The Animal Soul of Life (Beneath the Human Clutter)

© Anne Benvenuti | May 2017
Photo © Thomas Espinosa

“I would say, if you’ve never seen a horse or touched a horse, just touch it. Because if you touch it, then you’ll feel the soul” (Farrah Akbar, age 8). The quotation is from a New York Times article that I read this morning about human-animal relations, Why Close Encounters With Animals Soothe Us, about urban kids in Los Angeles getting horse-fixed.

I had begun the morning resisting the urgent flashes of the latest headline news, and resisting, too, my own compulsion to fish for “likes.” I’ve been learning that my attention is my own most basic and precious resource and I too easily fritter it away. So I strive each day to conserve and to direct this most fundamental thing, my own attention, so that I actively take it back from insidious intrusions and give it intentionally to what I love.

This morning I had decided I would settle down to read for pleasure but first I found that I didn’t want to read at all. I wanted to look out the window, to engage the small female goldfinch who sat on my deck rail twittering gently under the gray sky and the newly green branches of the oak tree. I looked from the window and twittered ever so gently, watching the bird hop and cock her little head. She had apparently thought she was alone. I wondered what she might make of this huge creature affectionately twittering through the open window in the wall that separated us. She seemed to be expecting someone other than me and she never did seem to identify me as the source of the sound that moved her.

As I began reading, I found myself perusing a couple of short pieces about decluttering, a phenomenon that has been sweeping the cultural landscape. Everyone is decluttering, even my beloved rough and tumble handy-guy, Tim, who, I’m pretty sure, has never read Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I bought the book many months ago, and now that book is one of the things that must go; it doesn’t give me sufficient joy to keep it. I’m a little late to the decluttering party, partly because I have given my attention to a project that I love over the past year, and partly because I have been attempting to declutter my mind. So I have been in close encounters with the prefrontal cortex of my brain, the part which gives us our capacity to direct our own attention, and which is also home of the renowned “reward center” that allows my attention to be hijacked by informational candy.

When I found the article about the kids and the horses, I knew I’d found something worthy of my attention: this is something I love to think about, to read about, and to get out and actually do. When I got into it, I found the author making statements so close to those that I first expressed in Spirit Unleashed that I wondered for a moment why he didn’t cite it! The answer, I think, is that I am part of a wave, that Spirit Unleashed was on the front end of a wave, but that it and I are part of a very beautiful something bigger, a rediscovery by people all over the world of our animal souls. Yes, I think we are finding our lost selves in the company of other animals, and we simultaneously learn, as soul work requires, that the other is not me and not mine, but a sovereign of its own.

In medieval times the term vox anima, the voice of the soul, was understood to come from the deep life force that connects everything. The vox anima is not our thinking mind, but comes from a place deeper than the voice of culture, the media, politics, our own autobiographical recitations, and all the fracas of the human circus. It comes from some place other than those language processing regions of the brain that regurgitate stories we humans tell ourselves about the world, and about ourselves, and about who does and doesn’t like us. I continue to assert that the deep places in brain and body where we are connected to other animals is where our souls—and theirs—reside.

And yes, this desire to encounter other animals is some kind of phenomenon as humans all over the planet seek out other kinds of animals to be with. In fact, it’s what I have been doing with my own attention and all my other resources over the past year. I’ve traveled from the north of England to the bush of South Africa, from the Idaho mountains to the ocean lagoons of Mexico. I have sought out animals domestic and animals wild, and also I have found strange hybrid categories, like the “domesticated wild animals” of Earthfire Institute and the newly untethered and undomesticated farm animals of Farm Sanctuary. I’ve traveled and talked and listened to the animals and to the humans who love them. The encounters have been real: I’ve been bitten by one parrot and one fox and I have rubbed the baleen of a baby whale…and I’ve stepped on some human toes along the way.

An important thing I’ve noticed over and over again as I listen to people doing this labor of love is that there is a strong core value in this work, that individual lives matter—a sharp contrast to the robo-service world in which neither you nor I nor any given animal matters a damn. In the world of human-animal relations, every life matters, simply because it is a life, and because how we treat each life is the process that creates the whole of life for all the beings who are Life at any given moment. It is, in short and pointed language, the antidote to the machine and market metaphors that have almost killed our collective soul and our planet in recent decades.

The book that I’m working on now, Kindred Spirits, is about the particular lives of animals and people I’ve met all over the planet, about what happens when humans value and care for other kinds of animals. This story is, I think, one of the greatest happenings on Earth at this moment. It’s certainly got my attention, as I reach to encounter the soul of life beneath the clutter of my mind and the clutter of human ways.

As I look up now, I notice the little goldfinch is here again, now with a couple of her friends, enjoying the seed that I put out for her. Why is this simple thing a source of  joy, just being in her presence? I am especially pleased when we gradually and carefully relax together, so that I can write as she gives her attention to what nourishes her: the green on green of the forest, her community of birds, the moment, the seed.

I invite you to meet me here in this blog space over the coming weeks and months as Kindred Spirits takes its shape, and as I share stories and ideas that are part of it, yearning to express vox anima.

