Reciprocity and the Union with Other
My friend Dana asked me why cats have made such a difference in my life in the past few years. “Why now and not before?”
I have always loved cats, kept cats, rescued cats. But something about the relationship changed fundamentally when I started studying them with the goal of true understanding. But when Dana asked the question, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why that changed ME so much. Why does understanding cats change my ability to get on an airplane, or have a relationship with my father? The two things seem so unrelated.
Then I read some of Mark Beckoff’s perspective on his study of animals. He explained that when he was studying coyotes, he learned to see the world through their eyes. He experiences this kind of immersion with the world of each animal that he studies. Now, Mark Beckoff is a famous ethologist and he didn’t mention anything directly relating to a transcendent event during his studies, but I wonder if this study of animals isn’t almost like a shamanic journey for the mystically challenged.
I have been told of profoundly moving mental and spiritual shamanic journeys that people have had with horses, bears and wild cats. Their souls journeying in unity with their spirit animal. This is a powerful tradition in many of the spiritual medicines of ‘first peoples’. I have tiptoed into this world, nervous and skeptical, but never fully understood it.
Most profound spiritual experiences involve a sense of merging with other. Whether its God or the earth or a community of people, or a releasing of the mind through meditation or prayer, there is a release from self that happens, an expansion into Other.
Perhaps on a less mystical level, the experience of working to view the world through the eyes of another animal—the investigation, understanding and love of another species allows a transformation within a person similar to spiritual transformation, but more empirical.
Interestingly, during my interviews with one of the inmates at Indiana State Prison, James Stone said to me, “Some people come here and find Islam, some find Baptism, and some of us find cats.” I don’t think he was defining cats as a sort of religion, but rather a transformative experience equal to the religious kind that happens for some—a different way of finding union with Other.
Why do the men in prison have such a profound relationship with their cats? First of all, there is little that is casual about prison—thus their relationships with their cats are not casual. Secondly, they spend an incredible amount of time with their cats. I found that most of them had instinctively responded to their cats needs, setting up their cells as though they had all been advised by a cat behaviorist. With little else to do or focus on, they have become keen observers of the cat. Perhaps without deliberate intention, they had experienced the kind of immersion that Mark Beckoff experiences when he studies a species.
During one of my interviews at Best Friends with the director of Humane Education there, she mentioned “Reciprocity” as crucial to the rehabilitative relationship. “The danger in recognizing the healing abilities of animals—in accepting that they can help rehabilitate people, is that it will become just another way that humans use animals. For the relationship to be truly healing, it has to be reciprocal, benefiting the animal as well as the human.” I think this has been crucial to my own experience as well, by coming to understand cats better, I have been better able to serve them. Improving their lives has contributed to my sense of opening, release from self-obsession and the ability to accept the gifts of joy that cats have brought to my life.
Another inmate at Indiana State Prison spoke vehemently, “There are so many guys in prison here that would do anything for their cats. there are guys in prisons all over the country that would benefit from a program like this, and yet they aren’t allowed to take care of cats, while at the same time there are millions of cats being killed every year because no one wants them. It seems like we should be able to help each other—many of those cats could be taken care of and loved.” Sitting in his cell, just two floors beneath the death row inmates, it was clear that the realities of death row were quite prescient to him—whether it be death row for humans or death row at any of the many shelters around the country. This man clearly recognized the significance of the reciprocity of the rehabilitative relationship.
Preview of Coming Attractions
Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.