There is a small dog bed on the floor next to my meditation cushion, and every morning when I fold myself into a half lotus my gray cat, Telemann, jumps into the bed and regresses to earliest kittenhood. Not that there is anything kittenish about Telemann. He is in his prime, an avid (indoor) hunter, agile and well-muscled, with a tom’s wide skull and thick neck.
The dog bed where he stages his regressions is covered in fuzzy fabric, and its back and sides are stuffed to form a softly convex wall. Telemann hops in, spreads his ten white fingers as wide as they will go, and begins to push rhythmically, first the right hand and then the left, against the side of the bed. His scimitar claws make a popping sound as they dig into and out of the cloth. His purring grows louder; the kneading speeds up; his eyes closed in ecstasy, he presses his nose and lips into the fabric. I can’t tell whether he’s actually sucking on the fuzz or whether it’s the accumulated moisture from his breath that makes his favorite spot damp and frayed. Either way, Telemann pretends he’s nursing.
By the time the twenty minutes of observing-but-not-judging my monkey mind are up, the purring and kneading have stopped, and Telemann is fast asleep, one white paw still pressed against the curved side of the bed. Perhaps this pretend nursing is a way of making up for his deprived infancy, when his mother was so undernourished that when the family was rescued the kittens had to be bottle fed. Or perhaps the nursing is a way to soothe his anxieties, if he has any anxieties, which is doubtful.
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to embarrass this otherwise dignified cat to be seen indulging in baby behavior, and I envy Telemann his nonchalance, which we humans are taught to overcome at an early age. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, waking up in the dark of a winter night, gasping with virus- and Trump-induced angst, one could take comfort in a well-sucked thumb?
Telemann doesn’t think about what I think of him. Oddly enough, when he’s settled in my arms I often stop thinking myself. He looks into my eyes, I look into his eyes, our breathing slows, our eyelids droop, and I subside into a blissful no-mind state that I hardly ever achieve on my meditation cushion.
You could tear out my fingernails one by one and you wouldn’t get me to say that I love Telemann more than my little dog, Bisou. But Bisou doesn’t induce that serene blankness in me the way he does. It may be that her face is too expressive—dogs have a special set of muscles around their eyes that gives them an almost-human repertoire of expressions—and when she looks at me I react by thinking: does she want food? Does she need to go out? Is she bored? Is she worried?
Cats do not have those cunning little muscles around the eyes, so their faces appear somewhat mask-like to us. Looking at Telemann’s face when he’s relaxed is like gazing into a still lake, its surface broken only by his slow periodic blinks. There is no thought there, no demand, no hurry, no worry–only presence. And in response my mind slows way down, and I get a blessed respite from being human, and a fleeting taste of what it’s like to be a cat.