My Cat Taught Me To Hear the World Speak

Humans have had pets or animal companions for thousands of years. They have protected us, helped feed us and, in times of stress, they have been a source of great comfort. Their non-human minds have confused and fascinated us. They have also taught us a great deal.

 

I was returning home earlier this summer, after a long walk up my hill in a very rural area of New York, when I saw a small animal a hundred yards or more downhill from me. It was black and, at first, I couldn’t tell if it was a large bird, maybe a raven, or one of my three cats. As I got a little closer, and the animal just sat there, I realized it must be my cat Max.

 

I called out to him, and he started up the hill to meet me as I walked down towards him. As he got close, I stopped. He stood up on his back legs and rubbed his head against my hand, as if urging me to pet him, and I couldn’t help but comply. His giving such attention to me led to my opening up to him.

 

I then tried to continue to walk home, but Max made it difficult. He walked a figure eight between my feet, rubbing against me as frequently as he could. Why do cats do this? When he walks with me, it’s as if he is trying to weave a spell that would halt me in my tracks. I stopped to pet him. He sat down and stared off at part of the scene around him. And I did the same. Maybe that’s all he wanted. Maybe he was telling me to slow down, look and listen. Smell the roses.

 

I noticed a dead branch of a maple tree supported by an evergreen. I noticed blackberry bushes, and little wild strawberries. Thirty years ago stately trees lined the road. Then the road crew came with their big machines and devastated the trees, cutting them down so the road could be made wider and the plow could clear away the snow. This, at first, outraged most of us who lived here. Two neighbors chained themselves to their favorite trees. Now, we’re glad the road is plowed and the trees are returning.

 

I listened to the gentle wind, birdcalls, insect cries and it sounded like the world was purring to me. If we give the world a chance, it speaks to us.

 

Not that Max or any cat is “perfect.” There are things he does that make me angry or cringe. But because of him I listen more to what the world around me has to say. Sometimes it purrs. Other times, it cries or rages. I listen because without this land, what was I? For Max, the land, the road, the trees, the other animals were not just part of his home—they were part of who he was.

 

This, this scene all around me—without it, I didn’t exist. Not just that it was part of my identity. My lungs breathe in sky, so when I speak, I speak sky talk. To walk forward, I press back against the earth, so each step I take is the earth walking. One movement of many feet. We humans have such powerful words in our heads we easily lose sight of what nourishes those words. My cat taught me this today. In this day and age of false talk, we need to be reminded of such truths or we might lose it all.

 

In these days of hurricanes and other disasters, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the earth is now gentle⏤and I am distressed seeing what so many have lost, homes and possessions, friends or family, and pets. I know everything can change at any moment. This is even more of a reason to listen, carefully. Even more reason to appreciate what I have and to work to preserve the environment that sustains us all.

The Mystery You Solve As You Live

When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.

 

I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.

 

But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?

 

Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.

 

Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.

 

You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.

 

So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?

 

The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.

A Story of Different Perspectives

In 1969, after graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions. They were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity because the political and economic conditions in his country were undermining the quality of people’s lives. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different from changing the position of a raindrop. So, no change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

Both of our perspectives had value. His pushed mine to a new place. By allowing myself to take in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. I learned a valuable lesson about how to think with a deeper and wider perspective. I think such a perspective is an important element of thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking.

 

A Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan, named Daito Kokuji, wrote:

            No umbrella, getting soaked,

            I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.

I don’t think I fully understand or can put into words exactly what this means, but I feel the rightness of it. Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold and the miserable feeling of being soaked, I can allow myself to feel the cold and the raindrops as me, too. And then I am no longer a skin wrapped soaking package. I am something much more.

 

In the same way, we all can feel our self-judgments, our pains, as something to learn from and let go, as a raincoat, not our identity.

 

Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”

 

 

Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?

The Magical Construction of No. And Yes.

