Nature is a wonderful thing. Individuals and governments are committed to showing more respect for the environment rather than carelessly destroying it. Concern about the sustainability of the planet and its protection is a contemporary attitude that is becoming quite common. I feel it reflects a spiritual sensitivity to the goodness of the unspoilt natural world.
Nature is familiar and easily described, yet somehow it can evoke something less obvious and difficult to express in words; something mysterious and on a different level. Who hasn’t at one time or another not felt inspired by the beauty of a mountain vista, a seascape or a rainbow full of startling colour? Who has not felt at peace contemplating cattle quietly grazing, being cheered by the sound of birdsong heard in the morning, or being enraptured by the scent of the pinewood in summer? Has nature anything more specific to teach you?
“Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal and transformation in ourlives.” (Mary Ann Brussat)
In general animals are well known for the way they protect and nurture their offspring, their practical good sense in the way they adapt to their habitat, and their ability to live in the moment. All spiritual qualities. But can we learn any specific lessons from different species? Has the fox or the snake something particular to teach us? Or is this just being anthropomorphic and attributing to animals human characteristics like in Aesop’s fables?
I would suggest to learn from nature requires an objective attitude of mind — a willingness to look deeply into what is really there as opposed to taking on board the stereotypes learned from childhood.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” (Albert Einstein)
Nature of eagles
These birds soar high in the sky on widespread powerful wings and see with sharp sightedness what is far below. I can see a picture of the human mind here. Isn’t an eagle’s perception one of a higher quality than the ordinary way of seeing things? Like uplifted thinking that searches out what is difficult to see when you are immersed in the mundane world of daily concerns. According to this viewpoint your mind is capable of soaring high to see life from a higher perspective.
Nature of lambs
Here we find gentle playful trusting creatures, who reveal a joy of contentment and peacefulness. Such innocence is unselfconscious and unsullied by any thought of anything harmful or bad. Is this not a picture of the innocence of the Divine source of all that is good deeply present within your soul?
Negative characteristics of nature
The more you know about animals, the more you also notice their negative sides. Eagles are far seeing so that they can feed — predators which swoop down and carry off lambs. According to one theory this mixture of negative and positive is an additional pointer to the spiritual. It’s author, Emanuel Swedenborg, in his notion of ‘correspondences’, maintains that the natural world is both positive and negative because it is a reflection of human inner character, human beings having both good and bad elements to their conduct. For him, the positive is the higher reality of the divine perspective: on the other hand the negative is the lower perspective of egoism inverting and corrupting what is from the divine. Thus where some animals show a negative characteristic, this also alerts us to the spiritual factor again — but this time in terms of its opposite.
Nature of pigs
Pigs are highly social animals. Properly kept they are a clean and attractive and can be quite intelligent. A pig will forage all the time, endlessly searching for something more to consume. For me this conjures up a picture of consumerism. People who allow themselves to become fixated on getting more and more things — money, clothes, gizmos, food, the latest fashion accessory etc. Pigs also have a reputation for gluttony and dirtiness. It is these latter qualities which provide the symbol of inner greed – the love of self that takes what it can get for itself searching out everything it can want.
Nature of donkeys
Donkeys have a notorious reputation for stubbornness, but this has been attributed to a much stronger sense of “self preservation” than exhibited by horses. It is considerably more difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it perceives to be dangerous for whatever reason. However, once a person has earned their confidence they can be willing and companionable partners and very dependable in work.
Cannot the donkey be seen as corresponding to a human natural way of thinking which can be argumentative and which would rather trust its own senses? I would suggest the donkey teaches us that such an attitude is capable of becoming trusting and obedient to a higher truth. Such an obedient understanding to deeper principles in people could carry us to a better way of living.
“The more humility we develop, the more signs of the Divine we can see around us and within us and the closer we grow to the deep joy and happiness to be experienced deep within our soul.” (from Soul Symbols by Helen Newton & Becky Jarratt)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
This soul is the veriest dwelling-place of the LORD. The LORD flows’ into this degree with love and wisdom as one, and thence forms, flows into, orders and preserves all the degrees below. (Inf. 8; HH 39; LJ 25.)
This inmost is composed of the highest and purest spiritual substances in man and lies above the plane of either human or angelic consciousness. The mind B, which is below this supreme degree and formed from it, is composed of grosser spiritual substances, and the spiritual body C of still grosser. (HH 39; LJ 25; Inf. 8, 14; S.D. 5548.)
Influx from the LORD enters first into this supreme or inmost degree, thence into the mind, thence into the spiritual body and from this into the natural body. (CL 101.)
This inmost is the primal and unconscious origin of the two great faculties of spiritual liberty and rationality by which man is distinguished from the brute, which faculties are essential elements of his nature, – liberty inhering in the will, rationality in the understanding. (LJ 25 ; DLW 240, 247; AC 1707; TCR 697 end.)
In Arcana Coelestia AC (n. 1940, 1889, 1707) this highest degree is called the internal man, all the planes below it being relatively the external man. It is also called the “human internal;” – the human internals of all men, spirits and angels form in the aggregate a vast complex degree called the heaven of human internals, which is above the inmost angelic heaven. (AC 1999.)
The angelic heavens lie within the region of consciousness. What transcends this region is above the angelic heavens and so appears in the sight of the LORD.
This supreme degree is the very Alpha of man, the material body is his Omega.
Doubtless it was from His residence in this highest degree that the LORD inflowed and filled the angels with His Divine when He appeared and spoke through them to the patriarchs and prophets. The private consciousness of the angel, in whatever plane below, being for the time suspended, the utterances were not his own but the LORD’S through him. (AC 1 745, 1925; AE 1228; DP 96.)