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It was two days after Donald Trump was elected to be President of the United States. We were stunned here, all of us, at the unexpected vote. I had been in the north of Britain the morning the Brexit vote came in, and it looked a lot like that here in Chicago. Just a sense of massive disorientation. This same week, I was also the intended victim of a crime that didn’t happen.

And so I was nervy, jangled, tied in my human knots. I looked up into my back yard, and it happened, that thing that often happens when we open our eyes to the actual world around us. . . . Not only was it beautiful, but there in camouflage were two still ones, teaching me about staying awake while taking cover and having a lovely rest. An offering of peace, accepted.

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Animals Again: New/Old Work

I continue to think and to write about my favorite topic, human-animal relations. I published four articles over the past year; and I am working on a new book,  more news on this soon. I’m excited about it!

Meanwhile, here is the full text and links to my most recent journal article, a commentary on a philosophical article about animal personhood, in the journal Animal Sentience, published by the Humane Society. It’s a great new journal and I hope you’ll have a look at it.

Animal Sentience 2016.141: Benvenuti on Rowlands on Animal Personhood

Evolutionary continuity of personhood:Commentary on Rowlands on Animal Personhood

by Anne Benvenuti
Psychology and Philosophy, Cerro Coso College, California

Abstract: Rowlands applies the two organizing ideas of the Lockean concept of personhood—mental life and unity—to animals as potential persons. Especially valuable in this context is his descriptive phenomenology of pre-reflective self-awareness as a fundamental form of mental life that necessarily entails unity. Rowland describes certain fundamentals of mental experience that exist across species boundaries, challenging assumptions of early modern philosophers regarding the definition of human personhood and affirming the principle of evolutionary continuity. This opens the door to a broader and deeper set of questions, related to whether we should continue to attempt to apply to other animals—or to ourselves—philosophical models that are ancient and revered but contradicted in significant measure by contemporary scientific findings, especially in evolutionary biology.

Keywords: personhood, evolutionary continuity, ontology, animal consciousness, abstract reasoning.

1. Philosophical Models of Personhood. Rowlands (2016) begins his target article by noting that concepts of personhood are variously defined as legal, moral, and metaphysical. He addresses the metaphysical specifically as defined by Locke. Pragmatically speaking, the legal case for animal personhood is advancing in the absence of metaphysical foundation — case by case, as the sciences shape our understanding of other animals and as real life situations make moral demands upon us for remediation (Benvenuti, 2016).

Rowlands produces a convincing metaphysics of personhood satisfying the requirements of the Western philosophical tradition, particularly as advanced by Locke. We must remain aware of the distinction between satisfying the requirements of Western metaphysics as a human cultural artifact and making a true declaration about reality. The Western philosophical tradition has placed high value on the human capacity for rational abstraction. I (Benvenuti, 2014, 2016) have repeatedly argued that this evaluation of our capacity for rational abstraction — especially as contrasted with affective awareness—lacks merit. Human cognition has repeatedly been demonstrated to be largely unconscious, fundamentally affective, and fragmentary, and not the accurate rational perception of early modern philosophers’ dreams.

Rowlands notes that many people adopt Locke’s concept of personhood, knowingly or unknowingly: The Lockean concept is a big assumption, especially given its roots in Aristotle’s (problematic) ontology of beings. The Aristotelian ontology that pervades Western metaphysics deserves reexamination, particularly its notion of human distinctness from and superiority to other animals because of our capacity for abstract thought. Aristotle asserted that all animals share fundamental affective awareness motivated towards experiences that enhance the self and away from experiences that would diminish the self. That, combined with the capacity to move towards and away from experiences, is his definition of animal life. This is quite similar to the pre-reflective awareness described by Rowlands. Aristotle further observed that other animals are incapable of the kind of thinking that allows the mind to move beyond the limits of time and space within which the body is confined. The problem-solving capacity of animals, now well documented, suggests that Aristotle was mistaken. What Rowlands laudably accomplishes with his analysis of Lockean personhood is the detachment of self-awareness and unity from Aristotle’s notion of abstract thought and its modern derivative, “higher order” cognition, by developing the category of pre-reflective self-awareness.

2. Evolutionary Continuity and Pre-Reflective Self-Awareness. Rowlands does much more than satisfy the requirements of Lockean personhood for mental experience and unity. His detailed analysis of awareness as self-awareness is reminiscent of Abram’s (2011) narrative in Becoming Animal. As animals, we move through a world, knowing it in relation to our particular sensual bodies, motivated to encounter certain things and to avoid others. In other words, our animal bodies determine the shape of the world we encounter: we cannot encounter objects in the world without encountering the self in the same experience. Pre-reflective self-awareness as described and analyzed by Rowlands (after Sartre, 1943) may well be the definition of animal life, including human-animal life.

