My wife and I have a pet cat called Geoffrey. We have got to know him quite well – his eating, relaxing, communication, play, and so on. Animals live on an entirely natural level and I realise it would be a mistake to attribute human emotions to them. But is there anything we can learn from our pets about the deeper side of life? Any thing about them that points us to an ideal way of human living?
Contentment in our pet
We often see Geoffrey lying on his side with his paws stretched out in front of him, with a sleepy look on his face and with half closed eyes. Very different from a cat who swishes its tail, has ruffled-up fur or is heard hissing. Sometimes he may roll over on to his side to show his tummy, communicating that he feels relaxed enough to expose such a vulnerable area.
Sometimes I wish I could be as relaxed as our pet and delight in simple pleasures. He doesn’t put himself under unnecessary stress. If a dog barked at him, which happens occasionally, he shows no after-effects. Unlike us e.g. who, when shouted at by an angry car driver, would likely be a bit tense for a while afterwards.
Anyone who has tried to meditate will realise that the mind is restless. Inwardly we jump from one worry to the next, one guilty secret to another. Inwardly chattering away, the mind has a mind of its own, creating unnecessary emotions like anxiety, anger or gloominess. Our cat is showing us the importance of stilling and calming the mind. You can learn to do this, if you don’t do so already, by creating space in your day for quiet reflection, meditation or prayer.
Awareness in our pet
If we change the furniture round in our home or introduce any sort of change outdoors, Geoffrey soon looks into every nook and cranny. Our neighbour once saw him exploring over 40 feet up the trunk of a high tree. They say ‘curiosity killed the cat’ but ours is still alive and well.
I wonder if we are sufficiently willing to explore what is really going on around us. Are you awake to the ‘here and now’ rather than focusing on automatic habits of thought?
“The past is history,
The future is mystery,
This moment is a gift.
Which is why it is called ‘the present’. “
(By an unknown poet)
Are you sufficiently curious about what others think so as to become a better listener? People convey an enormous amount of information about themselves through subtle movements and tones of voice.
Do you notice things of beauty in what is going on around you? A child playing, moonlight shimmering on the water, a tree swaying in the wind. Are you fully aware of your physical and social surroundings and want to investigate them?
Independence in our pet
You can’t herd cats. Like all of them, Geoffrey shows independence. He is quite happy to spend time on his own each day. He responds to enticement rather than ordering around. A clicking of the fingers and verbal encouragement can get his attention and interest in coming over to me. But unlike a trained dog ordered to ‘heel’, he won’t do as he is told.
A quality of independence is something one needs in order to be a spiritual thinker in the face of materialistic society. Without individual reflection and perception, how can one rise above the social pressures of the crowd.
Non-aggression in our pet
Another quality in our pet cat is non-aggression. The public walk their dogs off the lead along the woodland public right of way that goes right through our garden. Geoffrey has learned to watch carefully. He is quick to avoid danger of being chased. He runs away or climbs a tree when he sees a threat. Only when cornered by a barking dog will he flatten his ears and hiss as a warning to stay back. He could cause painful injury lashing out with his sharp claws but most cats only attack defensively as a last resort in such a situation.
Some of us have a tendency to show hostility to others after little provocation. It is as if we believe ‘attack is the best form of defense.’ Instead, shouldn’t we adopt a more socially acceptable form of non-aggressive behaviour to assert what we think is right and stick up for ourselves?
Friendliness in our pet
Geoffrey is our only pet and so we are the only social group he has. He likes to come to us for a fuss, perhaps a stroke or grooming or be allowed to lie on our laps. He purrs and sometimes tries to lick us at these times. So we get companionship and affection from him. When we are in the garden we often find him near by. There is a quarter of a mile walk along a woodland path from our home to get to where our car is parked and he invariably walks with us and stays waiting until we return sometimes several hours later. Then he greets us with a meow with tail up, pleased to see us again, sometimes rubbing his head against our legs.
Some of us are naturally more friendly and agreeable. Others of us are distant and less communicative. But I believe what our pet’s expression of affection suggests is the possible ideal of loving kindness. This is the feeling praised by all the world’s main spiritual and religious traditions.
The lesson here is not just expressing feeling – although that is important – but us having a generosity of spirit, being agreeable, kind, patient, tolerant, considerate and forgiving and even compassionate.
“Earth’s living creatures correspond to affections, the mild and useful ones to good affections, the fierce and useless ones to evil affections” (Emanuel Swedenborg mystical philosopher)
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems