Memories of Cats I Loved: Brother David Steindl-Rast

January 21, 2020

 

 

Mietzi, 1980s, New York City

For millennia, humans have speculated why some of us are born into riches, others into rags. If
we can’t answer this question for humans, how shall we answer it for cats? Bad karma, you
say? If so, Mietzi must have misbehaved quite badly in a previous incarnation to be born in a
flooded basement this time around. No one knows. What we do know, however, is that the most
disadvantaged pull most strongly on our heartstrings, and so someone rescued Mietzi and her
siblings from their sunless island of soggy rags. No one ever mentioned the mother cat, and I
don’t know what happened to the other kittens of that litter. All I know is that little Lisa
persuaded her reluctant grandmother, and so Mietzi became my mother’s cat.

After that deluged basement, even a tenth-floor New York apartment that was never designed
for pets must have appeared like paradise to the poor kitten. Or so we were hoping. Lisa
delivered Mietzi in a soft-cushioned basket, and the cat was still sitting in that basket when, after
an elaborate farewell from the cat, Lisa kissed her grandmother goodbye at the door. The door
closed, Mother turned around, and the basket was empty.

That the cat was gone was bad enough, but her pitiful meow was not gone. It kept haunting the
apartment for the next hour, while Mother, eventually with the help of her neighbors on both
sides, searched every corner so methodically that Scotland Yard would have been proud of that
job. The voice, unaccountably, always seemed to come from nowhere; yet it persisted.
When the ladies finally dismantled the Sony radio and hi-fi record player my mother won at a
raffle, Mietzi emerged from the only place where she could have gotten as covered with dust as

she did: one of the loudspeaker boxes. A bad start, especially since Mother felt that the kitten
needed a bath. (There must have been lots of water signs in Mietzi’s natal chart.)
No cat could have been more loved, more talked about in telephone conversations with children
and grandchildren, more lovingly reported on at length in every letter.

Mietzi wasn’t young anymore when Mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Mother was still at
home, and I was with her during the decisive days when the doctor was testing whether or not
medication could help her. I was sitting by Mother’s bed then, when Mietzi seemed to get ready
for an acrobatic stunt. Balancing on the back of the rocking chair, she was clearly considering
jumping from there onto a high chest of drawers.
Never before had she tried this. Ears laid back, Mietzi was measuring the distance. “Is she
going to make it?” I asked—and the moment the words were out, I realized that this was the
question my brothers and I were anxiously asking about Mother at that time. “Let’s see,” Mother
replied. Nothing else was said—neither then nor later—but both of us knew what was at stake.
There was no tinge of superstition about this. Everything hangs together with everything; we
know that. In principle then, we may look at one event and find in it a clue for quite a different
one, unconnected though they may appear to be. Some try this with tea leaves or planets;
others think that, in practice, this is too complex an art. There are moments, however, when an
omen lights up with such clarity that it would be difficult to deny its foreboding. Not wanting this
to be true, Mother and I knew, nevertheless, what was going on here.
Mietzi steadied herself on the back of the rocking chair, crouched, jumped, and missed. Have
you ever noticed the embarrassment of a cat when something like this happens? We tried to
console Mietzi, Mother and I, but we couldn’t quite console ourselves that evening.
The verdict was in. What was not decided was how we would handle it, and that is what really
matters.

Mother handled it with grace. Two days later, she was in the hospital again, never to return
home to Mietzi. Her mind was clear to the last, as she took care of unfinished business calmly
and efficiently. She knew in which folder important papers were kept, in which dresser; she
handed my brother the keys with a smile. Only once did she break down and cry: when Mietzi’s
future was to be decided. But a solution was found: since Mother’s apartment was at the same
time the office for her charitable work, which my brother would continue, Mietzi could stay where
she was. The “super” of the building, who was fond of Mietzi anyway, would look after her when
my brother wasn’t there.

Mother was at peace.
I sat next to her bed holding her hand, and she said, “This is how I’d like to die. You ought to sit
there holding my hand and I’d just fall asleep.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d like that, too, but we can’t plan it with such precision.” Not many hours later, I
was sitting in that very spot holding Mother’s hand when she went to sleep for good. So
peacefully did she breathe her last that there was no telling exactly when she passed from time
into the great Now.

