My wife and I have a pet cat called Geoffrey. We have got to know him quite well – his eating, relaxing, communication, play, and so on. Animals live on an entirely natural level and I realise it would be a mistake to attribute human emotions to them. But is there anything we can learn from our pets about the deeper side of life? Any thing about them that points us to an ideal way of human living?
Contentment in our pet
We often see Geoffrey lying on his side with his paws stretched out in front of him, with a sleepy look on his face and with half closed eyes. Very different from a cat who swishes its tail, has ruffled-up fur or is heard hissing. Sometimes he may roll over on to his side to show his tummy, communicating that he feels relaxed enough to expose such a vulnerable area.
Sometimes I wish I could be as relaxed as our pet and delight in simple pleasures. He doesn’t put himself under unnecessary stress. If a dog barked at him, which happens occasionally, he shows no after-effects. Unlike us e.g. who, when shouted at by an angry car driver, would likely be a bit tense for a while afterwards.
Anyone who has tried to meditate will realise that the mind is restless. Inwardly we jump from one worry to the next, one guilty secret to another. Inwardly chattering away, the mind has a mind of its own, creating unnecessary emotions like anxiety, anger or gloominess. Our cat is showing us the importance of stilling and calming the mind. You can learn to do this, if you don’t do so already, by creating space in your day for quiet reflection, meditation or prayer.
Awareness in our pet
If we change the furniture round in our home or introduce any sort of change outdoors, Geoffrey soon looks into every nook and cranny. Our neighbour once saw him exploring over 40 feet up the trunk of a high tree. They say ‘curiosity killed the cat’ but ours is still alive and well.
I wonder if we are sufficiently willing to explore what is really going on around us. Are you awake to the ‘here and now’ rather than focusing on automatic habits of thought?
“The past is history,
The future is mystery,
This moment is a gift.
Which is why it is called ‘the present’. “
(By an unknown poet)
Are you sufficiently curious about what others think so as to become a better listener? People convey an enormous amount of information about themselves through subtle movements and tones of voice.
Do you notice things of beauty in what is going on around you? A child playing, moonlight shimmering on the water, a tree swaying in the wind. Are you fully aware of your physical and social surroundings and want to investigate them?
Independence in our pet
You can’t herd cats. Like all of them, Geoffrey shows independence. He is quite happy to spend time on his own each day. He responds to enticement rather than ordering around. A clicking of the fingers and verbal encouragement can get his attention and interest in coming over to me. But unlike a trained dog ordered to ‘heel’, he won’t do as he is told.
A quality of independence is something one needs in order to be a spiritual thinker in the face of materialistic society. Without individual reflection and perception, how can one rise above the social pressures of the crowd.
Non-aggression in our pet
Another quality in our pet cat is non-aggression. The public walk their dogs off the lead along the woodland public right of way that goes right through our garden. Geoffrey has learned to watch carefully. He is quick to avoid danger of being chased. He runs away or climbs a tree when he sees a threat. Only when cornered by a barking dog will he flatten his ears and hiss as a warning to stay back. He could cause painful injury lashing out with his sharp claws but most cats only attack defensively as a last resort in such a situation.
Some of us have a tendency to show hostility to others after little provocation. It is as if we believe ‘attack is the best form of defense.’ Instead, shouldn’t we adopt a more socially acceptable form of non-aggressive behaviour to assert what we think is right and stick up for ourselves?
Friendliness in our pet
Geoffrey is our only pet and so we are the only social group he has. He likes to come to us for a fuss, perhaps a stroke or grooming or be allowed to lie on our laps. He purrs and sometimes tries to lick us at these times. So we get companionship and affection from him. When we are in the garden we often find him near by. There is a quarter of a mile walk along a woodland path from our home to get to where our car is parked and he invariably walks with us and stays waiting until we return sometimes several hours later. Then he greets us with a meow with tail up, pleased to see us again, sometimes rubbing his head against our legs.
Some of us are naturally more friendly and agreeable. Others of us are distant and less communicative. But I believe what our pet’s expression of affection suggests is the possible ideal of loving kindness. This is the feeling praised by all the world’s main spiritual and religious traditions.
The lesson here is not just expressing feeling – although that is important – but us having a generosity of spirit, being agreeable, kind, patient, tolerant, considerate and forgiving and even compassionate.
“Earth’s living creatures correspond to affections, the mild and useful ones to good affections, the fierce and useless ones to evil affections” (Emanuel Swedenborg mystical philosopher)
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
Our pets are loyal and affectionate members of our family and we don’t ever want to be parted from them. Lucy a beautiful black cat has lived with us for seventeen years and is nearing the end of her days. To ask ‘Do animals have a soul?’ implies that you do believe in the soul but don’t know if animals have one.
Meanings of soul
Perhaps the answer depends on exactly what is meant by ‘soul’. Here are some possible meanings.