The principle of evolutionary continuity is based on the evidence that all life descends from a common ancestor, with modifications that enhance adaptation to environmental niches. It follows that all life shares some features, that all animals share a subset of the features of all life, and so forth. Studies of the mammalian brain show primary affective motivational states that cross species boundaries, including an awareness of objects in the world and an embodied readiness to act that is so close to the self/other awareness boundary that these affective experiences might be thought of as the very awakening of consciousness (Panksepp & Biven, 2012). These primary affects are remarkably similar to Rowlands’s description of pre-reflective awareness, particularly to affordances as “perception for action,” in which self-awareness is the subjective sense of being oneself and not the more reflective capacity to view oneself as an object of one’s own concern. The first type of self-awareness falls into Shoemaker’s (1968) category of “immune to error through misidentification,” as analyzed by Rowlands: it is possible to doubt that I am correctly seeing my shadow or my image in a reflective surface, but it is not possible to doubt irreducible feeling states. Rowlands makes the strong case that there is a severe logical problem in the idea that we validate self-awareness by moving to greater levels of abstraction, making a distant object of the self. Rather, self-awareness can only be the self of direct experience, the kind of self that we share with other animals.

On the basis of the principle of evolutionary continuity, we would expect that large categories of experience, such as fundamental motivations, developmental trajectories, communication, and mental life (including fundamental self-awareness) would be shared across species. It is more reasonable to reject ontologies founded in imaginary hierarchical constructions and to conclude that all animals think, feel, intend, and communicate than to assume that they do not. In a similar way, it is more reasonable to expect that animals would share some features of personhood than to doubt a priori that they could do so.

Animal personhood does not mean human personhood in other species. It means that there are probably many forms of expression of person-like features among animal species. These variations are not indicators of lesser personhood but of variance in how personhood is experienced and expressed. Defining animal life in comparison to features of human life makes us devalue animal traits unlike our own, but it prevents us from perceiving the ways a general trait, such as mind or feeling, might exist in other animals.

We can ask how each kind of animal experiences its own self. Rowlands has described the phenomenology of pre-reflective awareness determined by an animal’s particular body and sensory apparatus and by its particular needs and desires for in its world of objects. Not all species are highly visual, as is required for Gallup’s (1970) mirror self-recognition test: We would not expect cephalopods, who know the world by taste, to recognize a dot placed on their forehead. We would not expect this from dogs. Bekoff (2001) developed a scent-based pilot study using urine to test dog self-awareness. Rowlands’s pre-reflective awareness might yield fundamental and shared self-awareness in any kind of body that encounters the world through senses related to motivational states.

3. Human Unconsciousness: The (Human) Psychological Factor. Whereas humans share pre-reflective self-awareness with other animals, we have an unusual capacity to override basic awareness, especially via our commitment to abstract ideas that color our perceptions and disguise our motivations. Our capacity for abstract thought allows us to distance ourselves from fundamental motives, all the more so when affect is derided as subhuman. When Descartes (1637) said that animals do not feel pain when they cry out, but that they are, in that cry, acting like a mechanical alarm indicating malfunction, he was using the kind of abstract reasoning, “purified” of affective passions, that has since been held up as the pinnacle of cognitive capacity. Yet Descartes’s proposition is one that most people today find both wrong and morally offensive. Upon hearing it, they make a “disgust face” — that shared feature of animal life that expresses moral repugnance (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009, Churchland, 2011). Descartes’s affective motivations led him to use abstract thought in a morally convenient and empirically incorrect manner that defies what most of us would call common sense. I do not wish to promote some vague idea of “common sense” over empirical evidence; but there is a rich literature on the “common sense” of body-to-body affective communication by which we know the state of the other implicitly to varying degrees of accuracy, and by which we know that when an animal howls in pain, it feels pain. There is a hint of the deep tragedy of human unconsciousness in the image of Descartes going around with his own companion dog and still insisting that animals are machines.

We Homo sapiens use our capacity for abstract thought to override our pre-reflective self-awareness. This results in beliefs that contradict our pre-reflective awareness and are demonstrably contrary to fact. The principle of evolutionary continuity is supported by an abundance of empirical evidence suggesting that personhood is a broadly distributed trait. Rowlands has shown how such evolutionary continuity could still satisfy Locke’s philosophical criteria, concluding that “hostility to the idea of animals being persons derives from the Lockean conception of the person, and the idea that self-awareness is necessary for personhood.”

It is worth noting the persistence of certain philosophical notions even when contradicted by the evidence. I have described three: the Aristotelian notion that humans are distinct from and superior to other animals because of our capacity for abstract thought; the Cartesian notion that affective “passions” interfere with thought, rather than informing it; and the Lockean notion that only humans have the rational self-awareness required for personhood. Philosophical hostility to the idea of animal personhood may in fact derive from human psychological motives to consider ourselves distinct from and superior to other animals — to be authorized to use other animals de facto, and to avoid painful feelings of empathy for their suffering. We may find not only greater truthfulness but also a richer capacity to conceptualize ways of being persons when we extend our ideas of personhood to our non-human relatives.

