Thursday, March 4, 2010

Zen and the Art of Cleaning out Litter Boxes


Originally, this post was intended for my 'Freyashawk's Cats' page but I began to feel that it was far too academic to be posted there.

'Zen' is an Eastern philosophical concept that attained great popularity in the West after the publication of a book entitled 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'.
The book was published in 1974, at a point in Western culture where popular psychology still was infused with the examples of numerous famous figures thronging to the East to search for answers that they had not bothered to explore in the roots of their own civilisation. Such disparate figures as Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and the Beatles were among the pilgrims who sought enlightenment in Asia.

It is far from my intention to cast aspersions upon Eastern philosophies but rather to note that the same conclusions HAVE been found in the West at different points in Western history. As is often the case, however, that which is 'strange' or 'unknown' holds far more glamour to us and has more power to seduce. My own philosophy of existence is founded upon the belief that there are many different roads that lead to the same destination of 'enlightenment' or 'Heaven'. In fact, having spent time in India studying Eastern philosophy, both Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell came to the same conclusion and were able to trace Eastern tenets of religion and philosophy back through civilisations and time to find their roots everywhere on this planet.

Why do I feel impelled to defend Western culture when, in so many different ways, it has shown itself to be bankrupt at this point in time? However corrupted and however infested with viruses and 'worms', it nonetheless contains the same kernels of Truth and Beauty that inspired the construction of extraordinary bridges, viaducts, temples and amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire and magnificent Cathedrals, Churches and Palaces throughout Europe. It is the heart of Western civilisation that throbs at the centre of all immortal Western art, whether in paintings, mosaics, poetry, theatre, film or any other mode of artistic expression known to humanity.

Ultimately, there can be no real boundaries between 'East' and 'West' in any case. As far back as prehistory, human beings traded and borrowed and learned from alien cultures. Nonetheless, it is inappropriate and self-defeating for those of us who have inherited the mantle of Western civilisation by virtue of blood and heritage to allow ANY ONE to persuade us that our culture is inferior or somehow tainted. We owe nothing to any one. We cannot be held responsible for putative crimes attributed to our ancestors when in fact whatever crimes may or may not have been committed by these ancestors never were limited to one race or culture or nation.
Enough said.

'Zen' may be an Eastern word but it is not an Eastern concept. It was known and embraced by Christian 'orders' from the inception of Christianity as a religion. Communication and prayer through actions and meditation through ordinary service is part of the foundation of the philosophy of Christian orders of monks and nuns. As usual, however, few truly understand the roots of their own religions, nor do they think about the philosophy that underlies their rituals. People often go to Church or Mosque in order to perform a social obligation far more than to communicate with the Divine.

A friend recently asked me why I would wish to load more duties and work upon myself by having pets when I barely can take care of the necessities demanded by my own life. I searched my soul and found that the answer to this question is: Love and Service.

It often is when we serve others that we come closest to comprehension of the Nature of the Divine. Love is not slavery but service definitely is a component of true Love and that perhaps is why the love of a parent for a child is the purest form of Love. When a human being adopts a Pet, whether it is a Fish or a Chinchilla or a Cat, that human being is 'in loco parentis' to that creature and completely controls its welfare. That sort of responsibility demands a higher degree of Love and Service than any relationship between 'equals' where one party is free to repudiate the relationship or neglect the other person without exercising the power of life and death over him/her. Neglecting or repudiating a Pet, on the other hand, could result in the death of that creature in the same way that neglecting a human child can result in the Death of that child.

When people contemplate possible adoption of a Cat, they think usually of the animal's beauty, sense of mischief and affection. Cats ARE extremely beautiful, intelligent and loving. They have a marvelous sense of curiosity and mischief. Natural hunters, they are possessed of extraordinary grace and agility, making almost movement a delight to watch. They are very clean creatures by nature, grooming themselves when healthy to maintain a beautiful appearance and whenever possible, they will participate in any programme to keep their environment clean. This is why a Cat can be taught easily to use a litter box.

Yet, a Cat cannot clean out a litter box, nor can he/she dispose of the contents. That is where human service is necessary. Many people opt for mechanical litter boxes now that perform most of the labour of keeping the box clean. The ultimate disposal of the contents still is necessary but mechanical devices do much of the daily labour.