No. Just say it. It sounds so powerful. No. Some people have trouble saying no, whether it be to a desire or to pressure from others or even to something that might hurt them. Others say it almost all the time. Think of children in their terrible twos saying it like a mantra. No is necessary for you to exist and taken too far it can kill you. It can feel good or horrible. And it can disappear like a passing cloud. So, every once and awhile, analyze the sense of no so you don’t hold on to it too tightly. Here is one analysis.

 

For the two year old, no is a necessary element of the maturation of a sense of independence, a sense that you can influence the awesome power of your caregivers. It does this by distinguishing “me-here” from “you-there.” The philosopher Ken Wilber said that any identity is a circle drawn so that what is inside is me and outside is all others, or not-me. No makes a me who stands up in the world and demands recognition. “You must listen, to me.” It creates the impression that the power to act independently is dependent on a sense of a distinct, acknowledged self.

 

The power of no is enhanced by how, and how much, you are cared for and can receive the care. Love can confer power, value, on an identity. If parents/caregivers tie love to acting or being a certain way, a further boundary can develop and the child’s sense of self gets smaller. The parts not accepted by the parents are not accepted by the child and pushed outside the circle to hide them away. Carl Jung called what was hidden the shadow.

 

When parental love isn’t clear, the child can be confused. He can go around putting a no in places just to demand a love to arise. Or she can fear no as if it were the magic or curse that drives love away. So, who you are and how powerful you feel is sculpted by love.

 

And then there’s yes. Every boundary line is both no and yes. No is the shadow of yes. The self is a me you say yes to bounded by a no. Do you say yes to your eyes? Hands? But who says yes to their nose hairs? Between no and yes there is and must be some pushing and shoving going on. In yes you give back and enjoy. In no, you push away and deny. The two are dynamically one.

 

Could you touch others if you didn’t have a boundary? Without your skin, there wouldn’t be any touching. If the bottom of your feet didn’t push against the earth, how could you walk? Ken Wilber also pointed out that a border is a place of contact. So, to think of the skin as only a boundary is to mistake its very nature. To think of the self as only “me, in here” is to mistake its nature. How you think of your boundaries has a lot to do with how you relate to the rest of the world.

 

These yeses and nos are not just ideas. You can mistake them for reality. You can feel them strongly. As a student you might say yes to listening to music and no to studying math or social studies. You can forget that what you think of as your self, your likes and dislikes, is a response to a particular situation. It changes. When you bring yes and no to awareness, you have the possibility of letting them go. Practice the following with yourself, and then, if you’re a teacher, with your students.

 

Close your eyes for a second and let your attention go to your inner world. Just take a breath in, and out. Notice if there is any tension as you breathe in or out. Where is it? Go there. What is the quality or feeling of the tension? Is it painful, stiff, scrunched up—a ‘no’ of some sort? Or a ‘yes’? Or neither? Notice how tension arises– or how it is just there. Then notice any gaps or lessening of tension. Notice how it changes and dissipates. The no dissolves into something else.

 

With clear attention, the gaps in any sensation are noticed and extended. Letting go is easier. It is helpful, especially when you are relatively new to mindfulness, to move attention around to different areas of the body.

 

With your next inhalation, go to somewhere else in your body. Notice the pressure as you inhale. As you exhale, notice how you let go.

 

As I meditate, I notice a tension, a pain across my chest. It pulls strongly on my body. When I attend to it, the pain at first seems clear, sharp. The no—and yes—can feel like absolutes. As I breathe in, I feel the history of where yes becomes no, of how I was first loved and cared for. The shape of my boundary, my sense of myself, is the shape that my felt capacity for yes, for love, creates. Yet, I rewrite this with each breath. The pain dissipates. How big can you allow your yes to be? Can you say yes even to no?

 

As I stay with the pain, accept it by attending to it without saying no, or saying anything, it softens. It feels almost aerated, bubbly, and then it’s gone. There is no sense of boundaries, of me and you. Only awareness.

 

 

Of course, its not just love that shapes us, nor is simply wanting enough to reshape us. Insight and self-awareness practice is needed. A person needs not just love—or genetics. Just think how your neighborhood, economic class, gender, or wars, a tornado, polluted water, a falling comet, the sound of birds affect you. It takes a universe to raise a person.