Thoreau, TM and my cat: In defense of non-doing

my cat, center of calm

my cat Abbey, center of calm

Henry David Thoreau sometimes spent whole mornings doing nothing but sitting in his doorway gazing at the trees while the birds sang and flitted through his house. He called this “the bloom of the present moment” and considered it more important than any work he could have spent that time doing.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.

This choice passage from “Walden” gently rebukes the American mindset, which values doing over being. Spend a whole morning just sitting there? That’s great if you’re up at the cabin for the weekend, but who has time for that in normal life? If I’m going to just sit there, I can at least spend it scanning the Web or watching “The Office.”

But the Walden passage is one of many ways Jon Kabat-Zinn urges us to just sit there in his 1994 ode to mindfulness, “Wherever You Go There You Are.” It is worth visiting or revisiting this slim volume for even a few minutes each day, if that’s all you can spare. Kabat-Zinn makes it worth your brief while with gentle rebukes to the illusion that only by doing things can you get anywhere.

What we frequently call formal meditation involves purposefully making a time for stopping all outward activity and cultivating stillness, with no agenda other than being fully present in each moment … Perhaps such moments of non-doing are the greatest gift one can give oneself.

In this little lull we call the New Year it is tempting to commit to various things to do over the next few hundred days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But neither is there anything wrong with a firmer resolve to do nothing for at least brief portions of the day.

For many years I was a fairly faithful meditator, if you call 20 minutes a day faithful. I still meditate daily but not in the way I was taught in the mid-‘70s by a Transcendental Meditation instructor swathed all in white who gave me my secret mantra and a flower.

I’ll testify to TM’s benefits anyday, its critics notwithstanding. I once spent a week in Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi University of Management and epicenter of TM consciousness in America. Believe me, these people are mellow. And daily practice of TM or any other form of meditation mellows the mind with a kind of waking restfulness (and more restful sleep).

But lately I meditate by reading before the day gets moving and my mind gets going. Granted, this is once removed from true meditation, since reading qualifies as doing. Yet in the mere act of focusing my attention on someone else’s thoughts I find a blessed calm not available elsewhere most days.

I also find my cat, Abbey, often sitting on my lap during this meditative reading ritual. To simply gaze on her dozing there, her plush coat rising and falling as she breathes in and out, calms me wonderfully. To watch her simply be invites me to do the same.

Sometimes it takes a cat to raise a man. The guilt of not doing something can be extreme. What the Buddhists call the monkey-mind quickly gets antsy. “Come on, time to get on with it!” the monkey insists, impatiently drumming its fingers. But this is getting on with it, Abbey gently rebukes me. In fact this is it itself: just sitting, just being, doing nothing.

It is not time subtracted from life, as Thoreau put it. It is life itself, briefly pausing to appreciate the wonder of a sacred moment.

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6 Responses to Thoreau, TM and my cat: In defense of non-doing

  1. Martha Allen says:

    When we pack our lives with so many things to do, with all our lists that we never can finish (that’s me), it is hard to be in the present moment. We are always just looking the the future — when I get all these things taken care of then. . ., only to discover we have more tasks that need to be added to our “to do” list. Meditation helps us realize we are alive in this moment and to enjoy each and every moment, including when we are doing our work and various tasks. Meditation can be letting thoughts go or it can be observing those thoughts, even questioning & investigating them to see if they are true. We so often believe our thoughts and our stories without examining them. Meditation or mindfulness throughout the day can open us up to so much.

    Thank you for writing on meditation. We’ve been exploring some of the Buddhist practices, Non-Violent Communication (Compassionate Communication), and Byron Katie ideas and applying them to our lives. These different approaches have many things in common but they also don’t always work together. Meditation does. Meditation and mindfulness opens up compassion and reminds us we are alive. Our cats also enjoy the mediation time – they seem to be experts.

    Such a great photo of Abbey!

    ~Martha

  2. Rachel says:

    I like the thought that a book in your hand and cat on your lap can be a kind of restful meditation in themselves.

    Sue Schroder mentions Jon Kabat-Zinn in her Sunday column… I won’t spoil it for you though. (Hint: Think yoga.)

  3. marg says:

    I just came across this quote in one of my journals: “It’s hard to be stressed out while watching a cat.” I’ve found this to be so true! (except when my cat is doing something naughty like knocking my glass baking dish off the counter!)
    What a great piece you wrote here Char. I had no idea you did all that TM stuff and got a mantra and a flower from a guru! How cool! Just like the Beatles!

  4. marg says:

    PS: Abbey is beautiful!

  5. KRISHNA says:

    Hi!

    I am KRISHNA, a few days back as i was meditating inside the premises of a Temple near my house, and as i was in a deep spiritual trance like state i could sense something heavy on my lap and it was moving.though i was aware that it was a CAT. as i had seen it wandering inside the temple many a time. after i completed my spiritual routine. i opened my eyes and i was surprised rather than shocked to see that the cat was in a deep sleep,I was really very happy to see that it was really quite comfortable on a stranger’s lap. and it really put me in a deep thought process as to what might be the underlying meaning of this unique incident.

    GOD BLESS!!!…..

    KRISHNA
    CHENNAI
    INDIA

    • soulmailing says:

      Thanks so much for this surprising and delightful story, Krishna! Cats really do have a way of calming the soul when they nestle into the lap and practice their own stillness. Mine has soothed my rattled nerves many times in the middle of the night or early morning. Perhaps that is one of the blessings they’re put on this earth to perform. I very much appreciate your thoughts!
      Blessings to you as well.
      Charley

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