What happens when we relate to our planet, to our cat or dog, to a tree? It used to be thought that only humans had consciousness but now we know different. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act became law in the UK in April. This recognises that all vertebrates and some invertebrates (eg lobsters, crabs and octopuses) are sentient – are aware and experience feelings such as joy, fear and pain. Even insects have been shown to have unique responses and personalities. Our consciousness was assumed to originate in our brain but now it seems that the brain does not produce consciousness but acts as a kind of receiver for it. We are learning more about consciousness from octopuses which have a very small brain but each arm has its own consciousness and personality.
Beyond animals, plants too respond in ways we did not expect, reacting to different types of music, and thriving or failing in response to praise or criticism. Each morning when I walk the dogs I have a place where I stop and sing to the trees, and they seem to listen. In our relationships with animals and plants, do we share consciousness at some level?
‘While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquillity with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life. The idea of universal consciousness suffuses both Western and Eastern thought and philosophy, from the “collective unconscious” of psychologist Carl Jung, to unified field theory, to the investigations of the Institute of Noetic Sciences founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell in 1973. I feel blessed by the thought of sharing with an octopus what one website calls “an infinite, eternal ocean of intelligent energy”. Who would know more about the infinite, eternal ocean than an octopus? And what could be more deeply calming that being cradled in its arms, surrounded by the water from which life itself arose? As I pet Kali’s soft head I think of Paul the Apostle’s letter to the Philippians about the power of the “peace that passeth understanding”.
And then – SPLASH – we’re hosed. “That was not aggression” says Wilson. “That was playful.”..Kali fluffs up the suckers on her arms like the frills on a petticoat and waves her arms at us. If she were a person, we could reach no other conclusion than that she is teasing us, daring us to try again.’
Sy Montgomery. The Soul of an Octopus. Simon & Schuster. 2015
I can sip beauty,
I can take it up
until it becomes
the lining of my soul,
jewels in the dark.
The peony is lush,
a ball of velvet,
of a heart.