Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Interview with David Michie, author of Buddhism for Pet Lovers

Author David Michie with Princess Wussik.

This week we had a chat with David Michie about his book Buddhism for Pet Lovers: Supporting ourclosest companions through life and death. David is Australia’s most successful author on Buddhism, having his work translated into 26 language. He has sold over 250,000 books worldwide, probably of most relevance to this audience is his Dalai Lama’s Cat series of novels.
David is a medication coach, international speaker and corporate trainer. This was an interesting interview because I am the poster girl for yoga-class dropout. Every time I sit to meditate my brain thinks it’s the perfect opportunity to confront me with a to do list, which, being without a pen, sets my adrenal glands on fire. So it was an interesting interview! (Thank you David for being so patient).

What’s your day job?

I try to inspire people.

In Buddhism for Pet Lovers, you devote the first 35 or so pages to establishing that animals have consciousness. Why is it important to establish this?

There is a dichotomy between what many scientific authorities say about animal sentience, and our own hands-on experience as pet lovers, and I thought it was important for the sake of intellectual and academic rigor to bring people up to speed with why these attitudes exist in science, where they come from, and what is the state of play. It was a bit ambitious to try to summarise that in 30 pages or so.

I like for people to have some sort of reassurance this is not just me David Michie spouting forth about what I think of the world, there is actually credibility to where I am coming from. As you know the CambridgeDeclaration of Consciousness is a significant milestone, so wanted to bring people up to speed about where that came from, so I can now explain why some more enlightened scientists are on the same page as some of the wise people from the East, in terms of what they say about animal sentience.

Its about bringing people along on the journey, and explaining why is it that many scientists still have the view that animals don’t have consciousness or consciousness that is very low on evolutionary scale, where these attitudes came from and they are why now starting to change.

Yes, I only found out about the Cambridge Declaration some years after it had been made.

I think it’s because the implications are so profoundly discomforting for the way Western society conducts itself with regard to animals.

One theme that comes through in your book is your emphasis that owners should be aware that we “exert enormous control over the circumstances of our pet’s lives” (p44). Why is this awareness important?

Well I suppose its because many people are not aware of how much their pets are completely depending on them. It arises from a lack of fully understanding the level of sentience of our pets, and not imaginatively trying to explore what it would be like to be your pet. I hope to inspire people to imaginatively explore what it would be like to be their pet, a non-verbal being living in this crazy world, whose circumstances are totally constrained by who owns them.

Even the most pampered of pets cannot just walk to the medicine cabinet and have a Panadol if they have a headache, or make an appointment with their dentist when they have a toothache, or pour a glass of wine to cheer themselves up. They don’t have access to the stuff we take for granted.

The hope is for people to become more sensitive and mindful about the needs of our pets.

On page 54 you describe “Dog Walk Lite”. What is this and why is it problematic?

It’s essentially that many people are no longer taking dogs for walks in way they used to. Now they take the dog for a walk secondary to the fact that they are engaged in social media feeds or texting friends. This is very unfortunate in terms of their dog’s perspective, not getting their full attention.

I wrote about a girl who was distracted by her phone when taking her dog for a walk and many times, unconsciously, she tugged on the dog’s lead with irritation, not even paying attention. The dog was almost an unwanted distraction. It’s unfortunate for the pet of course as they are no longer shown the kind of degree of empathy and understanding you would expect, but also very sad for the human being as their relationship with their pet is being eroded and becoming more and more superficial. What once would have been beautiful moments of enjoying nature with a pet are now not spent enjoying nature, but looking at facebook and the pet is a distraction. Our relationships with beings of all kinds are degraded when we only pay them partial attention.

I’m not one of these people who are anti these things like phones, I use them vigorously, but it’s all about the context.

You suggest that abandoning killing “is the first and only required vow” of becoming a Buddhist, and that karma applies to animals. Should pet owners feed their pets a vegan diet?

