If you like cats—if you are a total fool when it comes to cats, as I am—you will probably make a beeline for them when you see them in the street, and pet them if they’ll let you. But you won’t be upset if they turn their backs on you, stick their tails in the air, and walk off—because that’s how cats are. And if your cat at home makes self-centred demands—as they are wont to do—you probably won’t mind in the least. And they can be quite moody—all over you one minute and ignoring you the next—but you simply won’t mind, because you don’t expect cats to be any other way. So, cat lovers tolerate their cats’ little quirks and foibles with ease and just think: ‘Oh well, that’s cats for you!’
With people, however, it’s different. When people get huffy or are friendly one minute and unfriendly the next, you might feel uneasy about that. Some people like a good fight—it gives them a buzz—but others prefer the quiet life and tread carefully around the feisty one’s so as not to fall victim to their wrath. And as for the really moody ones, well, you might just try to avoid them altogether. Who wants to be the target of someone’s sharp tongue?
Now, a cat lover will tolerate similar behaviour in cats. Why? Why do we treat cats differently from people? The point is, we know that cats don’t know any better and can’t be trained to be otherwise, but we still dote on them. Why? It’s because we don’t take it personally. So if we can do that with cats, can we do it with people? Can we tolerate people in the same way?
Some time ago I became aware of this distinction I had always made between cats and people. I was on retreat in a Buddhist monastery. There were about fifty of us, and people had come from all over the world—some from very hot climates, some from very cold ones, and the British for whom ‘climate’ meant changeable, usually cold. On the first evening, the participants quietly and respectfully gathered in the meditation room and found their places. It was quite cold and practiced retreatants swathed themselves in their favourite meditation shawls to keep warm. Everyone was just about settled and you could have heard a pin drop. The monk leading the retreat was about to enter. Then someone near the back of the hall stood up, deftly opened one of the windows, and niftily sat down again. It was like a dance movement, pleasant to watch. Then someone a couple of rows in front turned and indicated that he was cold and wanted the window closed again. His silent request was, however, ignored! At that moment the monk entered the hall and the meditation began. No one at that point would have had the nerve to stand up and close a window. But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the forthcoming days, a battle developed between these two people, one opening the window just as the session began, and the other glaring at the window-opener and sitting the entire one hour session with a furious countenance, red and angry, for all to see. And it was all in total silence, or at least non-verbally.
In meditation, of course, the point is to observe one’s thoughts and feelings—to impartially take note of what comes into the mind without clinging to it, or letting it go—that’s the technique. That angry person’s meditation on acceptance and freeing oneself from negative states of mind, clearly wasn’t working! And who knows what was going through the window-openers mind! Eventually, however, the staff became involved and the attempt was made to smooth things out.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in retreat situations where lots of people live in close proximity with each other—perhaps sharing a dormitory, sitting in the same place in the meditation room, working together and eating together, day after day. Windows are often a bone of contention in retreat situations. The silence helps, of course, but one can have marvellous disagreements and get very upset in total silence!
What was interesting for me on this particular retreat was that I suddenly saw the very angry person who never seemed to get his own way, as a cat. ‘Funny,’ I thought one day, ‘If he were a cat, I wouldn’t take him so seriously.’ And I felt a wave of benevolence towards him. Only because it’s a person had I found myself being judgemental, labelling him as ‘intolerant’. But then I noticed my own intolerance—towards him!—and wondered why I was being like that. It was then that I thought of my cat! It came to me that if he were a cat meowing for the window to be opened or closed, pawing at it and making demands, I would feel quite differently towards him. That was a turning point for me—the whole situation looked different in that moment.
I’ve since occasionally used that association as a skilful means—just seeing a person as a cat and not being turned off by their antics or taking them so seriously. Not everyone will understand this, but if you’re a genuine cat lover you’ll know what I mean.
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