- Once when Lucy was placed in a boarding cattery when we were away on holiday, she was said to be like a lost soul. Soul in this sense can refer to the individuality of the creature.
- Soul can mean the essence of something. It’s central character, nature, or quality. If Lucy could bare her soul I’m sure she would purr her satisfaction with her comfortable basket, fishy food and daily strokes. Like other cats her central quality appears to me to be her sensory enjoyment of life.
- Soul can mean the source of a pet’s feeling and behaviour, regarded as a distinct non-material entity separate from, and animating, it’s physical body. When younger, Lucy, like each living soul with youth, was certainly more full of life and the way she has been cared for has been enough to keep body and soul together. Science can directly observe the effects of life but has never created life itself. It cannot explain the phenomenon of animal instinct. Without a spiritual source to their lives how else can animals show unlearned knowledge of how to feed themselves, find their way home, and nurture their young?
- Soul can mean a higher quality of mind. Lucy doesn’t say much and is the soul of discretion, but we can’t really say this is the reason for trusting her with our personal secrets. I guess it is difficult to say our cat has a higher quality of mind as such. She is affectionate to those who feed her and shows a limited degree of tolerance with the children but it is hard to imagine her developing more virtues than these. They say confession is good for the soul, but I’ve noticed no sign of any guilty conscience whenever she gets caught in some misdemeanour. On the other hand no animal I know of has ever behaved with the depravity and cruelty of some people. To sell one’s soul to the devil seems a possibility open only to a human being.
- One meaning of soul is that of an immortal soul. When someone dies we tend to say God rest his or her soul. They may have been through struggle and strife and we wish them peace. Some would feel this sentiment is also appropriate for an animal. Will I ever see my pet cat again after her death?
Immortality of the soul
Why should you believe in the immortality of the soul?
A first suggested answer is in terms of the experience of a mystic and spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Over the last 27 years of his life, he claimed to be able to see and hear what went on in what he termed ‘the spiritual world’ which he said was peopled with the spirits of human beings who had once lived on earth. He described their first condition after death. At first being involved with the outward aspects of their life, they experience things as little different from what they were used to on earth. To my mind this would include the form of their home, their clothes and perhaps the animals with which they were familiar. So perhaps I will see our pet again after I die.
The second answer to the question is in terms of a philosophical consideration. Swedenborg offers us the idea that eternal human life – a life after death not involving physical time and space – arises from our ability to understand and perceive timeless things and matters that transcend place. I would suggest examples of this are human appreciation of higher art and perception of beauty, our capacity for reflection, the experience of the state of meditation, understanding of ethics of conduct in social affairs, and rational thought that transcends desire. It is difficult to imagine a cat being aware of and appreciating a beautiful painting, or an uplifting musical composition.
Swedenborg maintains that our immortality also comes from an inner liberty that is reflected in our motivation, that gives us free-will to choose our intentions, and that, subject to external circumstances, allows us to make personal choices and to execute plans which fulfill our aims.
These two spiritual faculties he calls rationality and liberty.
Do animals have an immortal soul?
So do animals have immortal souls too? My answer thus hinges on whether they can be said to have rationality and inner liberty. Certainly my cat seems to know what she wants and has a will of her own. But her freedom of choice seems to be limited by her natural instincts conditioned by the system of rewards and punishments she has encountered in daily living. The same might be said by some people about us humans. Traditionally, science has assumed human behaviour is determined by nature and nurture: inner liberty of personal choice doesn’t seem to have a place in its theory.
I would say that human freedom seems to be broadened by illuminated thought. Understanding what is morally good in one course of action as opposed to what is bad in another will inform your decision making. Animals don’t appear to have this kind of deeper understanding. Consequently, we do not hold them responsible for their actions. Animals can’t be accused of criminal conduct because only we are culpable in law. I assume our pets are uninterested in personal growth, nor fight temptation nor seek enlightenment.
So I conclude my cat has a soul but not an immortal one. Having said that I still expect to see her again in an afterlife because she represents for me the love and affection we have shared for so long.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
Posted on17th August 2014
When some people say that cats aren’t as loyal as dogs, I feel it is because they have never had one of these emotionally complex and devoted creatures as a beloved companion. This is a myth which sadly has prejudiced some people against these courageous and very affectionate animals due to a misconception which isn’t based on actual fact.
“I have always had a deep love for animals, and could never understand when others mistreated them, or were indifferent to them. I know I have often felt my spirit diminished by their indifference.
Any spiritual discipline, in any tradition, invites us to open our hearts and minds. This invitation represents an on going exercise; the desire and attempt to open to others in our midst are the essence of the spiritual process.Animals can lead us spiritually in a variety of ways. They can teach us about death, participate in our social and moral development, enhance our physical and psychological well-being, and heighten our capacity to love and to experience joy.