Here in suburbia, next to a glassy corporate office, sits a Hindu temple, its ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. Curious, I pulled in one day, removed my shoes at the temple door and walked into a large open space. Instead of chairs or benches I found a room of marble, white and gold, with altars placed throughout. Worshippers strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, circling them several times or standing before them with hands in prayer, eyes closed, heads lowered.
Along the walls was a frieze of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I walked beneath Krishna’s words about detachment:
He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.
He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety, is dear to Me.
He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.
He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.
I left the temple soothed by the place and by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.
In my yard at home, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message about steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. Can we find in other living things a model of that centeredness that rises above dualities?
I’m not sure. The backyard is usually a calm place, but the creatures there are rarely without their “attachments.” Birds search constantly for food and for each other. The trees and bushes and grass, though not outwardly agitated, are hardly “content with anything.” They wilt in drought and burst with life in Spring. All the familiar and lovely animals and greenery are different in good circumstances and bad. What would Krishna say?
He might observe that plants and animals follow their biology with no distracting superstructure of ambitions, expectations, or judgments. He would probably say that, except for humans and some animals, other living things may fight and may even kill, but they don’t hate; they may shy from danger but are not riven by anxiety; they may react differently to cold and heat but only at a physical level.
So perhaps in the backyard I am looking at an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused. Can a person find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.
We like to think that we are completely different from animals. Others, anthropomorphize all animals without evidence. I think a middle ground is more accurate. Mammals share a great deal of emotional architecture, including us. I have written stories set 100 billion years in the future. There are probably no other animals who can look that far forward. But when my dog cases a yogurt container that has been left on the counter and watches for when we wander to far from it and then grabs it and runs for the dog door, she is definitely planning. I think many mammals experience as much emotional range as us and much the same emotions.
Birds evolved their emotional architecture seperately and so I believe their emotions are largely alien to us. But again, I believe their emotional range is as broad as ours.
Octopi are very intelligent. What is their emotional range and how alien are their emotions?
Your notion of emotional range and emotional architecture are helpful here, I think. They’re really quick triggers for a survival action of some kind, usually. And I think that Darwin begins his book on Human Descent, in his savvy way, by getting together all the similarities of different kinds–including emotions– between human and animals, including, for example, the fact some animals (dogs) dream!