The answer to that is no, they shouldn’t. Pets are not designed for vegan diets [David is referring to dogs and cats here and not guinea pigs, rabbits or horses for example]. I know some people who say they can be, I am not a biologist, but reports I have read is that this is a very dangerous thing to be doing. That’s not to say that you couldn’t edge your way in that direction.

I struggled a bit with some of the content relating to veterinary care, especially euthanasia. For example you mentioned that “natural dying better enables our pets to come to terms with what is happening and mentally prepare for it”p159. There is also a claim on p161 that most vets are too busy to do housecalls and that euthanasias in clinic are less than ideal.

Euthanasia [of animals] is so mainstream now, and it is something we need to think about. I’ve been on the doing end of that [David has had some of his own animals euthanased by veterinarians in the past] and I know it makes a world of difference to have it done in the surgery with all the lights on than having your cat sedated in your own home. If you’re concerned about the mind of your cat or dog, it’s something you need to think about. Many people don’t think about it, but it isn’t really about us and what we want. It’s about them.

One thing I wanted to get across in the death and dying part of the book is that it is about focusing on the animal rather than ourselves.

I also struggled with the idea of telepathy. A lot of phenomena you described could be explained by picking up on cues like body language.

I get the feeling that you think telepathy is a bit out there and woo-woo. But if one was to mediate for a while [busted – David astutely observed that I haven’t done this, mostly because I am deterred by being confronted with the list of the things I am supposed to do but have not yet that floats around in my brain and ambushes me in quiet moments- Ed.], and experience a calm mind, what quite naturally arises sometimes is a moment of intuition and being aware of things. Even neuroscientists have documented a change in brain waves when we mediate. Whatever the biology, things go on when we’re in this particular state that don’t go on when we’re in other mental states. From a Buddhist perspective, telepathic and clairvoyant experiences are a natural by-product of a quietened mind. While I accept people might find telepathy and clairvoyance a bit woo woo and out there, keep an open mind on the subject, as our minds are subject to change. If it is the case that animals have more quiet minds than we do, it’s not really such a leap to say they have telepathy.

What non-humans do you share your life with and how did you meet?

Kahlua, who mediates who me, and Nala are rescue cats. There was also Princess Wussik, the inspiration behind The Dalai Lama’s Cat, along with Mumbo. Those are the most recent. We haven’t had any dogs as they are higher maintenance and we do a lot of travel. Growing up in Zimbabwe I had dogs, cats, cockatiels…and used to go and play with lion cubs and baby elephants at the Lion and Cheetah Park.

Any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians?

Interesting one. The advice that I would give is take up meditating with pets, because I feel that there is nothing like direct first-hand experience of a phenomenon to convince you that there is something here.
I sometimes laughingly describe myself as a pussy magnet, because if I meditate the cats will come from wherever they are in the house and sit beside me. Once you have experienced that quietening of the mind, and animals being drawn to it, something in that relationship between you and those animals, a shared non-verbal experience, has occurred that is profound and pretty special. Once you have experienced that for yourself, nobody can really convince you that something special didn’t happen. That may provide a whole interesting new dimension in their experience.

Okay so I have tried that. But I don’t have a quiet mind.  

The challenges you describe are totally normal. Some people’s minds are completely out of control when try to mediate. Most people think they have their shit together, and think it will be really easy to focus on one thing for five minutes. You ask them to focus on their breathing and within 3 milliseconds they are thinking “this is a waste of time, I need to do x, y and z…”. [Um…yes].
It takes a huge amount of effort to nudge away from that and change our behaviour, but once we have a taste of being able to have a quiet mind it becomes really addictive. When we do that we get an inkling as to what it will be like to have the mind of a pet. They’re not so caught up in cognition as we are. If we can put ourselves on the same page as our pets, that’s an extraordinary experience.

Thank you David for your time. David’s book is available now from all major bookstores and from Allen and Unwin

You can read more about David at