Once you’ve found a study buddy, you’ll want to start having conversations. That, I’ve found, can be a bit of a challenge for many humans. We’ve been trained from early on to talk to animals but not to really listen to what they might have to say in response. Many of us are used to having conversations with our animal friends much as we’d have conversations with ourselves rather than with a friend; we talk and they listen, like a one way street. Beyond that, breaking the ice with anyone can feel uncomfortable. Couple that with getting over the hurdles of deconstructing cultural and personal blocks to conversing with someone who speaks in an entirely different way than we’re used to speaking (and has fur, feathers, scales or some other form that differs from ours greatly!), and getting conversation going can start to feel really uncomfortable or forced.
To get started, and to expand your own skills of perception, think of your early conversations as games. Games are all about having fun. Sometimes you get it all right, sometimes completely wrong. It really doesn’t matter too much so long as you have fun on the way. As I like to have fun while thinking of one of my favorite topics, that being food, I developed this game to help myself (and others) expand perceptive skills. You can truly choose any topic instead of food you like, but I’ve found most non-human animals are quite happy to spend some time ruminating on foods they love so that makes food a good first topic.
You can play this game alone or with one or more partners. If you go it alone, focus on expanding your skills with perception. Aim to include as many sights, sounds, flavors, textures, emotions, and understandings in your visualization as possible.
If you’re playing with one or more partners, you can focus on your perceptive skills, of course. You can also think of it as an opportunity to deepen your connection to and understanding of your partner or partners, too. Be open to whatever sights, smells, sounds, textures, tastes, emotions, or understandings come to you, even if your friend’s favorite food is one you’d normally find icky or abhorrent.
Cats, for instance, often adore various meats. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian who’s working with a cat, you may well need to be willing to open your mind to the experience of what it’s like to eat meat from your cat friend’s perspective. Try to get out of your own world, ethics, morals, and experiences so you can make space for accepting your friend’s honestly and without judgement. This is where you can push your own capacity for understanding and compassion, which truly is key to improving communication no matter who’s involved.
Play the Favorite Foods Game
- Take a few moments to get your mind quiet and be still. This may take seconds or may take a few moments of silent meditation. Use whatever techniques work for you. Your aim is to be able to focus without distraction. If you’re working with a partner, ask him or her to do so as well.
- When you’re ready, think of your favorite food. Start off with imagining it in whatever way you’d normally think of it. If, for instance, you love lasagna, maybe just the word comes to you. That’s okay. If you’re working with a partner, send that word to your partner by imagining you’re close to one another. Imagine your partner has just asked “What’s your favorite food?” Imagine yourself replying with the world, “Lasagna.” If you’re working on your own, you can imagine yourself sitting at a mirror or writing in your journal or sitting in a place where you feel safe and loved and just talking to yourself as you say the word aloud.
- Now, it’s time to expand your concept to include more senses. Imagine you see your favorite food laid before you where you and your partner can see it. Pay special attention to the details that are most attractive to you. Do you love the sight of the layers of pasta, sauce, and vegetables or meats? Is it the beautiful white curls of parmesan dusting the top and cascading down the side of the piece on your plate? Do you notice a slight heat wave or steam rising from the top? Take a moment to imagine yourself pointing to those details you love to see most as if you’re showing them to your friend. Imagine your friend moving so he or she can see with ease.
- Continue on to describe your favorite food with your other senses. Include additional details using the less recognized senses, like knowing or emotions. If, for instance, you really love lasagna because Grandma made it for you when you visited every summer and now you get the same happy, warmth from eating lasagna you got from those dinners with your Grandma, that’s part of why it’s your favorite food and you can include that in your description. Go one by one, taking time to focus enough to get clarity on at least one detail before moving to a new sense.
- When you’ve exhausted your favorite food, you can go on to another (perhaps the one you like least) if you’re working on your own. If you’re working with a partner, let him or her take a turn.
If you get tired or find it hard to keep focus, set the game aside for awhile. It’s okay to play this game across many days or even weeks or months. It’s okay to set it down, like setting down a book, and come back to the same food you initially chose. It’s also okay to choose a different food even if you didn’t quite get all the senses with the last one you tried.
If you’re working with a partner who’s physically nearby, you can sat the bits you get from your partner aloud. If you don’t feel confident with your ability to receive or communicate, you can ask your partner to give you a clear cue when you’ve received inaccurately. As you receive information, say what you’re getting aloud. A whisper is loud enough. If you speak something that’s not what your friend meant, like you think you’re smelling rotten eggs when actually your friend’s trying to give you the scent of his or her favorite cheese, he or she can jump up or bark or flap wings or whatever cue you’ve agreed upon. If you get it wrong, don’t worry. It’s no big deal. Just take a deep breath, clear your mind, and ask for the information to come again. It’s just like re-reading a sentence in your book-your partner doesn’t necessarily have to repeat it because it’s already there. You just need to clear something in your own mind out of the way so you can perceive it clearly. Of course, you can ask your partner to repeat it, too.
Above all else, have fun with this game. It’s all about expanding your imagination and ability to visualize. There is no win or lose with this one, only a chance for some fun and for a stronger, healthier, better understanding of yourself, your friend or study buddy, and a stronger toolset for communication with whomever you choose to converse.