“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.” ? Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
Living with a cat, as Eckhart says (as opposed to “owning” her) is an amazing experience. Insights happen almost every day. First of all an entirely new emotional dimension was immediately opened when she first looked up at me with those sad eyes and melted my heart. The first time I observed her moving her little ears in opposite directions, like satellite antennas, I was also intrigued by what might be going on in her little head.
The most apparent aspect of her being is that she is so clearly and obviously “animate” as opposed to my TV or remote control. My cat constantly reminds me of the distinction between Being For-Itself and Being In-Itself in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.”
“Being-in-itself is concrete, lacks the ability to change, and is unaware of itself. Being-for-itself is conscious of its own consciousness but is also incomplete. For Sartre, this undefined, non-determined nature is what defines man. Since the for-itself (like man) lacks a predetermined essence, it is forced to create itself from nothingness. For Sartre, nothingness is the defining characteristic of the for-itself. A tree is a tree and lacks the ability to change or create its being. Man, on the other hand, makes himself by acting in the world. Instead of simply being, as the object-in-itself does, man, as an object-for-itself, must actuate his own being.”
The difference is that clearly my cat is Being For-Itself. There is a lively and intelligent –and intentional consciousness present in her. While I try to resist the impulse to overlay an anthropomorphic interpretations of her behavior, something is clearly going on that is dynamic and, again, intentional. Why intentional?– Because she is always investigating or going somewhere and she has her own point of view.
She hates noise. She loves treats. She extorts treats by sitting on the table and staring at me, knowing that eventually I will give in and provide what she wants. And she can “shake me down” for treats just by sitting on the table on her haunches and staring at me. I gave her treats and she was rubbing me and it occurred to me that she does not see me as “Tom” and perhaps not even as a separate entity. My activity is just part of the changing energy pattern that she experiences without question.
One of the main lessons a cat teaches is that what “you” want is really of no importance. Experiencing this reality day-to-day reminds me constantly of the miracle of life, because there is no accounting for her existence, or my own, in the same way as a rock or any “inanimate” object.
The other clear recognition is that while her world overlaps mine in many ways—I provide her food, clean the litter box and play with her—her experience is so different while it is still so clearly conscious. For example she is tiny and yet she can run at amazing speeds and jump unfathomable heights. Beyond that, those ears are picking up sounds I cannot comprehend, and her nose finds infinite interest in everything within range of her whiskers. I shave my whiskers—she uses hers to see where she can fit.
I also marvel at her good fortune. My cat Eva is easily in the top 1 percent of nonhumans’ lifestyle. She went from a cage in a shelter to having all of her needs provided synergistically by a human who loves her, while her cat cousins forage for food or hunt in jungles. She also exhibits a justified contempt for the human perspective (this might be anthropomorphic overlay); but she may or more often may not respond to my voice, care what I do, or act in ways that I find helpful or logical.
In that way she is a constant reminder that the human perspective is rather arbitrary, and it makes me wonder about the unknown depths of perspective of an elephant, dolphin or whale. Then I think about the hubris of our own conception of humans as the “dominant” species and her contempt seems rather justified.
Perhaps most significant, however, is the recognition, moment to moment, that what “lives” is infinitely more sacred than anything else that we know. It is not just a matter of additional “features” or “attributes” but aliveness itself is a quality that we cannot create – we can only experience.
It’s a helpful reminder of what the Dalai Lama suggests is a powerful meditation –our connection with all life forms. When my cat chooses to rest near me on the bed, and I relax in her company, the peace I feel is palpable. Sometimes when she runs around the house crazily I think I inhabit the wild kingdom but again it is a powerful reminder that we don’t really control very much. It’s like having the natural world as a roommate.