A few years ago, I was asked to draw a picture of my own ideal vision of myself and my home for a group project. As I would have done as a child, I drew a picture of a princess with her cat in a castle. I created a wonderful medieval bow window with exquisite windowseat for the cat, but rather than sitting there with my beloved pet, I drew the Princess with a sifting tool in hand, gracefully cleaning out the cat's rather elegant litter box. It was partly intended as humour but there was more than a grain of truth in the vision.

I am not a person who revels in dirt by any means but I always have felt that the act of cleaning out my cats' litter box as much as feeding my cats is one of the ultimate expressions of love. The benefits to the cats are obvious, but it can be an act of great spiritual benefit to oneself as well.

This is where the concept of 'Zen' is applicable. 'Zen gardens' have become popular in recent years. For those who have neither the space nor the money for a real garden, there are miniature gardens where a person can rake sand and place rocks judiciously in an ongoing inspirational process that calms the nerves while allowing an individual to 'meditate' actively.

A litter box is not so very different from a Zen garden. One eliminates the 'rocks' but even so, the act of sifting through the sand can become a form of active meditation. Furthermore, the actual service that is being performed is of great practical value to the animals who use the box.

In ancient Egypt during certain periods in history, cats were recognised as divine creatures, worthy of 'worship'. Some people perceive cats to be 'aloof' and 'above' humanity, but that is NOT what constitutes divinity. One need look only to the examples of Jesus Christ, Inanna, Dionysus and Demeter, to name only a few, to witness the profound interaction with the entire human experience, from pain, suffering and toil to joy and the bond of love that those who have been recognised as Divine have demonstrated.

Jesus Christ even declared himself to be the servant of humanity. The festival of the Saturnalia in ancient Roma was a time when slaves were treated as masters and masters and mistresses acted as their slaves. It was not the slaves who derived the true benefit of this tradition but those who actually held the power of life and death over them. It was a tradition with the most profound sacred significance. Modern Christian traditions of 'washing the feet' of others during Passion Week possess similar significance and spiritual virtue.

I suppose what I am trying to say here is that, although it is the Cats that derive physical benefit from the service of their owners, it is the owners who derive the greatest benefit in spiritual terms. Human beings NEED to be able to express love in concrete ways. Unselfish love that expects no return is the greatest form of love and, although our Pets obviously appreciate our exertions of their behalf when we keep their environment clean, it is not an act that directly inspires their affection. Feeding an Animal or Child, on the other hand, does make the recipient aware of our power to give or withhold life and therefore is not quite so humble and pure an expression of love. Humility is a spiritual virtue. How better to express it than in cleaning out a litter box? Humility when it results in oppression of self or control by another is not a virtue in my view and unfortunately, too often that is its result when one human being behaves humbly towards another. When one expresses humility towards Nature or any of her representatives, on the other hand, that humility is not exploited nor abused. The other side of the coin here is that humility in these circumstances carries with it no practical rewards and therefore remains pure.

There are those who may argue that such service would be better employed towards another human being, especially one who is helpless. Changing bedpans in a hospital or hospice or even at home by caring for a loved one who has become incapable of caring for himself/herself would be far more 'valuable' a service. I would argue that this is fallacious and that we have not done ourselves a spiritual service by persuading ourselves that we are the 'Lords of Creation' and somehow superior to other creatures. Although many religions do include claims to the effect that God or the Divine placed US above all other creatures on this planet, I believe that these declarations were created or interpreted wrongly by humanity to excuse all manner of exploitations. Whatever power we have been given over others or have assumed over others creates a burden of responsibility to protect the welfare of those whose lives are affected by our actions.

The daily act of cleaning litter boxes reminds us of this essential truth. I am certain I am not the first person to make the comparison between Zen garden and litter box. After all, cat owners often tend to be very spiritual individuals who see their own souls mirrored in the profound depths of the eyes of their 'pets'.

I would not wish to impugn the virtue or character of any one who fails to perceive any virtue in having a Cat, yet the arguments they make against this invariably are very selfish. I cannot believe that selfishness is a virtue, nor that instincts of 'self-preservation' should be the primary tenet of our existence. We were given the ability to feel compassion and empathy towards others for a reason. In my view, it is that ability to feel compassion and empathy as well as our desire to serve that we can employ to construct a ladder or bridge to heaven.

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