Natural Mind Magic

A Dog called Saviour

An item in an American newspaper recently caught my eye. Like a modern tale of Mowgli, it was about a baby girl, abandoned in a forest in Kenya, who was rescued not by a wolf in this instance but by a stray dog. The dog, a bitch with puppies, adopted the baby and looked after her. Later, local people heard the child crying and found her with her dog family. They pieced together the story, and named the stray bitch Mkombezi, meaning Saviour.

We may respond to this story of a dog helping a human in different ways. Perhaps we find it emotionally uplifting: a stray bitch, with surely enough problems of her own, yet has room in her heart to help a baby human. Or perhaps we may perceive it more prosaically in terms of a female animal acting according to its instinct to nurture any infant.

Whatever our reaction to this story, we are more or less accustomed to the idea of animals being useful to humans. In addition to the obvious uses in farming, recreation, security, and medical research etc, there are nowadays programs facilitating the use of animals in therapeutic contexts, such as Riding for the Disabled, Pets as Therapy, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hearing Dogs, and many others. Horses, with their remarkable capacity to accurately reflect the psychological projections of humans, are even used as aids in expensive corporate-coaching workshops!

Of course it's not all one-way: some humans try to help animals with welfare programs, medical care, and political campaigning; and many people who work with animals or keep them as pets love and care for them.

The idea of reciprocal aid interests me. It has been sadly lacking in the history of human-animal interaction, which is largely an account of the human exploitation of animals – a top predator lording it over those lower down the food chain. Early Western religious ideas of man's dominion over the animals, and arguments about 'ensoulment' or the lack of it, are echoed in later philosophical ideas about the superiority of man and the relegation of animals to part of the environment of man, and subsequent ideas of the emergence of human consciousness as the high point of evolution. Modern science, with its aim of understanding and controlling the objectified natural world for the benefit of humans, has placed non-human beings firmly within that natural world of objects to be mastered, denying any subjectivity to animals: Descartes infamously declared that the cries of his vivisection specimens were of no more significance than the creaking of a turning wheel, and the horrors of the vivisection industry continue to follow in the echoes of those cries. Until very recently, the EEC categorized farm animals as simply farm produce, no more worthy of welfare considerations than cabbages – and therefore conveniently cheap and easy to keep, transport, and kill. Human history has led to the qualitative conceptual separation of humans from animals, and this identification of animals as 'other', as non-human entities, permits exploitation with a clear conscience.

But anyone who has taken the trouble to communicate in a friendly way with a dog, a horse, a cat, a bird, or any other animal knows that real companionship is possible. Emotions such as love, compassion, friendship, loyalty, trust, and delight in another's company are not limited to humans. We tend to find what we seek: the perceptual filters of our beliefs and prejudices affect not only how we interpret what we see, but also what we look for in the first place. If we look for examples of instinctive reactive behaviours in our specimens and the subjects of our experiments, that's what we'll find. If we look for love and friendship in our companion animals, guess what – that's what we'll find. Which is better for us? If we want to justify continuing exploitation, then maybe it's better to stick to the scientific materialism of observing the instinctive behaviours of zoological specimens; but if we want to grow and develop ourselves with integrity then perhaps we might want to open the heart to the emotions of other sentient beings like ourselves.

The term 'sentient being' is actually quite radical. It links human to human, animal to animal, and human to animal; it dissolves the distinction of an unequal 'other' and removes the barrier between 'us' and 'them'. The British campaigning organisation Compassion in World Farming used it in their efforts to get the EEC to distinguish animals from potatoes. As a Buddhist term, it describes 'a being with individual sensibility living as a beginningless and endless continuum' ; it refers to one whose mind is limited and subject to suffering, as distinct from those whose minds are boundless and liberated from suffering. This implies the idea of transcendence, the possibility of going beyond suffering. It also encompasses a vast and fluid view of ever-changing continuity in which one can find oneself manifesting in many different forms, thus breaking down attachment to 'human' as separate from 'all the rest', and opening the door to an all-inclusive empathy and compassion – in Buddhist terms mahakaruna, the limitless great compassion that includes all sentient beings throughout space and time, in whatever forms they may be manifesting.

This raises the question of beliefs. People can be passionately attached to their beliefs, and attachment to scientific materialism can be as fervent as attachment to any religious doctrine. Our beliefs exert a powerful influence over our lives, for varying degrees of good or ill. While this isn't the place to discuss the relative validity of different beliefs, I would just like to raise a simple question: how would it be to act 'as if' you believed something that you found inspiring rather than 'as if' you believed something you found limiting or dispiriting? For example, what difference would it make to your life if you were to act 'as if' you believed that at the deepest level of your being you were no less than all-wise, all-compassionate, all-loving, and utterly free, with a sense of continuation beyond the limits of this life? And others were like you in terms of their great potential? Contrast that with acting 'as if' you believed that you and everyone else were restricted to merely a physical body and brain, programmed to act in a certain way in accordance with its genes until the body degenerates or is destroyed and the light goes out? You might like to experiment by trying various 'as if' possibilities along these lines, and noticing the differences in how you might feel and act in the world.

We find application of the 'as if' frame in Buddhism, which offers several alternative 'as if' belief models for people to experiment with for themselves. A personal exemplar for one such model is the bodhisattva: the individual motivated by compassion for all sentient beings, whose great purpose is to help others transcend suffering and find for themselves the limitless love, wisdom, and freedom that is just awaiting discovery. In the Buddhist picture of the Wheel of Life, sentient beings are depicted in various realms of manifestation, while within each realm is a buddha, symbolising the buddha-nature that is always present in all life forms. And the Jataka Tales, stories of the Shakyamuni Buddha in his previous lives, tell of his adventures not only as a human but also as a bull, a deer, a swan, and various other animals. Thus we are invited to consider an inclusive view of sentient beings in terms of what we all have in common, rather than restricting our view to humans only.

Someone who is inspired to take up the bodhisattva's commitment vows to help all sentient beings; he or she tries to help others to bring out the best in themselves so they can make progress along the path to freedom. The 'as if' belief system underlying this commitment is all-inclusive, dissolving the conceptual categories of 'humans' and 'others'. Recognising the potential of all, it promotes empathy and reciprocity, rather than one-way exploitation. I think it is an apt inspiration for our times: healing the divisions between humans, families, nations, races, and religions can happen when we heal the destructive conceptual tendency to split 'me' against 'other' that is the precursor to exploitation.

Suppose we are all sentient beings, and as such all share the same transcendent potential? Suppose we could begin to act 'as if' we believed in that? What difference would that make in terms of one's individual life experience; what difference for all life on the planet? And what if Saviour the dog, helping that baby, was acting in accordance with her great potential as a sentient being, as great a potential as that of you or me?

Recommended further reading:

B. Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity, Oxford University Press, 2000

Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions, SUNY, 1993

Norm Phelps, The Great Compassion, Lantern Books 2004

Copyright Caitlin Collins July 2005. A slightly abridged version of this article was published in the magazine New Vision, Issue 5, September 2005, The Hamblin Trust

see Robert Thurman, in MindScience: an East-West Dialogue, Wisdom Publications 1991