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Chickens, Stress and the Oneness of the Universe

by Rob Eshman

September 23, 2010 | 10:55 pm

Stress.  Bad for humans. Bad for chickens.

Dr. Joseph Mercola is a specialist on anti-aging.  In his list of the top ten ways to age gracefully, Number 1 is dealing with stress.

Learn how to effectively cope with stress. As discussed earlier, stress has a direct impact on inflammation, which in turn underlies many of the chronic diseases that kill people prematurely every day. Therefore, developing effective coping mechanisms is a great strategy for increasing your longevity.

Meditation, prayer, physical activity and exercise are all viable options that can help you maintain emotional and mental equilibrium. I also strongly believe in using energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to address deeper, oftentimes hidden emotional scars.


Everyone tells me meditation is good for stress, but I’m bad at meditation.  I’m tall and I cramp.  Many years ago, I spent a week at the Green Gulch Zen Center near Muir Woods and dreaded the meditation sessions, which were the point of the week.  I had gone reluctantly with a friend, but only because a copy of the Tassajara Cookbook accompanied me all through my college cooking, and Green Gulch was affiliated with Tassajara.  My friend was seeking stress relief and enlightenment.  I wanted to see how they made those bran muffins en masse.

The instructor was a real Japanese monk who circled around the students as we sat in stillness. Each time he got to me, he poked my shoulders, unhappy with my posture.  By the end of the week his gentle adjustments to my back became full-fledged jabs.  One time he just flicked his hand against my shoulder blades.  Yes, the Zen master slapped me. I must have irritated him.  Maybe he needed to meditate.

That was my last attempt.  Except these days I’ve learned to deal with stress by walking into the backyard and sitting down on the hay bin to watch the chickens and goats.  That’s all I do.  I sit and watch.  They’re relaxed—I mean, they have needs, they want food.  The goats want to get out and destroy my vegetable garden and lay waste my fields, but even so, they are straightforward, uncomplicated.  The chickens patrol the ground for bugs.  They stop at the water dispenser, dip i their beaks, then crane their heads up until I can feel the water slide down their little chicken throats. That’s what I do—I go out and just watch.

That’s my meditation—garden and animal meditation. It’s not original.  Walt Whitman wrote a whole poem about it, part of his Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.


What’s interesting is that as bad as stress is for humans, it’s just as bad for animals.  Earlier this month factory-farm produced eggs made 1,470 people sick and prompted an FDA recall of a half billion eggs suspected of salmonella contamination.  The food writer Barry Estabrook, at his always-illuminating and thoroughly- reported blog, Politics of the Plate, examines all the reasons his small flock of pastured, backyard chickens is unlikely to poison him with salmonella, while mass-produced eggs from battery-caged hens, produced under FDA guidelines, are lousy with the stuff. Estabrook writes:

Another reason might be that raising chickens under a free-range system makes them less susceptible to salmonella. “I don’t think there is any doubt about it that healthy chickens living in decent surroundings are just going to be a lot more resistant to salmonella,” said John L. Ingraham, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of California Davis, and author of the book March of the Microbes, recently published by Harvard University Press. “Take any creature, ourselves included, you put them in a terrible stressful conditions and they become susceptible to disease.”

I read Estabrook’s post and thought of my poultry meditation sessions.  There’s a connection, I realized, between the stress we inflict on the animals that feed us, and the stress we put on our own bodies.  There’s a positive connection, too, between the ease they feel, and our ability to relax and feel at ease around them.  I don’t think it’s a shallow or insignificant connection either.  Religious people always refer to the Oneness of God, the unity of God’s creation, the connection of all living things.  But what does it mean?

On the grand scale, I have no idea.  But take something as simple as a chicken, an egg and pretty stressed human, and it begins to make sense.  To me, anyway.

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