A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

An Emerging Consciousness

(This is one of a series of posts exploring how, as chaos grows around the world and a Sixth Extinction takes hold, a new kind of collective consciousness may be emerging among certain kinds of people – and what this may mean.)

One evening, in the fall of 1995, when I was checking the message boards of our CompuServe forum (remember those old online services?!), the following suddenly appeared:

“We are a group of Serbs and Croats …”

Wait. A “group of Serbs and Croats”? There was no such thing. A dreadful ethnic war was raging between these two people in Bosnia. They were mortal enemies. It would be like a message in World War Two from people telling you they were a group of Jews and Nazis.

But there it was.

“… We meet across the lines at night, when the shootings and the bombings have died down. We go out to rescue the animals who have been injured.”

After their husbands or brothers had been out killing each other all day, these folks were apparently risking their lives to get together and help the animals who were caught up in this senseless human war.

They urgently needed food, veterinary supplies, blankets, anything we could get them. But they added that it would all have to be done in great secrecy. Even by reaching out to us like this, they were risking being discovered and then tortured and killed for fraternizing with the enemy. Happily, we were able to connect them with rescue groups in Europe, who could send help to clandestine drop-off spots – like we were all characters in some John Le Carré novel.

Thousands of people working on their own, yet all sending the same letters without ever knowing it.Back then, most people who cared about our fellow animals were either working entirely on their own or in very small groups. I was part of one of those small groups – one that would soon blossom into Best Friends Animal Society. In those early days, as more people heard about the sanctuary we were building and its work for homeless pets, letters (not much email yet) began pouring in from all over the country and beyond. They were all very touching, but the remarkable thing about them was that most of them began with almost exactly the same words:

“I thought I was the only person who felt this way. Now I know I’m not …”

It was uncanny – thousands of people, all working on their own, yet all apparently reading off the same song sheet and sending the same letters without ever knowing it.

You couldn’t help but wonder if there was something unusual about these people. And with the Internet just beginning to take off, you couldn’t help but wonder what might be possible if you could help connect up the dots between them all.

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People who care about our fellow animals (a.k.a. “animals”) are unlike any other interest group I’ve ever come across. The thing that sets them apart is that their concern reaches beyond our own species to embrace other living things. For them, it’s not all about us. Even the most altruistic human causes – anti-slavery movements, caring about abused children, fighting poverty, finding cures for cancer and heart disease – while entirely valid in their own terms, are basically about us. But animal protection causes are not about us.

That also makes it quite tough going. Since most of this work is about protecting animals from humans, the animal protection groups are inevitably fighting a losing war. Today there’s more animal abuse than ever: more vivisection, more factory farming, more animals in entertainment, more than 200 species going extinct every day.

Exploring the possibility of a new kind of consciousness that could be emerging among people who share a profound empathy with other living creatures.In fact, there’s only one area that’s doing well, and that’s to do with homeless pets. Since the early 1990s, the number of dogs and cats being killed in shelters every year has dropped from 17 million a year to about 3 million. So how come so much success in this area, and so much failure in all the others? Very simply, dogs and cats are part of the human in-group. They’ve become family. So while humane societies and other groups will go out of their way to save dogs and cats, they still do little or nothing to help any other kinds of animals. Worse yet, the humane groups are actually part of the problem since, for example, they don’t think twice about serving up animal foods to staff and supporters. (A recent fundraising dinner for a humane society in Palm Springs proudly announced itself as “Claws for Paws.” Eat the lobsters to save the puppies.) This massive disconnect doesn’t even dawn on them.

Of course, we’re all hypocrites to a certain extent. None of us lives an entirely cruelty-free life. It’s not possible. So this isn’t about who’s better and who’s worse, but rather about what happens – what might happen – when a body of people who share a deep care and concern for all living beings are able to build an even closer connection at a time when the rest of human society is becoming increasingly separated and fragmented.

It’s about exploring the possibility of a new kind of consciousness that could be starting to emerge among this community of people who share a profound empathy with other living creatures.

And it’s about learning what supporting evidence – scientific, philosophical, theological – if any, there might be to carry such a notion beyond the purely fanciful.

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Albert Einstein wrote:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space.

He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion – to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

We humans are gifted with a complex self-awareness that enables us to plan our lives, change our environment, even contemplate the cosmos.

The problem is not a lack of technology or ingenuity; it’s a lack of consciousness – the inability to “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.”But this awareness, our consciousness, is still very limited. As Einstein describes it, we still experience ourselves as separate individuals. Equally, we experience our own human species as being quite separate from all the other living beings with whom we share the planet – even from nature itself, as though we’re not part of it.

This need to separate ourselves from the rest of nature (and therefore from our own true nature) has been our undoing. Blinding ourselves to the consequences of our self-interested actions, we’ve become the ultimate invasive species, gobbling up the planet and destroying everything around us in the name of human progress. We’ve become the asteroid that wipes out life, including our own.

We can’t solve the problems we’ve created by building yet more technology or by reducing our emissions or whatever. That’s because the root problem is not a lack of technology or ingenuity; it’s a lack of consciousness – the inability to “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.”

That’s the one thing we can’t do. It’s our Achilles Heel, our tragedy. It’s what takes us down – and everything else with us.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. There’s still the small minority of people whose consciousness does indeed embrace other living creatures and much, if not all, of nature. Indeed, since the dawn of human civilization, there have always been those few who “thought I was the only person who felt this way.”