Abram, D. (2011). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Vintage Press.
Aristotle. (c. 350 BCE). On the Soul (J.A. Smith, Trans.).
Bekoff, M. (2001). Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Behavioural Processes 55, 75–79.
Bekoff, M., & Pierce, J. (2009). Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press.
Benvenuti, A. (2014). Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock/Cascade.
Benvenuti, A. (2016). Evolutionary continuity and personhood: Legal and therapeutic implications of animal consciousness and human unconsciousness. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.
Churchland, P. (2011). Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton.
Descartes, R. (1637). Discourse on Method (John Veitch, Trans., 1901).
Gallup, G., Jr. (1970). Chimpanzees: Self-recognition. Science 167(3914), 86–87.
Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Rowlands, M. (2016). Are animals persons? Animal Sentience 2016.101.
Sartre, J-P. (1943). Being and Nothingness (H. Barnes, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Shoemaker, S. (1968). Self-reference and self-awareness. The Journal of Philosophy 65(19), 555–567.

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Walking with Cephalophores

I’m inspired by the Cephalophores, those saints who go along carrying their heads in their arms, cradled somewhere in the location of their hearts, necessarily. Historically, they carry their heads to indicate that they were beheaded physically. But I want to carry my head close to my heart so that I can hear the murmurings of my heart so strongly that I must resist all else and respond to the deepest desires of my heart. And so for me the images of the cephalophores stand today representing a universal meaning, the need for us humans to carry our heads very close to our hearts. That is the message of the great saints and sages, of Jesus and the Buddha and so many awakened ones. Our heads, by which I mean our relentless thinking (most of it unconscious), are not only able to wander away on their own but are prone to doing so. And so we get into so much trouble, and so we cause so much trouble. And so we feel so much pain, and so we cause so much pain.

I love my head; I am fascinated with what its thinking can do. I love thinking, when I want to be thinking. With my head I can define problems and solve them. With my head I can create new things, images, poetry, philosophy, books, delicious dinners, repaired artifacts, blog posts. With my head I can grasp that I am related to everything that is, going back almost fourteen billion years to the beginnings of the cosmos. With my head I can also listen to my heart.

Yes, sometimes I want to be in direct contact with myself, with the world. At these times,  the thinking machine that, left untended, rolls its endless reels of repetitious film footage, digging me ever deeper into whatever trench it is digging, gets in the way of my deep desire to be alive with all my relations, here and now. The worst part is that the film on the reel mostly flashes images that deal with fears and/or ego-building projects that respond to fears, because our brains are wired to respond to threat. It’s not like my brain takes me off to Tahiti regularly!

But the automatic thinking thing gets between me and reality, between me and you, between me and the feeling of the banister under my hand this morning as I went downstairs to make my coffee; it even gets between my tongue and my coffee. And sometimes I have a deep desire that its habits would give me better experiences than those they do provide, like little mental trips to Tahiti upon request. Sometimes I wish I could decide what’s worthy of attention and what’s not. Sometimes I wish I could feel my own body and find the courage to let those feelings guide my choices. I know I am not alone, that this wrestling with the thinking thing is a problem we all face, that society feeds the thinking thing what it wants us to think, taking away what real freedom we might have.

The depths of knowledge expressed in these words of South African poet, Iain Thomas, repeated over and over on the platform formerly known as the world wide web resonate so strongly because we know the struggle they express so clearly: “And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, ‘This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!’ And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, ‘No. This is what’s important.'”

So, I am engaged in a project to take my hand back, to put it over my heart until I can feel what is important. I want that so much that I won’t let myself call it corny and futile, though it’s something I have made effort towards over many years. I’ve long wanted it—on the side of everything else I have wanted. This time I am taking off my watch. This time I am saying no to opportunities instead of chasing every one of them. This time I am not buying every single thing for which I will have to pay. I repeat, I’m not buying it. This time when my body says, “I’m tired,” I rest. And that rest feels gargantuan; it feels like I am flouting the deepest norms of my society. Because I am.

Today, I sit down to write after hearing my mind say every day that I “should” sit down to write, and refusing because my body said, “I don’t want to write now.” Today my heart suggested it to me, and so it flows out of me effortlessly. Today I write because I am a writer and because I have something to say.

I will be going for a long walk soon because I want to go for a long walk; I am taking a pencil and a tablet so that I can enter into the intimate relationship with things that drawing requires—because I want to know I was there, as I enjoyed the feeling of the banister gliding beneath my hand this morning, and I loved that my eyes received the soft morning light spilling over the carpet, revealing so many wee particles that don’t really need to be got up right now.


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I loaf and invite my soul (Walt Whitman)

Doing nothing often leads to something.

Indeed, I am gestating something and will unveil it in due time, perhaps in August or September, if I understand the due date correctly. Meanwhile I loaf as the proper accompaniment to gestation, and I share a few notes on the process of loafing, beginning with a stage theory of loafing. The stages of doing nothing, according to Dr. Benvenuti, are:

Denial: in this stage the person can often be heard saying things like, “You can sleep when you die!” and “I want it all!”

Anger: in this stage the person who is tired resents the seeming need to rest, imagining that he or she will fall further and further behind in the great rat race of life. Rather than submit to rest, she flexes her muscles, attempting to “push through” the exhaustion; her spontaneous expressions of frustration and pain can often be heard by the neighbors, and she may begin to criticize others who seem to be resting, perhaps suggesting that they are weak.

Bargaining: At this stage, the tired person begins to surrender but without accepting any real loss of control. She makes a plan to rest in the future. She promises that if she might be allowed to just push through this semester, this fiscal year, this exam, this promotion. . . then she promises to take two full weeks of fun and sun, or a road trip, next year. Of course the particulars of the bargain depend on the cause of her exhaustion and her reasons for fighting it.

