“I have lived with several Zen masters, all of them cats.” -Eckhart Tolle
There’s plenty to be learned (or unlearned) from animals. It’s classic human presumption to think that we understand exactly how a cat or a dog or an elephant thinks and feels. We can’t really know how an animal perceives the world. Still, we know that no animal has developed the world as thoroughly on an ideological or materialistic level as the human.
This doesn’t really mean that the human is “better”. If anything, humans have become a sort of leech on the Earth, sucking up resources and destroying what came before them in the name of progress and overpopulation. Zen mind exists in contrast to this concept of progress. It implores us to explore every grey area available and to never pick sides. Zen reminds us that there are no real straight lines, no objective examples of truth or progress. It is a retreat to simplicity, not a leap into the throes of complexity.
As a human, I can never rid my forebrain of enough activity to live life with the presentness of a cat or a dog. I can imagine what it might be like to be a cat or a dog, but that experience will always be alien to me. Animals can serve as windows into the life of intrigue and simplicity that we miss out on when we become over-analytical— human, all too human.
Cats are Zen masters because they don’t yearn like we do. Cats don’t see the world in abstractions. They don’t force their experience into a language that, regardless of its level of complexity, cannot ever adequately convey the real. Symbolic expression may be enticing, but it’s a dead end in the realm of truth.
You don’t have to pretend to be a cat, but you can certainly question the supposed inherent goodness of what makes you human. What’s so great about the complex linguistic structures of human language? What’s so marvelous about a skyscraper or a jet or an iPhone? What do they do other than assist people in chasing things and chasing one another?
The world becomes amazing when we acknowledge mere existence as a miracle in and of itself, and when we appreciate what is and has always been, rather than what could be.
A false sense of necessity is the mother of invention, and humans will never rid themselves of this need to fabricate new needs. We can learn from cats and other animals to relax, to love in a simple way, to eat when we’re eating and sit when we’re sitting. Humans always seem to be existing for something else, but animals exist for the here-and-now.