This supreme degree being the source of all the others is drawn in gold to represent sun Colour, because sun Colour, the perfect union of red and white, is the source of all other Colours. (See “Colour in the Diagrams,” page 12.)
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
Do you sometimes feel you lack something you feel you need? It may be a more satisfying job, bigger house for a growing family, or a better car. However, you may also feel you lack something less definable, something you can’t easily put your finger on but which may be an answer to your troubles: perhaps something which could provide comfort when you are disappointed, lift your spirits when you feel down, and engender a positive frame of mind when everything seems negative. Something we might call food for the soul.
My need for food for the soul
From time to time I feel a sense of inadequacy in myself, in my own ability to get moving again when I find myself static, or to find solutions to the ordinary lesser and sometimes bigger problems of life that confront the average person. These times I’m obliged to have to admit to myself I know so little and understand less. I thought things were going along fine and now I find I can’t always cope. This state of mind can get a bit depressing. There is always something round the corner that seems to set me back — it is as if I am being taught a lesson. If you know what I mean, you may also feel humbled by life and, when you are frustrated, tired or feeling uninspired, that you too need something extra to restore your inner life.
A scientific perspective is that without natural nourishment we grow weak and feeble, prone to disease, lack energy and eventually wither and die. Recommended is a balanced diet that covers all the nutrients the body requires. From a spiritual perspective without inner nourishment we become “overwhelmed with duties, engagements and activities” ( H. T. Hamblin). For spiritual food sustains and revitalises our spiritual life.
So what is food for the soul?
I would suggest food for the soul is the insights and knowledge we can gain about what is good and true in life: such spiritual food meets our hunger to find out and value what is deeply true about life e.g. about principled ideas that connect with useful action. The following might be said to be examples of this: noticing the qualities in other people around us, the beauty in nature and the potential that various situations hold for something good to happen.
Is this higher knowledge not able to inspire and motivate us? To raise our minds above the petty aspects of the mundane side of things? To act as food for the soul? Just as we need a balanced physical diet, so we also need a balanced spiritual one. Not just intellectual ideas, but also insights into the needs of other people, an awareness of the various relevant views around a social issue, practical knowledge concerning how to support people in need of help, an intuition about the way to tackle interpersonal difficulty, a perception about what is good about what is going on around.
In other words I am suggesting the idea that if we see what is good and true then this can nourish our inner life. It gives us the chance to value what is important and if we do this then we acquire good sense and good intentions, and find meaningful principles, in which we can develop hope and trust, feel encouragement and comfort when things go wrong, and experience inspiration.
The words of Christ promise that spiritual nourishment will be provided as long as we have an active longing for spiritual food. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6)
Food for the soul and angel bodies
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have mystical visions of heavenly life. He said that after young children have died they are brought up on the fringes of heaven and have a spirit body which corresponds to their character. This spirit body is said to grow in stature so as to eventually to take on the appearance of an adult heavenly person. The growth isn’t due to material food but rather is due to the food for the soul they are given which nourishes their understanding of what is true and wise discernment of what is good.
I would say valuing such insights and acting on them is the heavenly state of happiness. Something to which we can all aspire.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
The website inCharacter.org has an interview with Dr. Stephen G. Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. (Call me a cynic, but the name “Institute for Research on Unlimited Love” does not instil in me a lot of confidence; it sounds like a hippie farm or a horrific Orwellian government office.) An excerpt:
IC: What about altruism and longevity?
POST: A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity. A 2005 study conducted by Alex Harris and Carl Thoresen of Stanford University found that frequent volunteering is strongly linked to later mortality. Called the Longitudinal Study on Aging, it followed more than 7,500 older people for six years. Volunteering was a powerful protector of mental and physical health. Another study, a 1992 survey of older people by Neal Krause of the University of Michigan found that helping others lowers depression. Krause found that, for older men, ten years of volunteering can dramatically slash mortality rates. Another researcher, Doug Oman and his colleagues did a study involving 2,025 older residents of California and found that those who volunteered had a 44 percent reduction in mortality-and those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an astonishing 63 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. If you are an older adult, I have one recommendation: volunteer!
I like that research like this is being done. As with any study like this you have to be careful not to mistake correlation with causation, but I would guess that these studies at least attempted to control for this, and I would guess that there is SOME element of volunteerism actually causing longer life. Serving others – performing a use for society – gives a person purpose and a drive to keep living.
Studies like this – and like the marriage study I blogged about a few months ago – have helped me understand a passage from Conjugial Love that confused me the first time I read it. Conjugial Love n. 130 says,
In brief summary, [wisdom of life] is this: to flee evils because they are harmful to the soul, harmful to the civil state, and harmful to the body, and to do good things because they are of benefit to the soul, to the civil state, and to the body.
The soul and the civil state made sense – the body, not so much. But more and more research confirms this: things like anger and deceit are harmful to the body, whereas things like doing good are beneficial to the body. Research like this contributes directly to “wisdom of life” in that it shows just how evil is bad for the body and good is good for it.
That said, it seems like there must be a point where over-volunteering becomes a health risk, rather than a benefit. I’ve talked to several people who have had doctors tell them that for the sake of their health, they have to stop doing so much. And I think over-volunteering is often tied with the falsity that we have to do enough good works to merit heaven (Swedenborg has a great description of people in the spiritual world who fell into this fallacy in Arcana Coelestia n. 1110). I’d like to see research into where that healthy balance is and how people can find it.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/swd/ac/index.htm (Arcana Coelestia)
(http://www.sacred-texts.com/swd/cjl/index.htm (Conjugial love)