Depression: She pushes on in the hopes that the universe has heard and accepted the terms of her offer of a bargain. However, in spite of her persistence, her awareness that the universe seems not interested in the deal increases over time. She loses even more energy, now in the form of depression. She feels hopeless. She tries and tries but the universe does not care. And beneath it all, she is tired. Her extra efforts have made her more tired. She wants to just give up.

Acceptance: She does give up. She rests—she runs away, or falls over, or gets sick and goes to bed, and then. . . she wants to rest some more! She sees the clouds floating past her window, she hears the birds at dawn, and the insects in the evening, she smells the flowers on the breeze. She may be heard saying things like, “Wow, this is really nice! Why did I think I had to run that race? I guess when I was forced out of the race, when I rested, I  found the rest of the world, and I could hear for the first time in so very long, my own wee squeaking voice, and it is lovely.” Gradually, she begins to find things funny, her sense of humor returns, she may become irreverent.

Note: Though seemingly a final stage, this stage of acceptance has particular dangers of its own because often brings with it ideas about what’s next that may not be related to the rat race, or, conversely, that may become the next rat race.

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I Want to Do Nothing

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The Kindness of Strangers: Ramadan Mubarak

We arrived back in London last night, after a week of pilgrimage cum holiday travel in and around Assisi, Italy. By the time the jet’s wheels rolled on the tarmac, I’d been whining off and on for some hours about my hunger. I planned to buy a snack at Heathrow, since we usually have to wait right next to food shops for the taxi driver to show up. But our driver was there and waiting when we stepped out with our luggage. I began to walk along behind him to the car, dragged down more with every step by the weight of my regret about not having got some food. I grumbled to Elizabeth, working up to some future state of resentment. She stopped walking, perhaps just a bit exasperated with my complaint; she motioned to the driver, and I asked him if he could wait five minutes; he threw me a decidedly sultry wet blanket look.

Then there was a brief moment of mutual adjustment, a flash of openings and closings within each of us. I said, “It’s just that I’m really hungry; I haven’t eaten in hours, and I don’t know if there’ll be food in the house when I get home.”

He said, “You can buy some here.”

“Yes, but I don’t want to waste your time.”

“Go” He had made a different decision within himself, that was clear, “I’ll pay for the parking and wait for you here.”

I got a mushroom and cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps and a bottle of water. As I got into the car, I thanked him profusely for waiting, pressing a five pound note gratefully into his hands, then unwrapping my food before even clicking the seat belt. As the aroma was released from the package, I said, “Oh, I hope the smell of my food doesn’t drive you crazy. If it does, just let me know and I’ll share it with you.”

He laughs. “No, it’s okay.”

“You’ve already eaten? Good.”

“No, I’m fasting. It’s Ramadan; I will not eat until after sunset.”

Suddenly I see my hunger, this food, the fact that I am filling his car with the sound and smell of food on this long summer day that began in the wee hours of the morning and that will end about 9:30 at night. I feel the extraordinary generosity of this working man in his response to my hunger.

“Oh. Then you really must not be too impressed by my hunger. You’re fasting on a very long summer day.”

“It’s okay.”

As we drive along eating, I ask Elizabeth if the standard Arabic greeting is correct for saying goodbye at the end of the ride. No, she tells me, during Ramadan, I should say “Ramadan Mubarak” (may you be blessed this Ramadan).

I wipe my fingers with my napkin, wad up the paper that wrapped my meal. The driver backs into our driveway, unloads our suitcases. As he hands my luggage to me, I say it for the first time ever.

“Ramadan Mubarak.”

He is surprised, smiles, and thanks me. I hand him the fare as Elizabeth receives her suitcase from his hand, repeating her more practiced rendition, “Ramadan Mubarak.” He is clearly surprised that we have greeted him in terms of his own life and his religious practice. This on the day when he empathized with my hunger and my desire to have some food, while having none himself. This small exchange taking place between ordinary people on the day during which we experienced more passport checkpoints than I have ever encountered, along with several gate changes and unexpected bus rides at the airport in Rome—all safety precautions, after incidents of terrorism in Europe and against European tourists had dominated the European headlines for days.

It had been a week of news extremes—hateful violence in Charleston and Tunisia, Kuwait and France—and also elation, for the Supreme Court decisions on health care and marriage equality. On one hand, the world seemed to be smashing apart; on the other, order and justice prevailing again. What I took from the small and the large of it, from the rage and the joy, is how complex we are, how the generous and the puny, the love and the hate, shift around, creating events that continually surprise us. I felt this happening—the way doors and windows in me and in the taxi driver opened and closed in the micro decisions that went into making a good day’s end for each other. So, I think, let us attend to those micro decisions inside of ourselves.

Ramadan Mubarak, indeed.

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Too Big To Fail and Too Small to Matter: Don’t Go Back to Sleep!

(What follows is the text of a talk I gave to students last week at Hartnell College, Salinas, about why their educations matter.)

