zen and the kitty litter box

A few weeks ago, a little kitty that needed a home came into my life and things have changed dramatically, mostly for the better.  I’d like to begin this story by telling you a bit about my history with cats.  When I was young, my family adopted a stray cat which we named George, only to find out it was a female after it gave birth to a litter of kittens.  It was during that short time I realized that I was very allergic to cats.  I sneezed, itched, and suffered from asthma attacks so I learned to keep as far away as possible from cats for about the next twenty years.  When I lived in my old farmhouse with the big barn, I decided to adopt a couple of feral cats to live in the barn to help with pest control.  The two kitties shortly became one (one ran away) and I couldn’t bear the thought of the poor thing staying outside year round all by itself so I relented to my daughter’s plea to let it come in the house at night and she would keep it in her room.  Kitty quickly went from having access to one room to having access to the entire house.  I kept my distance but started to relax around her when I realized I wasn’t having any allergic reactions.  We never had a litter box, kitty did her business outside where she spent most of the day.  That cat now lives with my daughter, and when she left my home, I noticed an empty space in my heart.

After leaving our farmhouse, we moved to a city apartment and the kitty became an indoor cat for the first time in her twelve years.  She acclimated very well to indoor living and began using a litter box.  I didn’t take to the whole thing quite as well.  I found cleaning the litter box to be as repulsive a task as any I’ve ever encountered.  The box was a never ending battle of smell and messes and the trail of litter went everywhere.  I decided to manage the situation by placing the box in a location that wasn’t visible and ignoring it as long as possible.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  I am thankful that kitty was so tolerant of our negligence.  When my daughter took kitty to live with her, I was happy to see the litter box go.  I felt better knowing that I wouldn’t have to think about that task anymore.  During the next few years, if I thought about getting another cat, I would think about the litter box and immediately change my mind.  Having a cat wasn’t worth having to deal with that.

Last month, Oliver came into my life and with him came a litter box.  I almost instantly fell in love with the little orange tabby with the long striped, bushy tail.  There was something about him to which I was drawn.  I was nervous when he arrived at my house.  I couldn’t relax.  I didn’t know what to do with him, after all, I’m not a cat person.  I am still allergic to cats and knew that I wouldn’t be able to give him lots of physical attention.  I was afraid he would pee in the house.  I heard that male cats sometimes do that and everything I read on-line seemed to validate that fear.  I worried that he would hurt my dogs with his sharp claws.  I lost more than a few nights of sleep.  I thought about the litter box chore and determined it was time for me to get over my aversion to it, that he was worth it.  Then I found out Oliver was sick.  He was infested with worms and a bad eye infection.  I had to become his nurse, a task I wasn’t sure I was up to.  I would have to touch him.  The vet coached me on how to administer the liquid medicine and the eye drops.  Oliver patiently let me handle him and took the medicine graciously.  He made it easier for me.  I told him I appreciated that.  I fell a little more in love.

Almost four weeks have passed since Oliver came to live with me.  I am more relaxed about having him in the house and have adopted a Zen mindset about the litter box.  Have you ever seen one of those Zen gardens, the ones with the sand and rocks with the little rake to make tranquil patterns in the sand?  That is what I see when I clean the litter box. When I go to the box, I fully commit myself to the experience and am mindful of the moment.  I don’t judge the task good or bad.  I rake through the litter, scoop out the messes, and then rake the litter back to tranquility.  I stay with the task until I feel that the box looks clean and tidy, then I sweep the floor around it.  When I am done, I feel more at peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, “Whatever the tasks, do them slowly and with ease, in mindfulness.  Don’t do any task in order to get it over with.  Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention.  Enjoy and be one with your work.  Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all.  The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.  Take the example of the Zen Masters.  No matter what task or motion they undertake, they do it slowly and evenly, without reluctance.”

Think about all the tasks that you do during your day when your attention is somewhere else.  What are you missing by not being there?   Notice your emotions.  Are you at peace or do you feel irritation or impatience?  Being mindful of the moment brings you to a place of peace and acceptance.  It feels almost surreal.

Try some Zen practice this week.  Start with any task and while you are doing it, notice each moment.  If your thoughts begin to take over, gently bring them back to the task and the moment.  You may only be able to remain present for seconds at a time at first, but if you continue to practice, you will notice that you are able to remain mindful for longer periods of time.  I no longer dread the litter box.  I have incorporated it into my daily routine and when it is time, I commit myself fully to the experience.  I could not have imagined being able to do that a couple of months ago and I have Oliver thank for giving me the opportunity to practice this lesson.

Yours in the mindfulness,



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