind of bond with any kind of animal certainly talk about this. I've been privileged to know some elephants well in my time. I have been just astonished by not just the dignity of their presence but a kind of essential kindness.

It's not for nothing that we have often given our gods animal visages, animal personalities -- witness Ganesha of India. I've had the good fortune at one time in my life to spend a great deal of time with dolphins, swimming with dolphins. And I've seen extraordinary things. I've seen little blind kids be with the dolphins and the dolphins would come by and put their fins in such a way so that they would take the child for a ride, and this was not trained behavior, this was just instinctual.

One of the most popular features ever on our site was called "Do Pets Go to Heaven?" and it got an amazing response from our members. In an online poll, 86 % said yes, and 14% said no, and a raging debate ensued. So what do you think, do pets go to heaven?

That's why I include in the beginning of the book that wonderful story from the Mahabharata about how the great king goes to the other world and he is refused entrance because he has his dog with him. He says, "I will not enter." And then the man says, "You have passed the test because anybody who would enter without their dog is not worthy." [laughs] And that really is my answer. The gatekeeper said, "Come in, come in, you've been faithful to the end and so has your dog. Your dog is a living example of the dharma, the way of truth. He has been with you always come in, come in." And the great king and his dog entered paradise.

What about people who don't have dogs? Do people with pets have an unfair advantage spiritually?

Well, obviously there are many paths and many ways into the spiritual life. I once discussed this with the Dalai Lama. I work with a small group that meets with him about every year and a half and we discuss and work on world problems. And I had this conversation with him, and I told him about my way with dogs. And he laughed summarily, "Very good way, excellent way! Animals take us to our spiritual depths." I did see an awful lot of cats there at his house, crawling all around. Whether they were his or not I don't know.

I just think that people who have an inkling of the glory of an animal's presence and the beauty and the sympathy -- one is in a state of utter sympathy which really relaxes one to deepen into the largest stages of life.

Are we better off spending our time with animals instead of people?

It was Matthew Fox who said his spiritual advisor was his dog. As I say at the end of my book I really have felt the same, even though I have been blessed with extremely wise and deep and beautiful human teachers. With dogs, my experience is that words and theologies are not that necessary. Because with them you are in the presence, you can pat and caress the most holy [laughs]. You can run and play and dance with spiritual company. And you can also enter into profound silence and they are there with you. They are there as copartner and witness and deep friend of our spiritual journey. That's why since ancient times they've always been the guides through our darkness, guides to our greater journey. And that's why I say at the end of my book, trust your dogs and cats because they know the way to the ordinary extraordinary life in the kingdom.

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