Good afternoon and welcome to the final session of the 2015 Academic Expo at Hartnell College, a place that I’ve come to see as a big round doorway through which you can step into a more creative and better future. I’m honored to have been invited as your Educator in Residence to talk to you today about the importance of your research for Hartnell College, and for your lives and for your communities.

You’ve probably heard that your education will make you an efficient part of the economic system, more competitive, and of course, wealthier. If I thought that was the most important reason for getting an education, I would say to you, “Run away! Run away!” For we now have global research on happiness that tells us it is indeed important to have enough money to get food, clothing and shelter, and a little more for self-expression; but that after that, money doesn’t matter much to happiness—it can even take away from happiness when it brings with it excessive demands on time and energy and creates more stress, when it takes you away from your family and friends.

So let me tell you what I think is the most important reason for getting a higher education: the biggest challenge of living an adult human life is to be able to question what you’ve been taught, and to improve upon it, to make it truer and more helpful. You do this by noticing the way that what you’ve been taught matches—or doesn’t match–your actual experience of living, while, of course, actually making a living and maintaining relationships. To illustrate education well used, I’m going to tell you about three educated people who used their ability to think creatively and changed their worlds.

In the heavy gray winter of 1639, the French philosopher Descartes sat by the fire in his winter dressing gown, wondering if he could sincerely doubt that he was really sitting by the fire in his dressing gown. From this simple thought experiment emerged his most famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” What he meant was that he could doubt everything except the fact that he was thinking, because doubting is evidence of thinking. He was actually turning his mind to a time when, as a younger man, he’d been shocked to discover that he’d been taught and had believed things that were false. He’d promised himself then that he would come back one day to the task of working from the ground up to build a philosophy of life that was not dependent on anything he’d been taught. His statement about thinking was the one indisputable fact he could find as a starting place.

Who here can’t remember a moment when you suddenly understood that something you were taught and believed wasn’t true?—perhaps by relying on that something and feeling the ground give way beneath you? In that moment, when we know we’ve believed something that’s false, and built on wobbly foundations, we have the choice to either ignore our own real experience and join in the deception, or to challenge what now seems clearly wrong. Mind you, we all do join in communal deceptions because we don’t notice most of them. That’s why its really important to listen to yourself when you do notice, when living experience tells you that something you’ve learned just doesn’t fit.

So here’s my second example. In the nineteenth century, the young neurologist Sigmund Freud rocked the world with his idea that there is in each of us an unconscious mind that is the biggest part of our mind and the source of many of our problems. He was saying that we each have a mind that is operating outside of our own awareness, and he was saying it to a culture that defined itself as conscious and rational. Between then and now, many people have developed Freud’s work and many people have ridiculed it. But neuroscientists today, using brain imaging techniques, have concluded that about 98 per cent of the brain’s activity happens outside our awareness. Unlike Freud, these scientists don’t focus primarily on the problems caused by our unconscious minds; instead they talk about the great efficiency of minds that can operate without attention or effort. But they also note the important point that these minds have the flexibility and the power to the change the culture that programmed them.

Freud would likely smile in recognition at our realization that we’re deeply programmed in two fundamental ways: first, by the cultural environment in which we are raised, which becomes a part of us—without our knowledge or consent. It unconsciously guides our behavior with its values and habits for the rest of our lives, if we sit back and let it. Second, by our family situation, which —also unconsciously and without our choosing—passes on to us the ways that our particular ancestors view and do relationships. Because of this, I suggest in my book Spirit Unleashed, that the single most important thing we can do as humans is to wake up from our unconscious programming, to wake up into learning, and knowledge, and critical reflection, so that we gain the ability to improve on what we have learned.

Now let me go back to Descartes for a moment. His project to build a perfectly true philosophy failed, and it created a whole new set of problems for later generations. You see, one of his fundamental concepts was that everything in the universe except the human mind is one great big machine that can be explained with the right mathematical equations, and then controlled by humans! The math and science that he devised did create a new era, the era of modern science and technology; but the shadow side of that era is that we humans have become separated from nature in our own imaginations, a fact that has led to the global ecological crisis we face today.

My point here is that our deep cultural programming has given us some foundational ideas that are wrong. We are not separate from the rest of nature. And the earth is not just a collection of natural resources for our use, as we’ve been taught to think, and we are not human resources to be fed to some huge mechanical economy. And whether we call ourselves capitalists or socialists or whatever else, I think we’ve failed to notice that we’ve tacitly accepted that the purpose of life is to produce and to consume, creating strong economies as our most important activity in life.

But we now know that trying to keep this form of a strong economy for seven billion human beings makes impossible ecological demands on the Earth. We have to question the wisdom of production and consumption that we’ve been handed. I’m reminded of a saying which I first heard spoken in Costa Rica: “Cuando el último árbol haya sido cortado, el último pez atrapado, y el último río envenenado, sólo entonces nos daremos cuenta de que no se puede comer el dinero.” When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, and the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money. Expressing a similar insight, on a different continent, Dr.Wangari Maathai, a young economist, realized that the village women of Kenya were working harder and harder for less and less as they foraged for firewood. In 1977, she implemented a simple idea, that every woman should plant and nurture seven trees, and so she began a quiet revolution, the Greenbelt Movement, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004.

