I’ve always believed animals are our greatest teachers. As humans, we tend to dismiss animals, thinking of them as lesser creatures with limited (or no) intelligence. We think that just because they can’t read, don’t speak, don’t wear clothing, and don’t create art, music, or multi-national corporations, that they don’t have anything to teach us. If anything, we try to make animals conform to us, dressing up lapdogs in cute outfits or teaching them tricks to impress our friends.
Animals have much to teach us, and in many ways, if we acted more like them, as a species we humans might be better off — and a lot happier too. Mindfulness is a skill that helps many of us cope with daily life and eases the symptoms of depression, trauma, and many mental disorders — and there is no person more mindful than a cat, dog, or other animal. Even the Buddha was never as mindful as that Labrador retriever who looks at you with such soulful eyes, or that cat that sits peacefully in your window purring his little heart out.
If you have pets, watch them closely. They don’t worry about the future or fret over things that happened in the past. They don’t obsess over themselves or what others are going to think of them. They don’t beat themselves up over past transgressions or worry that they might not be acceptable. They live completely in the moment, reacting only to what they need to in order to survive and be happy. When they are given food, they happily nosh down on it, thinking about nothing except how good it tastes and how nice a newly-full stomach feels. If you ask your dog if he wants to go out for a walk, he doesn’t sit around sulking because he thought your tone was condescending; he happily jumps up and starts to dance around, sometimes even smiling (I am certain dogs can smile). If you scritch your cat under the chin, she will turn her face up to you, squint her eyes so they are almost closed, and begin to purr. She doesn’t worry that you might think she has bad breath. She doesn’t care! Watch a group of otters at play. They are like happy children, enjoying the water and the bliss of splashing around and swimming in it, and the joy of being together as a group.
Humans are the only creatures who unfairly judge their own kind, are cruel and unjust for no good reason except to boost their own egos, and seem to look for things to be miserable about, even when things are going well.
Many people think we make ourselves miserable due to our higher intelligence that makes us think about everything way too much, and that could be true. But what exactly is intelligence? How do we know that animals don’t have just as much of it as we do, even if they have a different kind of intelligence? Just because we can read words and earn a paycheck doesn’t mean we’re better or have a superior way of thinking. Case in point: have you ever witnessed some people with Down Syndrome? While their cognitive abilities may be impaired, they are some of the most joyful and affectionate people on earth. I remember one day standing on line at the supermarket. Ahead of me was a young man who clearly had Down Syndrome, and he was happily smiling and waving at everyone who looked his way. People smiled in reaction, not because they were being “polite,” and not because they were laughing at him, but because he was spreading joy. You couldn’t look at this man and not feel a little of his natural happiness. Studies have shown that people with very high IQ’s are more prone to mental illness and depression. People who aren’t as “smart” do seem to be happier. Sometimes I think too much in the way of cognitive intelligence actually gets in our way and keeps us from living in the moment and just enjoying life. Children at play have a lot to teach us in that department too. We can learn from them.
I’m not comparing the cognitively challenged with with animals and kids to be offensive, but I do think it’s important to point out that all of these groups seem to be more able to live in the moment, and living in the moment is what mindfulness is really all about. Mindfulness and staying in the present leads to joy. So who really is smarter?
If you’re depressed or feeling bad, just go to Youtube and watch videos of cute, funny and happy animals (or babies, if you prefer). There are thousands of them. They are popular for a good reason: they make us feel better and can make us laugh and smile when we’re down. It always works for me, at least a little.