Meditation teachers will tell you to find a room and shut your animals out before you sit down to meditate. Too much distraction, they say. You should concentrate on yourself, they say.
I often wonder if those teachers have any pets. Because if you shut a dog out of a room, that’s the only room they want to be in. They scratch at the door, whine, and bark. There’s absolutely no way to meditate with that noise, even if you were so heartless as to keep that door closed when your beloved canine just wants to be with you.
But I’ve had dogs for my entire life. I know what to do when I sit down on my cushion and my little brown-eyed, waggy-tailed wonder comes over for a pat: I pat them, of course. And then I say, “Settle down. Settle down, now.” That’s one of the few commands my little spaniel actually obeys. It helps that she’s a grown up dog and I’ve had her for 9 years.
Cats, on the other hand, do not respond to commands. I’ve lived with this one for a year, and though she’s shy, she’s determined when she wants what my British husband calls “a fuss.” She meows and rubs against my knee, my foot. She flops down on her back and rolls on the carpet, wanting her neck scratched—though not her stomach, not for more than 3 scratches before she gives me a gentle bite to let me know to redirect my attention.
This is my meditation time. I need this meditation to get my head straight, to push loss and worry to the background and exist, for this time, in the present. The present is beautiful and comfortable, with the sun coming through the bedroom window and the lingering smell of my husband’s deodorant and, of course, my two beloved pets adding their contentment to the energy of the room.
I sit cross-legged on my cushion, which a friend gave to me and is just the right height. The dog lies down behind me with a sigh. The cat pushes against my hands, so I fuss her for a minute. I can afford a little time before meditating, and studies show that touching a pet animal lowers blood pressure and contributes in other significant ways to a feeling of calm.
Then I deliberately put my hands on my knees, and close my eyes. I take a deep breath in, centering my attention on the breath, the feel of it going in my throat and expanding my lungs. (Most practitioners feel it going in through the nostrils, but I haven’t been able to breathe regularly through my nose since the 4th grade because of allergies.) I exhale slowly, and—
there’s the cat again. She rubs against my knee and flops down across my bare foot, tickling it. I open my eyes. She’s staring up at me, little white paws drawn up under her chin, in a classic “Aren’t I cute?” pose. I scratch under her chin and on the back of her neck, which is hard to reach but actually where she wants me to scratch. She purrs loudly and squirms around on the floor. My back complains at curling forward, so I straighten up, tucking my chin, lengthening my spine, and close my eyes.
I focus on my breath. In, out. I notice the cat walking away. Good. My mind starts to do that meditation dance, thinking of what I have to do after this (write, get my hair cut, walk the dog, plan the trip out of town next month, figure out a new life plan…) and then, when I notice myself thinking, I gently bring my mind back to focus on my breath. In, out. In, out. And then the dance starts again, replaying a memory jarred loose by my dream last night about clovers, so vivid I get caught up in it until I notice I’m caught in the memory and—
paws on my knee and very loud purring. I open my eyes to a curious, innocent little cat face wondering why I am not fussing her. Why else would I be sitting on the floor?
There’s nothing for it. Today, the cat is part of the meditation. The dance, usually between my thinking mind (“monkey mind” in Buddhist terms) and my observing mind, is, today, between the “fussing the cat” mind and my observing mind. It’s…different from my usual meditation. But maybe it can work. There’s not one single way to meditate. You can’t do it wrong. And the cat gets a lot out of it.