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen us make institutions—governments, corporations, economies—that are too big to fail, but because those institutions are too big to be moved by the needs of individuals, families, local communities, they do fail; they must fail. Just pull up the memory of that recorded voice you so often hear, saying, “Your call is very important to us; your waiting time is approximately 38 minutes.” Yes, it gives you that frustrated feeling, a disengaged cynicism, an anger at the system that erases you. These huge and impersonal institutions tell us over and over that we’re too small to matter. But let’s not forget that these gigantic forces were made by humans and they can be remade by humans.

We today share the task not only of waking up out of the unconscious slumber that threatens every generation, but also of learning again to focus our minds—we have so much information that we have to choose what we give our attention to. I think we need to define and describe foundational things, like what is really necessary for both human wellbeing and for the health of the planet that supports us. You’ve got to find a way to bring these institutions back to the scale where human lives matter. I say “you’ve got to,” because I think it will take longer than I will live. And one day, you will humbly learn that, just like every generation before, you’ve created the next generation’s problems. But you will look at them with hope, as I look at you today.

When people like you and me use our disciplined and educated minds, there is always hope because creativity is our one endless resource. That’s why your research projects matter; they nurture the capacity of our shared creativity, and they give hope for the future, and they make you come alive. But no one of us can do all the work; it’s a shared project to make sure that the programming we pass on to the next generation actually has some value for their living.

Yes, I share your hope that your education will increase your income so that you can have the things you need, and on top of that some pleasures of your choosing. But I urge you not to accept being a piece of the big economic machine as your meaning in life or the purpose of your education—that will just dump you into depression. Instead, I encourage you to be a happy person who asks good questions, demands good answers, has rich conversations and relationships, creates beautiful new things and solves old problems, so that the world can go on.

As you ask your own questions, and gain skill in answering them, you’ll discover your own work in the world. But, whatever else you do, please be true to your own experience: question things that seem false and do the things that make you feel alive.
And take with you these words from a Persian poet who lived almost a thousand years ago, the great poet, Rumi: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. / Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? / . . . The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. / Don’t go back to sleep. / The door is round and open. / Don’t go back to sleep.”

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There Goes My Hamburger!

I can see it in the eyes of some people as soon as I take to the podium, the fear that the author of Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations is going to tell them they shouldn’t eat meat. “There goes my hamburger,” they think as they look the other way.

While it is true that I don’t eat meat, it is not true that I don’t like the taste of meat or that I think eating meat is inherently wrong. In fact, I think that if any of us is paying attention, the arguments all fall short. Yes, yes, I have noticed the predator-prey relationship in ecosystems. In fact I have seen more of it with my own eyes than most urban dwellers, and I don’t see that it has much at all to do with human factory farming. Yes, yes, I am ready to acknowledge that plants are living beings too, and possessed of their own kind of sentience, that when I eat them I am taking a life. What this all leads me to conclude is that life on this planet is incredibly expensive and valuable, since each being so strongly wills to live and since each must also live at the cost of many others. That is a stunning fact and one that I have not yet found the moral courage to incorporate into my way of being, for it would mean that I should consume only what I need of anything, and further, that I should understand that my own life will be required for the sustenance of others. So much for my rights!

There are also the nutritional fads and fancies to consider, the fact that we have gone over the last decade from thinking that vegetarian is the nutritional ideal (avoiding those nasty fats) to currently thinking that paleo is the ideal, eating those healthy fats and avoiding the nasty carbs and processed foods. But, what on earth do you think your meat is, if not processed food? The fact of these inevitable and well-worn nutritional fads and arguments is what interests me right now, as though we need only make up some logical line of reasoning that includes loose reference to some disconnected facts and, voila! like magic, we are justified in doing exactly what we intended to do before bothering with the thinking exercise.

The fact is that we like meat, we like the taste of it so much that we will go to great lengths to ignore that we are taking the lives of sentient beings in order to have so much meat that we throw it away in great gobs. We call ourselves consumers and feel not only entitled to consume, but defined by that activity, along with its necessary twin, production. So animals, living and sentient beings are called “livestock,” and then, after we have slaughtered them, they are called beef, pork, nuggetses, sausages, links, mince, etc. We don’t have to say cow, pig, chicken, dog, horse, and whoever else gets ground up by us producers and sold to us consumers. We don’t have to draw up images of those big cow eyes, or pig snouts, or chicken feet, much less the mother-baby relationship that is the heart of our “production.”

I like meat, too. I had a hard time getting to vegetarian. I am in no position to judge another person for not being a vegetarian. But I am in a position to challenge lame arguments in myself and others, to call a lie a lie and an uncomfortable truth still the truth. Last week, the Arizona state legislature passed a law declaring that “livestock” are not animals. Why? So that agribusiness can proceed without reference to animal cruelty laws, so that they can cause all the pain and suffering they like, in the name of efficiency. Some municipalities have entertained laws making it illegal to videotape or otherwise record farm work. Why? Because when people see where their meat comes from, they are disgusted. They decide they don’t want it that badly, or that they want it differently. Why should agri-business care if people choose to eat less meat and pay more for it? A dollar is a dollar whether it buys an ounce or a pound of meat.

