Cats and Frogs
I live with a monster.
An incredibly cute, furry little monster, but a monster none the less. She is at one with her cat-ness, doing the kind of things that only cats can do. She is the ultimate arbiter of which things are allowed to be on shelves and tables, and which things need to be gently coaxed over the edge and onto the floor. And, should you dare to pet her for five seconds more than the perfect amount you will lose an arm.
Like all cats she spends at least seventy percent of her time asleep, especially now she is getting older. I was watching her sleep earlier this week, and was wondering what she might be thinking. It struck me that while I could never know exactly what she was feeling and thinking, I could be fairly sure of what she wasn't doing. She wasn't worrying about what she had achieved in life, she wasn't thinking to herself that she needed to be doing more. I've never known a cat worry about getting a promotion, becoming famous, owning the best house or creating the perfect work of art before they die.
Of course, as humans we have the extra gift of having an awareness of our own mortality. We tend to channel this into worry about whether we have achieved enough. It is the classic case of our focus on what we have done, versus what we are. Doing versus being.
In the Dhammapada we are given a clear instruction of what an awareness of our mortality should inspire us to do:
There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.
Note carefully what this is saying, what this says about our priorities. Recognizing our mortality means that we should work on our relationships with each other. Not stress about our achievements, not worry about what we have made or bought, but simply make sure that we have no ill-will or 'bad blood' with anyone.
Even in our practice we can make the same mistake of focusing on achievement rather than just dwelling in the practice. As I was contemplating the lesson from the cat I was reminded of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's well-known analogy of the frog. Addressing a group who might have thought that they were doing something 'special' in zazen (meditation) he says:
But look at the frog. A frog also sits like this but it has no idea of zazen. And if you watch what he does…if something annoys him he will do like this (making a face). If something to eat comes he will eat (imitating a frog snapping at an insect) and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen. We are not doing any special thing. We should think that we are doing some special thing.
Every now and then it is good to remind ourselves that life - and our practice - is not about what we do, or what we achieve, but about what we become. Recognizing our mortality means that we ensure that our relationships with others are loving and compassionate. Like the cat and the frog, we have comfort in our own being, without stressing about what we have - or haven't - achieved.
I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on 'Achieving nothing.' If it is useful to you feel free to use it in your practice.
"Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html .
Photo by u/TheTacoWombat on www.reddit.com/r/buddhistcats