Meditating… with Kittens!

Sumi Loundon Kim, author of “Why I Quit Facebook” (from our July magazine) starts your week with a lighthearted moment, reflecting on two surprising little dharma teachers who’ve come into her life.

One of Sumi's two kittens. See below to see the two together.

Kittens, like children, alternate between being little monsters of destruction and adorable bundles of cuteness. In one moment our two kittens can be tearing around the house, knocking down ornaments from the Christmas tree or clawing their way up curtains. In the next, they can be cuddling up on my chest, begging for love, and purring their warmth into my heart. Thus, in one moment I am irritated as all hell and regretting we ever adopted these damn cats for our children, and in the next I am a puddle of gushy coos. But the greatest test of finding equanimity with these demon-angels has come during my daily meditation.

Every day, around 2:00pm, I sit for about 20 minutes, trying to follow my breath and watching my mind. This is also the hour that the most sunlight comes into our basement apartment, primarily into the living room area, which I am especially attached to during the dark months of winter.

We brought the tiny kittens into our home in early September. The kids just loved them, but the kittens were a headache. Because they were so small, at first we had to keep them contained to the living room area, which meant the litter box was there, too. Every afternoon I would begin meditating – “ah, a moment of peace” – only to hear scritch-scritch-scritch, as the kitten pawed at the litter. Then, an unbelievable stinky poop smell would drill up into my nostrils. I would make a great effort to simply note the experience (as Burmese meditation teacher Mahasi Sayadaw instructed), “smelling, smelling.” And then note the feeling, “unpleasant, unpleasant.” But the power of my mind is weak, and within minutes I was muttering and cursing and trying to find another place to meditate, which meant having to abandon the sliver of sunlight that was my daily pleasure. Damn cats.

I should have considered it a blessing that the kittens actually used the litter box, for one afternoon I noticed that the gray kitten was sniffing around on my meditation mat. What is she doing, I wondered? After scratching and meowing a bit, she stopped, turned around, and went to the bathroom right on my meditation cushion! I looked up to the heavens and wailed to the Universe, “Are you sending me a message?”

Other times, the kittens would believe that my body was their plaything. As I sat, suddenly I would feel them pouncing at my fingers, as if my fingers were some kind of bug or mouse. They would even try to nibble them. This would be much more adorable if it weren’t for the fact that their teeth and claws are razor sharp. Other times they would try to climb me, leaving scratches on my arms. But I forgave them when, during one meditation, I saw the gray kitten staring intently at my shirt. Her eyes were darting over the belly area and I feared she was going to lunge at me. Then I looked down. There, crawling across my shirt, was a spider! I gently removed the spider and then set it on the floor. I briefly considered the ethics of this act: by putting the spider there, the kitten would surely kill it. Was I breaking the first precept by not putting the spider in a safe place? As I sat debating my karma, indeed, the kitten did swat it, smush it, and then eat it up. Poor spider.

At some point, I began to see that the way I related to these irritating kittens was really my problem. They are just being kittens, just as my squabbly kids are just being kids, and the rude car driver is being the rude car driver, and the self-involved friend is being the self-involved friend. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, so why should these kittens and people bother me so much? I am already in a bothered frame of mind. Thus, the kittens have become a mirror for seeing my own mind, for seeing how it is that I am relating to the world around me. Now, when I wake up and the cats are meowing crazily at me for food when I have not yet even dressed and I think, “Shut up you stupid cats,” I think, “Sumi is grumpy today.” Really, there is nothing in the world we can blame for our state of mind: it is our responsibility.

As the kittens have grown and settled down a little, we have found a somewhat more calm way of being together during meditation time. They allow me to meditate in the sunlight, and they will find their own slice of light to curl up and nap in. During meditation, they nap – and sometimes I nap, too. We are making our peace.

Yesterday, as I began meditating, the gray kitten approached me with a quiet meow. She tried to climb onto my lap. I lifted her up with great tenderness and she put her paws on my shoulders, her fuzzy head near my cheek. I petted her mindfully, feeling my breathing and her purring meeting together. And then I put her down gently, as gently as could be, and continued meditating. She joined her sister on the couch for a nap.

Who knew that cats could be effective dharma teachers? I bow to my kittens for what I’ve learned from them. Meanwhile, I’ve moved their litter box to the bathroom.

A version of this story was previously published by Pubpo Shinmun.