WHY WE ARE HERE (THE MEANING OF LIFE)
If we are here to learn lessons, then why are the animals here? Or the plants? Or neutron stars?
The religious perspective is viciously anthropocentric: "The rest of the universe is here to help people learn lessons." And there the explanations end. They serve us. People are more important than animals. After 50 years of failing ecology, massive extinctions, and irreversible warming, do our teachers still so pitifully misunderstand "why we're here"?
We are here because the Infinite is playing at being finite. The Indivisible Whole is pretending to be divided, into separate people, into plants and animals and creepy-crawlies and black holes and alternate universes. The One, at play. The Great Game. Music without rules, unless we make them. Children arguing at recess about what's fair and what's not. Lovers quarreling, enemies falling in love, multiple wives and extra husbands. Bipeds that can think, quadrupeds that can think, ocean-going monsters that can think. (Check out all those online videos of octopuses and whales that constantly make plans for their futures, or sing, or grieve.)
Animals are just further expressions of the One at play. So are you and I. Our pets reflect the love of the Universe back to us. Or sometimes Its deep unpredictability. The animals we farm or hunt are not our servants: they are more demonstrations of the Universe trying out every possible role in this drama, working out every possible scenario of predator and prey, the eater and the eaten, the dull beast with scarcely a clear thought for the future and human beings terrified all their lives by their own assured mortality.
Anyone with pets knows that they dream, just like people. More evidence of play and games and drama and music. All beings shift constantly from one state of play to another, from one dream state to another. We abandon dream games in a few minutes; we abandon ordinary-reality games after a few years. Our beloved domestic friends love, just like people. They fear and run, they play all the same games. Dogs and wolves and whales sing. Cats and elephants paint, given half a chance. Parrots do arithmetic. We are all One. The One plays at being, at being all beings.
Shamans merge with mountains and clouds, they dance animals and plants, they shape-shift, they eat meat, they sacrifice themselves. They coach the same game that they themselves play; they play medics to injured players, they cross all lines. Human, volcano, Antarctica, spaniel, squid...shamans read for all roles, play all field positions, sing all the notes. Hey, they help write the music and the playbooks!