Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Soul of a Cat

Today is my 61st birthday--an event I greet with little more than a yawn and a sigh:

"I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way I can avoid growing old."

This being the case, it is well, I think, to devote more of my attention, not to politics or other pernicious public follies well beyond my control, nor to future plans, since the future is getting smaller and more dubious with every passing day, but rather to the wonders of the present moment, and to being there for all others; that is, to cultivating mindfulness and compassion.

This morning as I walked into the bedroom after breakfast, I saw my cat Anthony--himself 16 years old and showing many signs of feline impermanence. Seeing me come in, he paused and coiled up like a spring at the food of the bed, intending to jump up and enjoy the cuddling and attention I generally lavish on him. But then, he reconsidered, turned around, and led me to the back door, so he could go outside instead and enjoy the crisp, cool morning for a while. Being an old cat, he seldom stays out long any more, especially since there is a strapping young alpha male red tiger cat, Boots, right across the street, and in any feline political turf struggle, Anthony would come out the worse.

But what caught my attention is how obviously he reconsidered. At that moment he was obviously weighing the alternatives between investing the energy (now depleted with age) necessary to jump up on the bed for my attention, as opposed to using that energy to step out for a refreshing, but wary look around the yard. In other words, he was evaluating his options--that is, thinking.

It all brought back a debate I had at the age of 13 with my junior high science teacher, a mean old battle-axe by the name of Mrs. Campbell. One day, in keeping with the anthropocentric ideology that then was accepted as "science," she explained how humans alone have the ability to reason, while all other animals (she simply called them "animals" as if we were not!) are driven by "instinct." I raised my hand and begged to differ, citing the example of our family cat Richie evaluating the distance from one branch to the other in a tree by triangulating (though I did not know the word then)--raising and lowering his head--before deciding whether or not to risk a jump. Mrs. Campbell ridiculed me ruthlessly for suggesting that Richie was showing "judgment" (which, in fact, he was) repeating once again that it was merely "instinct" (and thus something totally different from human reasoning). Naturally, she did not define "instinct." To her, the difference was self-evident, however unexamined. Despite her ridicule--quickly picked up by the other students--I stood my ground, insisting that Richie's behavior showed a form of "judgment" analogous to decision-making by humans. From then on, my fellow students sneered at me day in and out, saying things like "Have you talked to your cat, lately, Ellis?"

I was right, of course, but I did not have the intellectual tools to support my argument fully until some 20-odd years later, when I first read Gregory Bateson, a philosopher/biologist of phenomenal intelligence who completely deconstructed for me the Cartesian dualist ideology on the basis of which Mrs. Campbell had made her categorical distinction between human "reason" and nonhuman "instinct." Bateson observed, among other things, that the word "instinct" is what he called "an explanantory concept"--that is, an empty signifier that simply covers up a gap in our understanding. In this case, he pointed out, we simply don't know how other animals process information or make decisions, since they have no language to explain it to us, so we bracket and conceptualize our ignorance by giving it a name--"Instinct."

The Buddhists, as usual, know better, and have been knowing it: that mind is something shared by all sentient beings, but that humans are simply lucky because we happened to have been born with the unique gift of language, which not only allows us to process conceptual information far more precisely, but also to practice the Dharma--that is, practice conscious breathing, observing and letting go of those concepts themselves, and thereby to realize the emptiness that underlies all of these artificial distinctions...including the so-called distinction between "reason" and "instinct." Thereupon we realize, yet again, what William Blake meant when he said, "Everything that lives is holy."

Thank you, Anthony, for that insight. And thank you, Mrs. Campbell, for creating the causes and conditions that made me seek out that insight. May you, likewise, awaken to the Dharma in some future rebirth.