Water on the leaf from last night's rain glistens in the sunlight. A gentle breeze rustles the leaf. A drop of water rolls down a vein of the leaf, gaining speed as it moves toward the leaf's edge, where it stops, expands slightly in size, and then falls over the edge and down, thirty feet, to the forest floor. You are a three-toed sloth, and you want to eat that leaf.
Animal Meditations, a collection of guided meditations both soothing and profoundly educational, enables a listener to do as a child might: momentarily embody an animal, taking on its particular form and exploring its natural environment. Each meditation is no longer than eight minutes, and as you sync your breath to the imagined creature's, you'll fly across the sea as a Laysan albatross or experience the peculiar state of being suspended in water as an octopus. It's the sloth described above: the mediation illustrates in near-painstaking detail the droplet of water that travels along a leaf you're about to consume, before imagining your journey—slowly—toward it.
Created by Jon Leland, Colin Everest, Jake Hudson, David Rood-Ojalvo, Sam Fleischner, and Pete Hoy, Animal Meditations was funded on Kickstarter by nearly 240 people from 30 countries. The voices behind the animals are varied—filmmakers like Brent Katz, singers like Daniela Gesundheit, a lawyer, a social services director—and each meditation is written by a different contributor. As Leland explains, the project has two origin stories: on Jeff Bridges' Sleeping Tapes, there's a track called "Temescal Canyon," in which he guides us through an imagined hike, pausing to note a crow flying overhead. "If you want, we can pretend to be crows," he says. "No? Okay, okay." Leland wishes he'd continued: "No, we should pretend to be crows!" Shortly thereafter, after Leland spent a day reading about pangolins—a scaly, armadillo-like mammal—he led a stressed, inconsolable friend through a guided meditation in which they pretended to be pangolins.
An avid meditator himself, Leland previously worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and as a climate change and human rights adviser to Palau in the United Nations. "The idea of having a project that increases empathy and identification with other beings on this planet was really important to me," he explains. What's special about Animal Meditations, though, is not simply their ability to help you embody the animal, but the empathy evoked by imagining the self as anything else at all. Briefly dreaming yourself into the body of another might cultivate the sensitivity necessary to better understand each other, the planet, all it encompasses in its movement around the sun.
In his essay, "Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs," anthropologist Rane Willerslev explains that, while in the West, personhood is solely attributed to human beings, the Yukaghirs see things differently: "Persons can take on a variety of forms, of which human beings are only one … humans and animals can move in and out of different species' perspectives by temporarily taking on alien kinds of bodies." To briefly take on another body is a form of radical empathy. This is poignantly significant at this point in history, too, when human rights feel exceptionally delicate.
As sound engineer Everest explains, "There's a lot of discussion about how 'all opinions are valid' in political discourse right now, which is difficult. But maybe a tool to work on empathy has to be really radical in order for it to be useful."
He adds that the meditations are "collaborations between the person who's meditating and the person who's narrating, rather than your reality being dictated to you." The meditations, then, in spite of their detailed, real-time explications of the animal's body and movements—meant to be informative and accurate—seem to unfold experientially. Even if it's technically impossible to know the whole truth of an animal (or of anyone else, really), Leland says he subscribes to Werner Herzog's Ecstatic Truth concept: "The closest we can get to truth in these cases is a fiction, and it is, I think, a fiction that helps us get there—as long as you're doing it respectfully."
Animal Meditations Volumes II and III are available for streaming and download here, along with Volume I.