Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
April: Animals and Enlightenment
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. …In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. ~ Henry Beston
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about enlightenment – what it is and how to attain it. For me, enlightenment is composed of three things: awareness, presence and acceptance, and I think animals have a lot to teach of us about the last two.
Presence is simply being here fully, in this moment; not enmeshed in “stories” about the past and future. For animals in the wild, particularly, not being present in the moment would result quickly in being someone’s dinner (if you were a prey animal) or going hungry (if you were a predator). Obviously, animals can learn from the past, so it’s not that they don’t have memories, but they don’t stew over what happened to them when it’s not directly pertinent to their present circumstance. How many of us can say the same? Likewise, they don’t project into the future, worrying about what might happen. Fluffy is blissfully unaware of the impending vet visit up until the moment you get the cat carrier out of the closet. (And then it’s a quick break for under the bed if you’re not careful.)
Which brings us to acceptance, which, as you can see from Fluffy’s reaction, is not the same as passivity. Animals will take any and all actions available to them in the moment to free themselves from harm. In fact, they’re a lot less likely than many humans to accept a lousy circumstance when they have the ability to escape it. But, if you have ever watched a beloved pet endure a painful condition, you know the true definition of the word “stoic.” They simply hunker down and endure. Although of course I can’t fathom the content of their thoughts without language, it doesn’t seem to me that they are spending the time railing against their fate with the kind of “Why me?” stories most of us indulge in. They simply accept what is happening in the moment with a grace and dignity that is breathtaking.
As humans, we are both blessed and cursed with the large neocortex that gives us language and the concept of a self. In a way, you could almost equate this development with the “fall from grace” that led to being kicked out of the Garden of Eden (metaphorically speaking). Both presence and acceptance are much harder to achieve with the constant chatter and story telling of the human brain. On the other hand, this remarkable brain also gives us the ability to achieve the third component of enlightenment: awareness. Animals have great sensory awareness – which I consider a component of presence – but I don’t believe they have the ability to be self-aware or “awake” the way humans potentially can. (Although I could be wrong! Mammals do display emotions and pro-social, altruistic behaviors – but is this truly a conscious choice or “just” an evolutionary adaptation to living in a group and/or raising young that are dependent for long periods?)
I really love pondering these questions! Even that is evidence of the beautiful neocortex at work. The human brain can be both our worst stumbling block and (through awareness) the necessary gateway to enlightenment.
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