ANIMAL SPIRITS

images copyMy use of the words spirit and spiritual in reference to animals has nothing to do with ghosts, the transmigration of souls, or anything like that. Nor am I saying that animals have immortal souls that continue on after death. No one should worry that I’m going against Christian orthodoxy here; I’m simply using these words as counter-concepts to “soma” and “somatic.” Let me try to clarify this.

I stated that the senses approximate a sense of disembodiment — I did not say that they achieve it. For instance, when you are walking around looking straight ahead attending to something, very often your body doesn’t make itself felt or only in negligible ways that barely get registered consciously. Looking straight ahead or upwards, your body doesn’t come into view at all. A healthy body is precisely one that doesn’t encumber you, that withdraws itself into the perceptual background, particularly when it is moving in its natural element, encountering the least resistance. Now I posit that this feeling of disembodiment is heightened in animals or at least in some animals, and that morphology has a lot to do with it. Not only are they less self conscious than human beings, they posses keener senses, more effective ways of attuning themselves to their surroundings and conveying their attention beyond their bodies. Moreover, the form of some animals hides their bodies from themselves even more effectively than our line of sight hides ours. This results in a heightened illusion of disembodiment. Of course, the body always comes back into play — for instance, when the animal feels hunger, pain, when it preens or cleans itself.

What I called the “spirit” of the animal isn’t inside the body for the most part. Modern science tends to localize all life processes as internal physiological events, but it is not as if the animal were contained in its body the way water is held in a bottle. The animal is not contained within its body at all; just the opposite: the animal’s body is inside the animal and makes its appearance there — for example, when the body emerges within the animal’s field of vision. There is nothing supernatural about this, at least in the usual sense of the word. I said that the approximation of disembodiment is an illusion created by the senses, but it is not a mere illusion. Since its being is projected outward toward its surroundings and not inward toward its body, the sense of disembodiment constitutes the actual lived reality of the animal for much of its life.

As far as human beings are concerned, hearing (rather than seeing) might be a better example of disembodiment, of this conveying of  the self beyond the body. When the acoustics are right, and moreover when one’s heedful attention has been caught by some sound, one gets transported in quite a remarkable way. The sense produced is not so much that the sound reaches us, but that we reach or locate the source of the sound and are not so much here as there. I keenly experienced this kind of conveyance not too long ago. I was sitting in the living room while somebody in the kitchen was rummaging around inside a drawer. I was trying to read, but the clatter drew my attention. I was transported to such an extent that I found myself practically inside the drawer being sifted along with the utensils.

It is not as if the self has a shape congruent with the shape of its body. The self extends much farther than the body. If that were not the case, we would be no different than inanimate objects that cannot inhabit a world. Our being does not run up against a hard limit; it “terminates” in an open, shifting horizon. It is essential to the nature of a horizon to remain open, and our being remains open along within it. It is even the case that we cannot speak of a real terminus here, a limit or form against which our being stops extending. It simply remains open-ended — free, if you will — and this is not only the case with respect to vision but to other senses as well.

The point is to learn to conceive of the human being as a clearing, one that not only encompasses thoughts and feelings but also what is outside of its body, and even this body itself — as opposed to thinking of the human being as simply an animal and an animal simply an especially complicated type of object with a determinate form and function.

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