In Ancient Greece, 2,500 years ago, the mathematician Pythagoras (the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle, etc.) was teaching his students a cruelty-free lifestyle:

As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.

A thousand years ago, the great philosopher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon was telling his congregation that:

It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.

And 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci was teaching his art students that:

The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.

Basically, it’s the core message of every authentic spiritual teaching and every great spiritual teacher: “We’re all one connected whole … what we do unto others we’re doing to ourselves … it’s not all about us; it’s about how we relate to the rest of creation.”

This “higher” or more inclusive consciousness that you find in people who care about the animals and nature is not about being more intelligent or brainy, or more moral or religious, or “better” in all the ways that other humans typically consider to be important. Rather, it’s simply to do with having the kind of empathy that embraces all living beings.

(Incidentally, empathy is often confused and bundled together with sympathy. Having sympathy for someone enables you to reach out to them; true empathy goes a stage further – it’s about experiencing them in your own circle of consciousness, as part of you, as you are part of them.)

And again that takes us back to the people who “thought I was the only person who felt this way.” Their consciousness is one that reaches beyond the human in-group to embrace other living beings at a deeply visceral level.

They may be the only person in the office who’s noticed the stray cat in the bushes at the end of the parking lot, and who feels compelled to do something to help. They may be the child who, unlike other kids, doesn’t enjoy going to the circus but can’t quite express what it is about seeing elephants being made to dance. They may be the person at home who, to the bemusement of their friends and family, refuses to swat the fly who’s buzzing on the window and has to catch her safely and release her outside.

It’s a consciousness that reaches beyond the human in-group to embrace other living beings at a deeply visceral level.As they learn more about the plight of other animals, some of these people find themselves devoting their lives to rescuing orangutans and their forests from the palm oil industry; protecting elephants from poachers and the zoo industry; working to save beagles and mice from vivisection laboratories, killer whales from SeaWorld, chickens from factory farms, and so on.

They connect best with others of like mind and heart, even if those people aren’t considered to be part of their human in-group. So you’ll find them among those Israelis and Palestinians who, like those folks during the war in Bosnia 20 years ago, are working quietly together every day to help wildlife displaced by human walls and electric fences. (When war broke out between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Israeli and Lebanese rescue groups worked together to help wildlife, farmed animals, zoo animals and abandoned pets. These folks weren’t interested in fighting each other over age-old grievances and pseudo-religious issues. All that mattered to them was protecting the innocent victims of human folly.)

They come from all backgrounds, cultures, languages and religions, from big cities and tiny hamlets, and from every walk of life. On the surface, they may have little in common with each other, but the passion they share for innocent life is the only thing that actually matters. When they meet each other, it’s like they’ve known each other forever.

And the passion they share is quite different from the belief systems and values that connect other groups of people. This isn’t about beliefs or ethics or moral values or other mental constructs. It’s about the sanctity of life – all life – and at the deepest level of the heart.

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Over the last couple of decades, those of us who once thought we were “the only person who felt this way” have been able to connect with each other in a way that was never possible before. New technologies have enabled us to know each other better, to understand more fully the plight of other animals and the catastrophe that’s engulfing all of nature, to work together more effectively, and perhaps to begin to experience ourselves and each other as not just a group of individuals but as a kind of emerging consciousness that can ” embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Charles Darwin wrote that:

The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.

If we humans are going to leave a message in a bottle about ourselves, will it be that we were the species that destroyed the Earth and all its living creatures after four billion years of evolution? Will our epitaph be that this was a species that could have gone so much further if it had cared for more than just itself? Or will we finally, even at this late stage, rise to the occasion? As Andrew Harvey described it in my post last week:

Are you going to go out in the savage unconscious way that we have done all of this, that has caused all of this? Or are we, in the final snapshot of our shadow, going to claim our light and then work from that with dignity, decency, compassion, and a passion to make it as easy as possible for each other? And especially for the animal race that we have so horribly abused?

In fact, both things are happening: a mad rush toward more “progress” as, each week, almost 1,500 species disappear forever; and at the same time a small handful of people coming together to do what they can to help the animals who are still struggling to survive in the face of “progress”.

Let’s not kid ourselves that this small handful is going to turn the situation around. That can’t happen. It’s too late. Some kinds of super-resilient life – jellyfish, tardigrades, whatever – may survive. But even so, it would take millions of years (as after any mass extinction) for new kinds of more complex life to evolve.

Instead, on a practical, down-to-earth level, we can certainly “claim our light” and do what we can “for the animal race that we have so horribly abused.” Could those of us who share a deep empathy with the rest of creation, be at the threshold of an emerging collective consciousness ourselves?

And perhaps something else can happen as a result of that.

When many individuals are bound together in a common purpose and at a deep level, the whole can become greater than the sum of the parts. (In the world of nature, scientists talk of ant colonies and bee hives as being examples of a kind of a collective or super-consciousness.)

Could those of us who share a deep empathy with the rest of creation, while also being able to communicate and connect with each other in a way that’s never before been possible, be at the threshold of the beginnings of an emerging collective consciousness ourselves?

If so, what would it mean and how would it manifest? Is there any support for such a notion in the fields of science, philosophy, theology or other literature?

And what could it accomplish?

We’ll take this up in the next post.