Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Mindfulness of Cats

In which we learn a lesson from the cats, consider our minds and our fears, and resolve on a small step to make ourselves and our world a more wholesome place, or, how the scientists begin to figure out what cats have known forever.

Sasha in a basket
As my deadline approached and interruptions mounted, I began to feel a tight cramped pain in the small of my back. It got my attention, because, well, because it hurt, for one thing. The other thing was this: I've come to recognize that tight little back pain for what it is; my body's escalating cry for help when the first several pleas have gone unheeded.

Sure enough, as I took my fingers off the keyboard, gave my mind over to the body's complaints, I began to feel the other flares my flesh had sent out but that I had ignored. My shoulders were up around my ears. My breathing was so shallow as to be barely happening. There was a tic, tiny little muscle spasms, under my right shoulder blade. My jaw was clenched; I was gritting my teeth. I was also irritable. If anyone had found the temerity to walk into the room at just that moment, my southern social conditioning might have kept me from biting their head off, but it would have been a near thing.

I stood up, stretched a bit, took a few deep breaths. Let the air flow in, felt it flowing out. I headed downstairs with cup in hand to get another cup of coffee. No, better make that tea. Better yet, water. Ok, water then, hot water, with a twist of lemon and a dollop of honey. I put on the kettle, waited for it to boil. It's a homey routine, a calming routine. Like the British, I'm pretty sure that there's not much that can't be made just a little better, no catastrophe that can't be made slightly less horrible, by sitting down and having a nice hot cup of tea.

A crockery cup warm in my hands, I gazed out the back window, out over the deck. It's buried in snow and ice at the moment, the sky gray and uninviting.  I long for the warm days of spring, even knowing the burden of yardwork those warm spring days will bring with them. Handsome, the elderly male cat of the colony, had been missing for several days during the worst of the snow, but had returned, seemingly no worse for wear. I looked for him, wanting to reassure myself that he was still there, still comfortable, not being chased away by the other males.

Handsome on his house
Handsome was indeed still there. I had cleared some of the snow and ice from the deck so kitty paws would have a place to stand while eating. I had also brushed off the worst of the snow from the deck railing, and from the dog house that Handsome likes to sit on, to lounge on, when he visits the yard. That's where he was now, blonde fur all fluffed out to keep away the cold, sitting on his house like a majestic elderly lion, soaking up the feeble rays of the southern sun.

The ideal of calm exists in a sitting cat. ~~ Jules Reynard via catquotes.com

It's practically impossible to be tense in the presence of cats. As I stood in my window, watching Handsome and the few of his fellow colony cats who lingered on the deck after feeding, I began breathing again. I could almost feel the muscles begin to unlock, one by one, standing down from state of emergency readiness. The deadline was still there, but my red alert response to it had been hindering, rather than helping the situation.

I continued to watch Handsome and his mates at their meditation. It struck me, then, that meditation was indeed the right word for what I was observing. The day was not ideal for an alley cat. Snow and ice filled the world, except for the few patches of dry deck I had managed to scrape clean. Temps were in the low thirties, below freezing, but just. The sun was feeble. Only a true optimist would call the sky any shade of blue.

And yet, here they sat, these wise old cats, taking advantage of what good things life did offer them. A bit of dry porch for pawpads to perch on, a bit of southern sun making things warmer than if it were absent. Liquid water in their recently acquired heated water dish, tummies full of dry kitty kibbles. A yard where they are welcome and not harassed. Perhaps it's not all they would wish to have. But, for the day, it was enough.

As I coninued to stand in the afternoon light, pondering the cats, I realized that by focussing on their meditation, I had been led, gently, with no bells and whistles or lotus position or chanted mantra, into a quiet state of meditation myself.

Of animals, [the cat] alone attains to the Contemplative life. He regards the wheel of existence from without, like the Buddha ~~ Andrew Lang via catquotes.com

Now I'm a huge fan of daily meditation, in the way most men are huge fans of football. I read about it and study the various types. I believe in its benefits. However, very very rarely do I actually get out and throw a football around, much less actually sit down and meditate. And this despite my very best intentions. One of my new year's resolutions for 2011 is: meditate more.

We've reached the point, I think, where we can no longer deny the many, many benefits of mindful meditation. I remember being told once, when I was very young, by someone speaking from her fear, "Don't you mess with that medetation stuff. You don't know what might be coming into your brain while your mind is off somewhere else."

I hope those days are behind us. The scientific evidence keeps mounting. A recent article in the New York Times discussed current research about how a consistent practice of minful meditation seems to actually change the physical structure of the brain, in good ways. According to the researchers, the amygdala actually shrinks in the brains of meditators. This is good, I'm thinking, since the amygdala is a portion of the brain associated with processing fear and anxiety. (Apparently, people with damaged amygdalas are unable to be conditioned using Pavlovian fear conditioning technques. Curiouser and curiouser.)

Apparently, while you're meditating and your amygdala is shrinking, your hippocampus is growing. The hippocampus, I read, is important in long term memory and spacial navigation. Also, and this bit is particularly interesting to me, the hippocampus seemb to be one of the first regions of the brain to become damaged in a person with Alzheimer's disease. Since Alzheimer's has shown up a couple of times in my family, I'm all for growing my hippocamus as big and healthy as it can be.

The article from the Times also referenced some interesting prior research. In that study, "researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate." Now, interested as I am in living more compassionately, and in a more compassionate world, that little tidbit rocked my brain. Really? Meditating can make me just a bit more empathic, just a bit more compassionate?

What's not to like about that?

So it seems I made a good New Year's Resolution after all. Meditate more. It will help me be less fearful. (In a previous post, we considered how fear contributes to the horrors of our world.) It may help me stave off Alzheimer's Disease. It will make me kinder and more empathic.

As I write this, I look up, look around the room, find the four housecats: Simba, Rikki, Sasha and Treasure. I find them, in this cozy spot or that. Each one is curled up or stretched out, happily meditating, I think, on how pleasant it is to be a cat, to have all that you need, to be warm and dry and well fed and loved.

I think I'll leave you now, Gentle Reader, to go and join them.

"I put down my book, The Meaning of Zen, and see the cat smiling into her fur as she delicately combs it with her rough pink tongue. Cat, I would lend you this book to study but it appears you have already read it. She looks up and gives me her full gaze. Don't be ridiculous, she purrs, I wrote it. - from "Miao" by Dilys Laing via catquotes.com

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


  1. This is so true. Another reason why I surround myself with lovely cats. Hugs, Deb=^..^=x5

  2. Mario's M here - thank you so much for commenting on my blog. I find it a great honor that you, a professional wriiter, would like my blog. Your comments meant a lot because I believe you have a well-written blog. Cats are usually very calming because of their meditation. We could learn a lot from them I haven't tried meditation yet, but it is probably something I should do because my family is riddled with Alzheimers also. It's such a nasty disease.

  3. @ Deb: Hugs right back at you! Let's keep that hug going 'round the world. :-D Can't hurt, might help.

    @Mario: you are most welcome. I'm so glad to have found your blog; Mario is a jewel of a cat and I'm having far too much fun watching his antics, though I'm sad to see that he's decided to retire from football. The NFL will never be the same! :-D