How to be an Animal

It’s no secret that my cat is happier than I am.

She seems to live mostly at ease with life, and definitely at ease with herself. She naps, wakes up, eats, drinks, plays with stuff, and occasionally asks for affection or pees on the microwave.

She doesn’t worry about the future or get depressed by the past or her lot in life. She doesn’t yearn to be something other than what she is.

That’s because she’s an idiot. She’s a smart cat, sure, but compared to humans, she’s an idiot. People, we’re smart and creative. We’re not the only animal that can build things, but we’re the only ones who can build with such ingenuity.

We’re also the only animals that seem to sit around contemplating purpose, and the only ones who form likes and dislikes toward others based on their views of purpose. We seem to be the only ones who can create imaginary worlds and selves and then compare them to the actual.

We’re able to live in the abstract, and communicate it with others of our kind.

This causes a lot of suffering and harm. Our intelligence and imagination are what block us from taking our natural place in the world and in our own lives. Just like other animals, we’re always seeking and defending, but most of the things we seek are imaginary.

My cat looks for food, water, and affection. She doesn’t look for God, Utopia, or perfection. She doesn’t defend religious or political views.

Simply remembering that we’re animals can be a useful way to simplify ourselves and our lives. I’m just an animal; I eat, sleep, fuck, and walk around looking at stuff. I take care of my tribe and wander freely in my territory.

If we couple this with the Bodhisattva vows, all beings are my tribe, and the whole planet is one shared territory.

That’s the benefit of being human. Unlike my cat, I have the ability to observe (and thus change) the way I relate to the world. She can’t do that. There’s nothing she can do about her jealousy when I pet another cat, or the grudges she keeps. But we can do something about those afflictions when they appear. We’re not trapped.

Some of our concepts are helpful. Concepts like freedom, Buddha, emptiness, virtue, and mind. They allow us to return to our natural animal state, but without the baggage that goes along with it.

So we get all the pros of being a house cat and none of the cons. Like a lion, but a lion who feels no need to defend its territory. That sounds like a good deal to me.

When we look at the old Chan stories, when people Woke Up, they were pretty much just animals after. Nothing special. They lived in the moment and responded to things spontaneously, but their journey to the source burned away all the shit that makes spontaneity and effortlessness dangerous.

Since they were animals, they didn’t fear or desire the things we usually do. They didn’t care about wealth or status, and they didn’t fear loss and death for the same reason my cat doesn’t: they don’t make sense.

Waking Up doesn’t make you all-knowing in the way we usually think. On the contrary, a lot of shit is just baffling. “Death? What the fuck is that?” It’s a word. We can look all around the world, but we’ll never see death anywhere. We’ll see things we call “dead” but death is just an idea. Abstract ideas don’t make sense to most animals.

Instead of using our creative gifts to Wake Up and serve all beings, we usually use them to cause and perpetuate anguish for ourselves and others because we don’t know that there’s another way to live, another way to use our minds.

Our minds were crafted to solve problems, and problem solving is why we’re “at the top of the food chain.” But since our minds are untrained, we usually end up using them to create problems to solve.

Meditation is just learning to use the mind the “right” way, for the purposes that nature crafted it for. Then we can just go along with things without worrying over imaginary worlds.

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