Audio of a talk I recorded, based on this essay.
Black is the color of my roof, where I now do my daily meditation. It is said to be the absence of color; the state of vision where no light reaches the eye. Well, apart from the absurdity of speaking about vision without light, we all know better from experience.
The dark-adapted eye can see a single photon; and in our ordinary experience, you’ve always got a few photons around, no matter how dark our surroundings. A practice I have often recommended is to turn off every light in the house and sit at night in a closet with a tight-fitting door. Just sit there awhile with your eyes open and see what happens. Then, leave the closet, go to a mirror, and look at the pupils of your eyes. Note their size and color.
Until a few months ago, black was the color of life and love to me: the fur of my old friend Night the cat. It glistened; it received and returned light without effort or display. Black, for me, was not just beautiful (as the old 60′s expression goes); it was beauty. It was one of the small, scarcely noticeable lessons Night taught me; perhaps it is no random coincidence that I seek her out again on the black tarpaper of the roof.
For 13 years, she taught me, when she was a cat. And now — when her cat-body sits as a pile of ash inside a black plastic container on my bookshelf — now she teaches me still. Her vision is now broader; her language more diverse. She can speak to me in the language I know and recognize; or she can touch me with a wordless light whose intimacy and immediacy are of a realm that knows neither time nor thought. She’s become a more effective teacher; so I must become a more attentive student.
I am well aware of the seeming nonsense, even the idiocy, of talking and writing about such an experience: learning lessons from a dead cat and pretending to record them here (thus the new name of this site). It is a goofy hallucination that doesn’t make sense at any level of logic and intellect. And this is precisely why it makes so much sense to me. As I will explain below, it doesn’t even have to make sense; perhaps it is better off as lunacy. For the moon (“luna-”) dwells in the blackness of space (as do we and our planet). Watts used to love telling the story of the astronaut who returned from space and was asked if he had seen God. “Yes,” he answered, “and she is black.” Just like my old friend and new leader, Night.
The notion of animal guides or “familiars,” as they are sometimes called, is by no means new or unique. I have been gifted with this specific guide (Night), where others tend to find the generic (wolf, bear, tiger, dolphin, etc.). This is fine for me, since I would not consider myself a shaman any more than I’d claim to be a cat. Nevertheless…
I had an interesting meditation experience out on the roof one day. I felt myself growing black, pointed ears; and some presence entered me — calm, unpretentious, centered, loving. Cats have long been models, exemplars for me in the practice of meditation: the way they sit; how they can fill a space with Presence; their utter absence of ambition; their often sublime sense of humor. These are hallmarks of a successful practice.
Alan Watts was once criticized by some orthodox-style Zen practitioners for not sitting long enough or intensely enough or painfully enough. He responded: “I sit like a cat, for as long as is right. Then I get up and stretch.” Now that’s trusting your animal guide.
Meditation is purposeless action that always serves a purpose; we just never quite know which one. Therefore, it makes sense to let go of expectation and ambition in our practice. The animals already do this without having to even be conscious of doing it. If you can receive no other teaching from an animal guide than this, you will have done remarkably well.
I listen to Night for her ability to remind me where my center lies. In her life here with me, she knew me better than any living creature did. She read my emotions before even I was aware of them; this is a distinctly animal sense which, if we would only stop repressing it, we would enjoy in the same abundance. So now she can hold me back or push me forward; restrain me or release me depending on my presence in that moment. There have been several times these past 3 months when I needed to call on her, usually to overcome fear. Last month, as I was being prepped for surgery, I asked for her help, and it was there. Fear, she has taught me, is absolutely helpless against love; it’s a worse mismatch than last year’s Super Bowl. When love is present, fear gets trounced. And that cat, in her life here and in her life beyond, has always had a capacity for love that is humbling to contemplate.
We humans have an ambivalent relationship with animals, probably because we have a similarly conflicted relationship with ourselves as animals. The arrogance of our spiritual traditions is the root of this weed — see, for instance, Genesis 1:26-28, in which we are not merely encouraged but commanded to “have dominion” over all those creepy, crawly, furry things of Nature that are so far below us in the eye of God.
Nevertheless, in the same Bible as that containing the most violent arrogance ever imputed to a God and his human creation, we find this (from the Preacher of Ecclesiastes):
As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
The Eastern and so-called Pagan traditions have shown a sense of humility similar to that of the Preacher. Lao Tzu mentions that the Tao loves and nurtures all creatures equally, but never plays the boss to them. Still, and to this day, the violence against animals persists in every culture. The Japanese kill the whales and the dolphins; the Chinese (who have no animal cruelty laws of any kind) are infamous for their fur farms and routine executions of dogs; poachers from many nations are slaughtering African elephants; and America leads the world in the depredations of the factory farm, which, incidentally, is a prominent cause of climate change.
In short, and no matter what our tribal spiritual or moral teachings may tell us, we commonly treat the creatures of Nature (including those of our own species, of course) with a brazen cruelty that is borne of pure ignorance. I draw a straight line from this behavior and this ignorance to the repression or denial of our own animal nature. That is to say, rather than receive and reflect our own light, we enshroud it in a forced and artificial darkness.
The good news (the meaning of the word “gospel”) is that each of us — whether we be carnivore or vegan; Christian or Buddhist; atheist or pagan — can choose a different way than the one of darkness. Discovering an animal guide may be part of that choice, and it doesn’t much matter how you go about it. Meditate; draw some pictures; look through some books or draw upon some memories; write or read animal stories; or just look around your own world and let your familiar approach your life.
I’ve been lucky, even amid my mourning (which, after three months, continues). Night was, even in this life here, a being of such pure and complete psycho-spiritual maturity that she transited directly into the cosmic consciousness, virtually from the moment she rested her head against my arm and let go. In that very moment she gave me her first lesson from that other side: that death and regeneration represent a process that happens not at some randomly-determined second at the end of a course of physical existence. It happens in every moment; it is happening now. The more we open ourselves to now, to exactly where, when, and who we are — the more the heavens open; the Mysteries all dissolve before us; and the joy-drunk wonder of being absorbs and completes us.
Now this does not mean that we walk around like kumbaya-singing zombies; that is a caricature of the New Age, which frankly is frequently deserved. It only means that we not take our lives (or our deaths) quite so seriously; that we play the game of struggle, suffering, loss, pain, and grief with some consciousness, however subliminal, of its essence as illusion, play. When we live according to the truth of direct experience, we can play with our conceptions of that experience.
And so I pretend to teach this nonsense about animal familiars and my own ongoing experience with one. Many people having such an experience would want you to believe in it; to receive the conceptualization and verbalization of it as truth. But I know that anything I can tell you about my experience with and of Night is nonsense. It has to be; again, Lao Tzu: “how could the Tao be Tao if it didn’t make people laugh?” Our very efforts to express the deepest truths, the most intimate feelings within us, mock their very purpose. This is when we learn to retreat into silence or burst into hysterics: either response is appropriate.
If I were to try to believe, then I would be compelled to make you believe; this is the first seed of conflict. Night doesn’t ask me to believe; only to be present, to be ready and open for the next experience, our next encounter. She gave me so much, so freely and continually, during her life with me here — it would be both foolish and ungrateful of me to ignore her. Thus, I keep feeling for her presence, and I keep listening. And, like that single photon in the darkness, she finds her way through — helping, leading, guiding. I am a very fortunate old man.