Can we learn from animals anything important? If so, what is the most important lesson they can teach us?
Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
I think it’s chiefly because, as David Abram argues in his excellent book The Spell of the Sensuous , we are unhappy primarily because we are locked in our literate intellects. For all its benefits, with literacy comes a natural fall into incessant thinking about the human-made world.
Most humans live in ways that suggest that they believe that we have little or nothing of value to learn from animals. I not only disagree with that belief, but I think there is an extraordinarily valuable lesson that we can learn from animals about how to be happier.
I was taught it again this morning. As is my habit, while gazing towards the lake I was sipping an energy drink before a 50-minute round of zazen. There happened to be a heron fishing right in front of my cottage. I delayed my meditation to watch the heron. After about 15 minutes, it ceased fishing and flew off–presumably to try to find a better spot.
What was it doing? Fishing. What else was it doing? Nothing.
That’s the lesson: wholeheartedly do whatever you are doing. Specifically, do not think about anything else while doing it.
In my office I keep a framed photograph of a polar bear lying on the ice on its belly intently watching a seal’s breathing hole. That polar bear is living well.
Have you ever watched a completely still cat outside a mouse’s hole alert for the appearance of the mouse?
I heard a story of a Sufi master who, when asked how he became spiritually awake, said it was simply by watching how cats live and emulating them.
Imagine that you are a frog on a lily pad waiting for a suitable insect to land within reach of your tongue. Also imagine that you have a broken leg. Since you are still, let’s imagine that there is no pain in your leg (although there will be the next time you move it). Here’s the key question: would you be suffering?
Not if you were a frog.
However, if you were a human in a frog’s body, you would probably be asking questions such as: Why me? Why did I have to break my leg? How can I be expected to do what I have to do with a broken leg? Why can’t I be resting in bed rather than out trying to feed myself? Why can’t I just be enjoying life like other frogs? Why do these things always happen to me?
The alert stillness practiced by herons, polar bears, cats, and frogs is incompatible with suffering. While some pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. No unnecessary thought, no suffering.
We humans have the distinctive and useful ability to think, to conceptualize. Especially after we have acquired literacy to solidify our thoughts, we unintentionally become bound in our human-made surrealities. In effect, we get lost in a maze of distinctions and lose sight of the unity of the whole. Until we find our way again, we remain stuck, unhappy, hurting. Suffering is the price we pay for thinking too much.
We can learn from animals the way out. Emulate them. When doing something, just do it! While you are doing it, don’t be thinking about something else. Focus. Pay attention. Pay full attention.
How can we learn to live like that? The same way we learn other skills: practice. Practice focusing every day. Be persistent. If you do it well, your excess thoughts will more and more tend to become absorbed into your activities. More and more you’ll forget your self with all its incessant worries and concerns and fears.
In other words, learn from animals how to let go of all unnecessary distinctions such as the self/other distinction. One way out of the trap of incessant thinking, the way to break the compulsion always to be conceptualizing, really is to look deeply at the natural world. What animals do naturally, we–with our literate intellects–have to teach ourselves to do. The more you practice alert stillness (Presence, No-Thought), the happier you will be.
Don’t take it from me: learn from animals.
[Suggestion for further reading: Alan Cohen & Alan Gordon’s ARE YOU AS HAPPY AS YOUR DOG?]