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A Publication of

From The Ark - Number 190 - Spring 2002

Human and Non-Human Feeling and Awareness

The author is a veterinarian and serves as Honorary Consultant Veterinarian to India Project for Animals and Nature (IPAN). Here he explains his theory of the ‘empathosphere’.

by Dr. Michael W. Fox

In ancient Indian Hindu Vedic scriptures, there is the observation that life in a rock is life that sleeps; life in a plant is life that feels; life in an animal is life that knows, and life in human form is life that knows that it knows.

Animals have self-awareness through feeling and so possess self-consciousness to varying degrees according to the combined effects of social and neuronal complexity.  This complexity becomes such that the human species, perhaps more so than most other animal species, has a reflexive consciousness in that awareness of the personal self is seen within an ever-widening comprehension of its relationship with the Great or Universal Self.  Our empathic and empirical knowledge of the nature of sacredness and the sacredness of Nature increase accordingly.

As the individuated self evolves along the continuum of increasing complexity / consciousness, it becomes reflexive and thus increasingly aware of its relationship with the Universal self: of being within Being.  The human species is at the stage of realizing the fruits of instrumental knowledge and its increasing power of dominion over the Earth’s living processes.  It is also learning that this power and knowledge must be balanced by an ethics of empathy and by the wisdom gained not through domination and ‘mastery’, but by way of invocation of Nature’s powers of divine conception and manifestation.  Otherwise we will continue to cause great harm to life.  This balance reconciles the dualities and tensions between matter and spirit, self and other, culture and Nature.

All are connected

As reflexive, more self-aware beings, we come to realise that all things are connected, interdependently co-evolved and co-dependent.  This is because the body is as much in the Spirit as the spirit is in the Body.  If we wish to care for our bodies and be well, we must first see to the Spirit; and if we wish the Spirit to be well, we must care for the Earth and all who dwell therein.

In many ways, nonhuman animals are more empathically connected and aware than humans. As we become ever more deeply connected through empirical and empathic knowledge and associated feeling, we enter the empathosphere, or realm of fellow-feeling and understanding. In this realm our consciousness becomes reflexive, conscience and consciousness are born and we become a more caring, whole and healthy species, culture, community, family and person.  Without empathy there can be no coherent ethical basis for society, and no moral consistency in our lives and in our relationships within the broader life community of the planetary ecosystem.

Ethic of compassion

In my book The Boundless Circle1 where I first outlined my initial understanding of the empathosphere, I linked it with the boundless ethic of compassion.  This boundlessness is evident in the invisible ripple-effect of good works or some new idea spreading from community to community.

Two animals demonstrated the boundless nature of the empathosphere at India Project for Animals and Nature’s (IPAN) Animal Refuge in the Nilgiris, South India.  Somehow they knew that the Refuge was a place of security and relief from suffering.  How else to explain these two animals coming several miles to where they had never been before?  One was a dog who dragged himself after being hit by a vehicle for over a mile to the Refuge with a broken back.  Another was a water buffalo whom staff found one morning waiting at the Refuge gate.  Her condition was quickly recognised and treated - an infected vagina seething with flesh-eating maggots.

These and other remarkable instances of animal empathy and understanding at IPAN’s Hill View Farm Animal Refuge have confirmed for me the reality, complexity and beauty of the empathosphere.  Scientist Rupert Sheldrake has empirical evidence of the existence of the empathosphere, which he calls a morphic field.  Animals’ resonance with this field enables them, for example, to know when their owners are coming home.2  Within this realm of being and feeling is awareness that all things are connected. This means that when we humans harm another sentient being, the harm may not be limited to that one being.  There is a ripple-effect and others feel and know, just like the ripple-effect of loving concern and compassion in action at IPAN’s Refuge that injured and sick animals, through remote or distance-sensing, are able to feel and so find their way to the Refuge for treatment.


The ripple-effects following the harpooning of whales, and the incarceration and suffering of animals in factory farms and research laboratories, may be far more pervasive and no less real than the anguish caring people feel for all creatures who are treated inhumanely and unjustly by those who are disconnected in heart and mind from others’ suffering and joy.

The empathy-based, and also bioscience-based ethics that I have proposed in my book Bringing Life to Ethics3 become personally relevant when we realise that when we harm the Earth and other living beings, we also harm ourselves.

But as we enter the empathosphere we must not go unprepared. We need an ethical compass, and the courage of the spiritual warrior to take on others’ suffering and go beyond blind faith and vain hope through right (compassionate) action.  Active compassion in loving service is the greatest power on earth that the human can bring to facilitate healing, relief from suffering and other co-creative, self-actualising processes.  For me I find the greatest joy through compassion in action.  I find more personal fulfilment in alleviating a dog’s unimaginable suffering by removing stinking, squirming maggots from an infested ear than a good review of my latest book or a standing ovation after a public lecture.

Animal sensitivity

Seeing our resident animals interacting with others in recovery and showing care and concern, gentleness and understanding, provides me with a deeper appreciation of animal awareness and sensitivity.  To see them play, some for the first time; for the first time not starving, or in pain, or afraid and thus being free to express and experience the joy of being.  To see their spirits gain free expression and their personalities blossom in the safe and loving environment of the Refuge borders on the miraculous.  The nexus of relationships between IPAN’s devoted local Indian staff and different resident species - donkeys, horses, ponies, sheep, goats, water buffalo, cattle, calves, dogs and monkeys is the most vivid example of the empathosphere that I have ever experienced.  Indeed visitors have remarked that the Refuge and the animals are illumed by a clearly evident light.  I am also not alone in seeing this light fade briefly after a resident animal had died.  This is not simply a transfer of sadness from our staff to the other animals.  One can see and feel something in the ambience of the Refuge as well as in the subdued behavior of many of the resident animals.

As we become more mindful of the consequences of how we regard and treat other animals, the power of loving concern through compassionate action will be the catalyst for our evolution and transformation into a truly humane species, for the good of all.


1. M. W. Fox (1997) The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation, Wheaton IL. Quest Books.

2. Rupert Sheldrake (1999) Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, New York, Crown Books.

3. M. W. Fox (2001) Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society, Albany, NY, State University of New York Press.

Return to The Ark No. 190

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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