Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
What are the inner lives of pets?
How do animals’ minds compare to our own? Do pets have any purpose besides offering us companionship, cute social media photos and, perhaps, the motivation to exercise more regularly? What are our pets to us? Who are they? Are they beings with inner lives that we ever stop to consider?
These are big questions. But I hope you may find the following short article opens some helpful doors for you.
From a Buddhist perspective, beneath the obvious physical and mental differences between animals and ourselves, we all share the same essential nature - the same consciousness. We all wish for happiness and to avoid suffering. What’s more, the means by which we achieve these things are often remarkably similar. Food, physical comfort, freedom of movement, bonding with others - on a fundamental level we are not so different.
We may not share a developed language, although our pets generally pay far closer attention to our communication than we do to theirs. But far from being mere playthings—inferior, morally irrelevant and ultimately dispensable—a growing body of research studies is confirming what many animal lovers already take for granted, which is that qualities once regarded as uniquely human are shared by many sentient beings.
In particular, animals demonstrate the same capacity for those behaviours traditionally seen as the hallmark of a spiritual life—empathy, compassion, fairness and altruism.
Simple presence is the start of a deeper connection
As pet lovers we may spend a lot of time talking to our animal companions, but how much time do we spend listening to them?
As a society, long dislocated from nature, human minds have become dysfunctionally busy, a trend that has dramatically increased with mobile devices and social media. The much quieter minds of other animals, far from indicating diminished capacity, may suggest that they are not only more attuned to their own consciousness, but to ours too.
In fact, some pets appear able to access a more subtle mental bandwidth, better enabling them to demonstrate abilities like telepathy, which humans experience much more rarely. Offering the optimal environment for our pets, and making a regular point of being mindfully present for them, can profoundly shift the dynamics of the way that we and our pets relate.
Meditation can have powerful benefits
Along with being more mindfully present for our pets, regular meditation offers powerful benefits on many levels. A common response of meditators is that they become like magnets to their pets when they sit on the cushion. Pets intuitively respond to our efforts to calm our own minds. They are attracted by our shift in consciousness, and feel reassured and more trusting. Difficult relationships between pets and humans can be resolved by the gentle but profound impact of meditation, and close relationships can become even deeper. Meditation helps pets through times of transition, such as house moves and family changes.
Meditation also offers healing, the word ‘meditation’ deriving from the same source as ‘medication’ meaning to make whole. Just as self-repair in humans has been shown in clinical studies to be boosted by meditation, we can sometimes help our pets self-repair by meditating with them, perhaps because they appear to have the capacity to tune into our minds with their own. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that pain management, the speed of recovery from surgery, and the impact of side-effects can all benefit by meditating with our pets when they are ill.
Pets are not in our lives by accident: their presence is an extraordinary privilege
Most of us accept that our world view is shaped by the ongoing interplay of cause and effect, beginning with formative experiences in our childhood. Buddhism suggests that these same dynamics actually play out over lifetimes. This view has many startling implications for pet lovers.
Are the beings with whom we share our homes here by accident? Beneath conventional explanations of, say, a trip to the animal shelter, could the dynamics of causality offer an underlying reason? If the pets with whom we share our lives have been very significant to us before, we now have the opportunity to repay past kindnesses, as well as offer them the best possible preparation for their futures. There are many ways we can help achieve this, through practices like mantra recitation and meditation, avoiding exposure to violence and aggression, and recollecting bodhichitta throughout each day.
If you are not quite ready to believe that causality, or karma, stretches over lifetimes—that’s fine. These are the very same practices most likely to cultivate wellbeing in this lifetime, for our pets, as well as ourselves.
We can be of immense benefit at the time of illness and death
Pet lovers typically experience the impending death of their animal companions as a very traumatic period, accompanied by feelings of helplessness and loss. Buddhism offers a radically different perspective on this time of transition. When we place our pets’ needs, rather than our own feelings, at the centre of what is happening, and engage in practices designed to help our animals when they can most benefit from our support, we have the opportunity to transform our experience of what is happening.
Drawing on the love and devotion we feel for our pet to be of extraordinary service to them, both during the death process and for seven weeks afterwards, we can act with purpose and compassion to benefit our pet through a time of vital transition.
Rebirth opens up panoramic possibilities
Do our beloved companions return to us? Would we recognise them if they did? And what of the beings in our lives with whom we are already intimately connected? The concept of rebirth has fascinating implications, and there are compelling accounts of both human and animal rebirths which illuminate exactly such possibilities.
Given that most of us are not clairvoyant, we can only guess at the shared relationships that exist. Of more immediate relevance is the understanding that we possess an opportunity to be a force for good in this lifetime. To heal past wounds. To make the most positive impact on the lives of those closest to us. With this more panoramic perspective, part of our life’s mission is to do all we can to ensure that, as and when we meet up again in the future with those who have played an important part in our lives, it will be in the most benevolent and auspicious way.
More generally, Buddhism offers both practical suggestions as well as psychological tools to help us towards greater coherence. Whether we, as individuals, tend more towards activism or contemplation, there is much we can do to play our part in the gathering momentum towards the global recognition that human well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of other species.
If you have found this article stimulating, and would like to read more pieces like this, please subscribe to my work on Substack. For a free subscription, click the Subscribe button below and choose the column on the furthest right hand side.