It is sometimes difficult to meditate when you share a house with cats. I am sitting, trying to be mindful of my breath, of what is happening in this moment, of sounds and sensations, of thoughts passing through my mind, and I become aware of it. The soft patter of paws approaching. The purr begins. The weight of a small animal climbing into my lap. The sensation of a cat face pushing against my hands. Human, your attention will be upon me, now.
Like most animals, cats are perpetually in the moment. They spend little time in planning ahead (unless you subscribe to the theory that they are constantly plotting something nefarious, which their narrowed eyes often seem to imply) or dwelling on the past. For the most part, the present moment occupies them fully.
Humans, on the other hand, are constantly obsessing on what we have done and what we are going to do. We burn through our day on autopilot, getting things done and anticipating what to do next. We “multitask”, which psychological tests have proven is actually a frantic toggling of focus between several objects of our attention one moment at a time. At the end of the day we collapse into bed and inventory what we did, how well we did it, and make our list for tomorrow. Or we distract our poor frazzled brains with a book, video, or game. And still, while we watch, play or read, thoughts about what we did and what we need to do intrude, like a cat insistently crawling into our laps and nudging our hands.
I set aside time each day for meditation, at least half an hour, more if I can manage it. I sit and let my breath keep me in the present moment, quietly aware. The thoughts and plans, ideas and worries, come parading into my mind because that’s what human minds do. Busy, busy, busy. But instead of hopping onto these trains of thought and letting them carry me away, I just wave to them as they leave the station. More trains come. Some are happy trains, brightly colored, full of excitement and interest. Some are pretty awful, blowing dark smoke, hauling cargoes of guilt, worry and fear. I let them all go.
The demands and obligations of my life require that I pay attention most of the time. I’ve got to plan, got to evaluate what happened, figure out what to do next, just like everybody else. But meditation, and the habits of mind it encourages, gives my brain and emotions a break. It refreshes my spirit and provides perspective. When I was sick with depression, I couldn’t keep myself anchored in the station; one of those dark trains with its load of anxiety would arrive, pull me on board, and off I’d go. The more I rode them, the worse I got. It exhausted me to tears, because the damn trains never seemed to reach a destination. The problems were never solved, the mournful whistles just kept on blowing as the train rumbled on into the night.
I’m better at choosing the trains I ride, now. Better at climbing aboard the ones that actually take me somewhere useful and interesting. Better at sizing up ones that go nowhere, flashing the conductor a smile, and shaking my head no thank you.
In less metaphorical words, here I am, going into week six of the MBCT therapy course, and I can say with certainty that it’s working. I’ve put myself back together and the glue seems to be holding. So, cats willing, I’ll continue the practice and gradually begin reintegrating myself into the pressures of living that I’d put aside to devote my energy to healing.
For the geeks, here’s a link to an article on what MBCT is, how it works, and why it’s being studied as a possible answer to patients with long-term, treatment-resistant depression. For the less geeky, the gist is this: Mindfulness meditation helps people recognize when their mood is beginning to plummet, and to focus on their present experience rather than on fears of the future or reliving past negative episodes. In one randomized clinical trial, MBCT cut the relapse rate in half for people with recurrent episodes of depression. In another randomized clinical trial published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, people with recurrent depression who participated in an eight-week group course of MBCT were significantly less likely to become depressed again than people who continued on antidepressants without therapy. During the study, people in the mindfulness group reported greater physical well-being and enjoyment in daily life, and 75% were able to discontinue their antidepressant medication.