Last night my wife and I attended a Buddhist study group that we’ve gone to for some time. Our hostess has a cat, but the cat, Kiri, is usually confined in the bedroom for a couple of hours because one regular attendee is allergic to cats. As that person wasn’t there last night, Kiri joined us.
This happened once a few months before, and I was quite charmed that time because after wondering about a little, she came to me, jumped up on my lap, insisted, by rubbing against my hand, that I rub her for a long time, and then settled down, purring, to nap on my lap. I love cats, and was delighted when it happened again last night.
Before listening to some Buddhist teachings we had a 45 minute meditation.. My goal was to practice what is technically called shamatha without support, keeping my consciousness tuned to my experience in the present moment, being open to whatever it was, and, whenever I discovered I had wandered off into otherwise endless thought trains, gently coming back to the present.
Most meditation training starts with some variation of shamatha with support, where you are given some particular sensory process, such as the sensations from natural breathing, to keep your attention centered on. Since those sensations always exists in the present, they form a support for your mind to stay focused in the present. In shamatha without support, you don’t have any fixed “home base” like that, you just keep coming back to whatever present time sensations there are. For me, this would mean any sights if my eyes are open, whatever sounds occur, and whatever bodily sensations occur. Passing thoughts, sensory images and emotions can also be regarded as experiences happening in the present, but these kinds of experiences are very tricky since they tend to carry me (and almost everybody) away on chains of thoughts about the thoughts, about the emotions they arouse, about my thoughts about that, memories about such thoughts and feelings, etc., etc., etc.
Compared to the too the typical mind wondering when I attempt any kind of meditation, I thought I was doing rather well last night in sticking with present sensations. Kiri, napping on my knee, and occasionally moving a little or purring, naturally acted as something of a sensory anchor in the present, although I found sometimes I was deliberately using the feel of her napping on my knee as an anchor, rather than it just happening. When I found this, I tried to make a subtle shift in attitude that I was certainly aware of the cat on my knee at this time, that this was a pleasurable sensation, but it could come and go as it would, without my trying to force it as an anchor, or force it as a pleasurable sensation I could hold on to.
Paralleling and symbolizing this, I noticed that Kiri was not perfectly balanced on my knee, some of her weight was off to one side, so presumably she might fall. This was something of a human-centric thought on my part, of course, as cats do extremely well at keeping their balance without human intervention, but I did keep one of my hands resting on her side and back to give her gentle support, just in case. Partly consciously, partly automatically, though, I noticed that I kept my touch mild and gentle, so that the support would be there if Kiri needed it by rolling in that direction, but my hand would not be wrapped around her in a forcible or intrusive way such as might appear to constrain any movement she wanted to make.
It struck me that this was a very clear demonstration of the mental attitude needed for successful, shamatha practice, shamatha with or without support. A small, gentle effort is needed to keep my mind focused on the present flow of experience, but not in a way that grasps it, that tries to fix it, to keep it from changing, to keep it from “getting away.” That’s the way my attention needed to be for the rest of the flow of my experience, focused in the direction here-and-now, thus noticing this cat aspect of my experience, but not trying to fixate it.
I felt a feeling of thanks to the cat, for helping me notice this. Yes, I’ve known this intellectually for years, but this was an important deepening my knowledge of it.
Homage to my Cat Guru Kiri!
I also noticed that at times my mind tried to do something it frequently does during vipassana style meditation practices where I’m supposed to be just openly and clearly experiencing what is, namely feeling that what actually is at the moment really isn’t good enough, it should be something more “spiritual” or “profound” or “consciousness-altering.” So my mind would automatically (and sneakily) try to alter the actual experience of the feel of Kiri napping on my leg. Once it tried to get rid of any feeling of a boundary between the cat and my leg, to produce what might be a “unitive” experience with the cat. Once it hoped that my mind would shape itself to reflect the way the cat’s mind was functioning at that moment, which I presume would be deeply peaceful since Kiri was napping. Once it wanted to feel some “subtle energy” flowing from me into the cat or visa-versa, etc., etc.
Each time I noticed my mind was subtly trying to do this, I also felt a feeling of thanks to Kiri, my meditation guru for the evening, reminding me that my conscious goal for this session was shamatha without support, being open and clear about what was actually happening on its own, moment to moment, here-and-now, not trying to make my experience into something more “important.”
As his holiness Dudjom Rinpoche wrote in the prayer “Calling The Lama From Afar,”
… When we realize that this unending Natural Mind is the very nature of the Lama,
There is no need for attached and grasping prayers or artificial complaints.
By relaxing in uncontrived Awareness, the free and open natural state,
We obtain the blessing of aimless self-liberation of whatever arises.
Buddhahood is not attained by fabricated Dharmas;
Meditation made by the mind, fabricated by the intellect is the deceiving enemy.
-(Sogyal Rinpoche translation, Rigpa Fellowship practice book)
Homage to my Cat Guru Kiri, reminding me to learn to relax in uncontrived awareness!
And homage and thanks to the Buddha and those who have transmitted his wisdom and methods so that we can learn to be more awake and aware and suffer less!
A final note, lest I be misunderstood. I don’t think that thinking is automatically bad and always a cause of suffering, an impression I seem to get sometimes that this is a major theme in Buddhist teachings (although I’m not a Buddhist scholar and my understanding is only that of a beginning student). But I am quite convinced, through personal experience as well as my training as a psychologist, that a lot of human suffering and negative behavior is not necessary and comes about through uncontrolled, compulsive, runaway thinking and feeling, and that this situation can be greatly improved. (Of course I think for a living and for pleasure, so I may just be a thoughtaholic rationalizing my habit)