August 28, 2011

If you meet the Buddha on the road, he will likely be a cat.

Since learning about yoga at age 14, I've engaged in various bouts of trying to achieve stillness of body and mind. The positions and exercises that even a basic and simple yoga practice provide have been a great help to me. This was especially true after being in a major automobile accident and surviving various musculo-skeletal injuries. Still (how to avoid this pun?), after many years, I had yet to achieve stillness. For a while, I tried Tibetan breathing techniques. I also use (and draw great comfort from) the time-honored "Jesus prayer" used by pilgrims for thousands of years (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me). I could slow down, I could calm down... but utter stillness eluded me.

Then the cat came into my life.  He is not the first cat ever, but the first cat in more than 25 years to come into my life. Bear with me a moment while I tell you about the very first cat.

I was four, and my cousins gave me a beautiful Siamese kitten. While discussing what to call the cat, my parents said to each other: "We'd like to give him an oriental name."  I overheard them and shouted, "Me, too!  Me, too!"  And thus, the cat was named: Mitu / Meetoo.  Meetoo was gregarious and bright. He could open the back door from the inside on his own and could knock gently on the door when he wanted back in the house.  He was my company, my fascination, my adventure, and my love. One day on one of his adventures, Meetoo met with a car and broke his leg. My parents raced him to the vet, who put his leg in a cast, but it was not long before my dear cat left me for cat heaven.

I could not be comforted. I refused to cry, but I also refused to talk. And, being born with a large dose of stubbornness, I was able to keep my silence for a long enough time that my parents became alarmed. Knowing I loved to draw, my mother got out a set of finger paints and arranged them on the kitchen table. I started painting and used only one color: black.  My mother held her silence until I was finished and then asked, "What is this picture?"  "It''s a cave," I answered. "I should have put Meetoo in a cave, so he would be safe."  My mother then described to me just how depressing life in a cave would be for a cat, and I became part of the family conversation once again, my silence broken at last.

Last spring, I felt "moved by the spirit" to adopt a cat. I was hesitant. I'd been a dog owner and lover now for many years. Cats had become foreign to me. I heeded the call, though, and came home from the humane society with a very chatty tabby. So chatty, in fact, I named him Chatterly (note the lack of a second e, so as not to be confused with another more famous "Chatterley" of literature). It took a while for him to "adopt me back," but he has indeed done that. We communicate now, though it's challenging to discern the infinitesimal differences between one meow and another to determine the specificity of his request, remark, complaint, or discovery.  It was courageous of him to adopt me. One of his ribs had been broken badly at some point in his life, and the staff at the human society told me that being "dropped off" had been even more traumatic for him than is "the norm."

We've settled in together, and several times a day now, he teaches me stillness. He slips into stillness like the hand of a driver into a tight racing glove. He--just--does. There is no preparation or ceremony.

When he looks out the window, he does so from stillness and inside stillness. When he becomes a perfectly round ball of fur as he naps, he embodies stillness and holds it--there--in his being. There are moments when he stretches a paw towards me and makes the smallest sound to say, "I'm coming over to your space." Those moments are best when I am already lying down and he lies next to me, utterly, perfectly still.

I have yet to achieve my cat's perfect-balance stillness, but its presence is instructive, enlightening. To see stillness demonstrated so perfectly in my home every day keeps my mind tuned to that desire I have to find and to know the still-point of balance, myself--physically, mentally, spiritually. When the student is ready, the teacher does appear.

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