In order to deal with difficulties during meditation - and daily living – certain perspectives and attitudes can be quite helpful. I was reminded of this again a number of years ago when I encountered the cat’s meow.

As meditators, we are encouraged to practice skillful ways of responding to whatever physical and mental challenges arise during the meditation sitting. Our two cats – Thelma and Louise – have created both types of challenges for me.

When I began to meditate – to “sit” - I did it in our family room in the basement, which has no door to the entrance. This suited our cats who are quite friendly. They like to cuddle up, and occasionally would do this during my daily sitting. At first, I tried to ignore them because meditators are encouraged to turn away from thinking about – from dwelling upon - any “disturbance”. But, when I asked a Buddhist monk living in The Glebe about this, he recommended that I find a more solitary spot to sit. So, I switched to my den which does have a door. I dealt with the physical disturbance from the cats.

Thelma and Louise have two wishes in the morning - to be fed and to be let outside - BEFORE I begin my morning sitting, thank you. One morning after feeding them and mistakenly letting only Louise outside, I was calmly sitting on my meditation bench when Thelma began to meow just outside the door to the den. She couldn’t see me, but she KNEW I was in there. And she wanted to be let out. Right away, please. I briefly considered disrupting my sitting, and letting her out. But, then I thought “No, then she’d feel that she could interrupt my sitting any time she wanted to”. So, I set aside the physical remedy – letting her out – and chose to pursue the mental remedy – not letting her meows bother me.

One of the difficulties that meditators are taught to deal with are sounds that arise during their sitting. If kids are playing in the street and “making noise”, we’re encouraged to not think about that sound – not analyze it, or judge it as pleasant or unpleasant. Just experience the event as sound – something vibrating somewhere – and return to our chosen focus of attention, such as our breath. But, this wasn’t just ANY sound. It was directed at me personally. Thelma wanted me to “do something”. Every time she uttered her meow, I felt a slight tension – irritation - in my body. I was experiencing the feeling of “unpleasantness”.

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed by John Kabatt-Zinn encourages us to cultivate several useful perspectives and attitudes to maintain our mindfulness and deal with stress. One perspective is to include ALL aspects of any stressful situation before choosing how to deal with it – to adopt a “systems” approach. A second perspective is to pay more attention to the enjoyable parts of life, to the extent to which our “cup of life” is full. And, one of the cultivated attitudes is patience.

What I was experiencing was a pattern of meows interspersed with silence. While the meows were unpleasant, the silences were quite pleasant by comparison. So, I switched my attention from the meows to the silences between each meow. When Thelma meowed, I labelled the sound in my mind as “temporary, temporary”. When the pause arrived, I thought “pleasant, pleasant”. With this strategy, the situation became quite manageable. While I WAS engaged in a bit of labelling and thinking – a meditator’s “no-no” - I had almost eliminated the stress in this situation. And, not only could I “carry on and meditate”, I had not allowed Thelma to establish a precedent by interrupting my sitting. When the clock chimes sounded the end of the sitting twenty minutes later, I immediately responded to Thelma’s plea. I believe we’re still friends.

Mindfulness teaches us that it’s not the stressful situation that’s important but how we respond to it. We have a choice. We can continue our largely automatic reactions that close our heart and lead to self-induced tension – to stress – and thereby strengthen an unhealthy habit. Or we can choose a response which is more wholesome and doesn’t create discomfort. Why would we want to continue the stressful path when we don’t have to? We only have one life to live. Why not spend it as stress-free – as enjoyable - as possible?

Peter Black
Instructor: Meditation and Mindfulness

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