Spacious Passion

Chapter 4 – Coming up for Air

animal realm

The animal realm is a serious scenario – humourless and lacking in the ability to entertain ambivalence. This is the nose-to-the-grindstone realm, with its continual urge to make everything as stolidly secure as possible. Animal realm beings are not free. They are bound by the limitations they place upon themselves and are bound by their submission to limitations placed upon them by others. They are constricted by an inability to gain a perspective on the instinctive nature of their behaviour. There is a quality of rigidity and fixity in this realm – of obduracy and stubbornness.

Animal realm reliability gives rise to narrow-minded arrogance. Animal realm perception ignores, with blinkered determination and a narrow sense of purpose, the limitations inherent in pursuing a course of action. There is aversion to change or to entertaining alternative points of view. Animal perception skill in executing manœuvres may appear intelligent and clear, but is primarily instinctual and habituated. There is a rigidity and inflexibility of view and purpose which restricts intelligence. Animal perception lacks the capacity to observe itself – it cannot see situations as a range of subjective propositions, and therefore cannot step outside itself to effect change.

We sink into the animal realm when we justify stubbornness and inflexibility – wilfully refusing to allow change and growth. In this realm we decide that what we have is what we want, and as Khandro Déchen says, … we settle into self-reassuring routines of vegetative yet orderly bestiality.

Dinner has to be on the table at a certain time each day. I always watch my favourite television programme. It is essential that I am wearing the current fashion, and always appear in public in the appropriate style of makeup, clothing and accessories of my herd. I always frequent the same pub after the football match. I always go on to the same restaurant for the same hottest curry, and then vomit in more or less the same place on the way home.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of the animal realm in this respect, Without undue prejudice and at the risk of making a gross generalisation, it could be said that one of the closest definitions of the animal realm can be found in spectator sport. Naturally one can enjoy observing the skills of many sporting activities as a human being. However one only needs to observe the aggression which arises in this context to see how the animal realm mentality marks its territory and defends its definitions. Team identification is all that is required to beat a person to death on the basis that they are wearing a scarf of another colour. Khandro Déchen and I have never found it possible to teach anyone with an overactive addiction to spectator sports – and we have noticed that such people generally have no interest in spirituality unless it is connected with association with ‘the one true way’. Fundamentalism, sectarianism, puritanism, homophobia, totalitarianism, institutionalisation, and sanctimonious political correctness are all indicators of animal realm mentality – because they all ascribe to the increasing concretisation of their view.

Our lives may be dominated by some particular focus. This could be collecting Fine Art or stamps, playing golf or football, the gossip about celebrities, train spotting, white supremacy, or religion. The need to amass experience or collect material objects is part of the neurosis of this realm. We may become an authoritative expert in our field.

There is a wish to amass objects and experience to establish a sense of substantiality. This is not to say that there is anything wrong in liking routine and regularity, or enjoying a visit to the pub. There is no problem with viewing particular television programmes, enjoying fashion, or with engaging in the hobby of collecting. The problem is when we use these as reference points which define us and make us feel substantial.

We close our minds to change and feel threatened by difference. We seek the sameness of habit and only feel comfortable with what is familiar. We find alternative approaches and points of view threatening. I can believe that I am secure because I own more Star Trek memorabilia than my rival collector – in fact I am the only person in the world to own a model of Captain Kirk in a red shirt instead of a yellow one! The structure and focus of our life may be innocent and innocuous, or it could cause us to become an aggressive fundamentalist and abuse those who do not share our view. In animal realm perception we find security and substantiality in the definitions we weave around ourselves, and we cannot cope with any threat to that definition, or with the differences of others’ definitions.

It is extremely difficult to move towards spiritual practice from this mindset. Practice inevitably excites change. The whole thrust of Dharma is that it is a path that will transform our experience and behaviour. Animal realm perception cannot cope with the thought of change and transformation. If an interest in teachings and practice arises, it will be rejected as soon as it presents a challenge to the animal’s cosy nest. Dharma requires too much energy, too expansive a challenge for animal perception to engage with it. We fail to see the point of practice. We are comfortable within the small space we have established for ourselves. Why risk this with spiritual practice? Why bother?