I had blood drawn for some medical tests in the wake of a mystery illness recently. As the woman in her early twenties attached a fourth tube to the needle she’d fixed with tape to the inside of my elbow, I laughed and asked how many tubes she was planning to take. “Gee,” I said, “I’m going to need a steak, except that I’m a vegetarian.”

“You are?” she asked. “Did you hear that?” she said to her equally young colleague, repeating what I’d said and telling me that they’d just been discussing a YouTube video that showed factory farmed chicken production. “It’s disgusting!” she proclaimed repeatedly, and she asked me how to learn what her options are. I told her there are some ethical meat producers and that she could begin there, eat less meat and better meat, better for her, better for the chickens.

The thing about this particular young woman is that she is like most people. She doesn’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, and she doesn’t want to eat things that are disgusting. The place to begin is simple; know where your meat comes from. Because there is such a thing as reality, and in reality, there is no such thing as livestock, only animals.

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Having Time and Energy, Without Buyer’s Remorse!

I spent much less money this year than I used to spend for the holidays. I spent less time and energy shopping, too. And, if I read my social world rightly, so did a lot of Americans. I spent more time in conversation, more time reading and resting, more time taking walks. Today is New Year’s Eve and I will step into 2015 with no buyer’s remorse, at least none from these winter holidays, having had more time and energy than I am accustomed to having at holiday’s end!

Today, on the very cusp of the year, I look back to the beginnings of 2014 and forward to the dawn of 2015 from the same geographical place, a moderately large house on a big lush and beautiful lot in a wealthy small town near London—or to express it in properly understated British idiom, “a least deprived area.” Perhaps it is ironic then that in this place of abundance I’ve had a longish course unpacking the meaning of the word conservative, as in conservation of resources: time, money, and energy. In this house the ethos is one of “quiet keeping and taking care” rather than one of mad dashing, doing, and dumping. As a consequence of conserving and caring, there is sufficient time and energy to manage life, to rest, even to play. The effort to conserve in one resource domain makes for abundance in all of them.

When I first arrived here, I was dismayed by my designated towel in the bathroom, assigned to me by color and expected to last until the next laundry day. (There are no superfluous ‘quick loads’ performed here.) It was a quarter the size of my American bath-sheet, at best. I remember thinking “Wow! Which half should I dry?” Haven’t they heard of plush cotton bath sheets, the kind that I own by the dozen, and consider a hosting necessity? Then I stayed in a Japanese Buddhist monastery on Mt Koyasan, with its lovely gardens and bathing facility. Again I was assigned my towel and told I could keep it. It was a quarter the size, weight, and plushness of my British bath towel! And, if I was careful, it really was sufficient to the task of drying off after bathing. By way of contrast, the British towel seems now to be the “just right” bath towel, neither needlessly large and decadent, nor so small and insubstantial as to require four to do the job.

I could go room by room through our conservative British family house describing for American readers (and the many Brits who have adopted our ways!) the strange lack of disposable conveniences. And it would no doubt be instructive. But suffice it to say that a very civilized life can be imagined without so many things we assume: plastic baggies and containers, seasonal or themed multiple sets of dishes, a plethora of paper products. I’m so much more attentive when eating without benefit of a napkin!

When I first arrived here, fifteen years ago, I found it all to be insanely backwards, and oddly deprived. The kitchen contains a small set of shelves for the two sets of dishes, formal and informal, the handful of simple coffee mugs, the very few cooking dishes. There is a small refrigerator and cooker. There are no appliances—no mixer or blender, no coffee maker, no microwaves or toaster ovens, no food processors. There is one cooking knife, a peeler, kitchen scissors, a cutting board.

The kitchen is a big open room, made vast by lack of clutter. In the center of this room is a tiny red formica-topped table on metal legs, purchased in the mid 1950s, with one matching red and white stool from the same era. Two small wood stools were at some point added to accommodate the two now near retirement age children. All have been in place for many years, cared for such that they are still going strong. We most often eat here in non-mandatory silence. Likewise, we wash and dry dishes in choreographed and non-mandatory silence, using a plastic tub in the single sink, and paying attention to the water used. There are no specialized cleaning products.

With this setting and way of being providing a point of contrast for me, phrases like “overly large and extravagant,” and “needlessly wasteful” have entered into my American “boomer” sensibility, not because my British family uses such expressions, but because they have coughed up from within, making me aware that somewhere along the way, I’d become infected with a consumer-cultural pathogen. Surprisingly, these phrases and concepts not only shame me, but serve to unwind me, to turn down the heat, to ease the pressure, for which I am deeply and tenderly grateful.

Sufficient plus a bit for pleasure and personal preference feels like an ideal balance for most things most of the time. When more is wanted, it can likely be gotten from the reserves of time, money, and energy not spent frivolously. I suspect this is dawning on other Americans, other boomers, too. It may be at least one of the reasons why we Americans have been falling short of our shopping quotas recently. We’re finding that, really, enough stuff is enough, and too much stuff is just too much. And it’s nice to have enough energy, enough time, even once in a while.

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