Mietzi outlived her by a year or two, mercifully among her accustomed surroundings: the potted
plants on which she nibbled once in a while, the old rugs of which she knew every square inch
by their smell, and my mother’s empty armchair on which she curled up when she got lonely.

This is an excerpt from a story written by Brother David Steindl-Rast and featured in The Karma
of Cats: Spiritual Wisdom from Our Feline Friends, a compilation of original stories by Kelly
McGonigal, Alice Walker, Andrew Harvey, and many more!

Brother David Steindl-Rast was born in Vienna, Austria, and holds a PhD from the
Psychological Institute at the University of Vienna. After 12 years of training in the 1,500-year-
old Benedictine monastic tradition, Brother David received permission to practice Zen with
Buddhist masters. An international lecturer and author, Brother David is a leader in the monastic
renewal movement as well as the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions. His most
recent book is i am through you so i. He is the founder of A Network for Grateful Living. Learn
more at gratefulness.org.

 

 

 

 

Read The Karma of Cats today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | IndieBound

 

David Steindl-Rast

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Brother David Steindl-Rast was born in Vienna, Austria, and holds a PhD from the Psychological Institute at the University of Vienna. After 12 years of training in the 1,500-year-old Benedictine monastic tradition, Brother David received permission to practice Zen with Buddhist masters. An international lecturer and author, Brother David is a leader in the monastic renewal movement as well as the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions. His most recent book is Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.

Listen to Tami Simon's interview with David Steindl-Rast: Grateful Living in the “Double Realm”»

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Memories of Cats I Loved: Brother David Steindl-Rast

 

 

Mietzi, 1980s, New York City

For millennia, humans have speculated why some of us are born into riches, others into rags. If
we can’t answer this question for humans, how shall we answer it for cats? Bad karma, you
say? If so, Mietzi must have misbehaved quite badly in a previous incarnation to be born in a
flooded basement this time around. No one knows. What we do know, however, is that the most
disadvantaged pull most strongly on our heartstrings, and so someone rescued Mietzi and her
siblings from their sunless island of soggy rags. No one ever mentioned the mother cat, and I
don’t know what happened to the other kittens of that litter. All I know is that little Lisa
persuaded her reluctant grandmother, and so Mietzi became my mother’s cat.

After that deluged basement, even a tenth-floor New York apartment that was never designed
for pets must have appeared like paradise to the poor kitten. Or so we were hoping. Lisa
delivered Mietzi in a soft-cushioned basket, and the cat was still sitting in that basket when, after
an elaborate farewell from the cat, Lisa kissed her grandmother goodbye at the door. The door
closed, Mother turned around, and the basket was empty.

That the cat was gone was bad enough, but her pitiful meow was not gone. It kept haunting the
apartment for the next hour, while Mother, eventually with the help of her neighbors on both
sides, searched every corner so methodically that Scotland Yard would have been proud of that
job. The voice, unaccountably, always seemed to come from nowhere; yet it persisted.
When the ladies finally dismantled the Sony radio and hi-fi record player my mother won at a
raffle, Mietzi emerged from the only place where she could have gotten as covered with dust as

she did: one of the loudspeaker boxes. A bad start, especially since Mother felt that the kitten
needed a bath. (There must have been lots of water signs in Mietzi’s natal chart.)
No cat could have been more loved, more talked about in telephone conversations with children
and grandchildren, more lovingly reported on at length in every letter.

Mietzi wasn’t young anymore when Mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Mother was still at
home, and I was with her during the decisive days when the doctor was testing whether or not
medication could help her. I was sitting by Mother’s bed then, when Mietzi seemed to get ready
for an acrobatic stunt. Balancing on the back of the rocking chair, she was clearly considering
jumping from there onto a high chest of drawers.
Never before had she tried this. Ears laid back, Mietzi was measuring the distance. “Is she
going to make it?” I asked—and the moment the words were out, I realized that this was the
question my brothers and I were anxiously asking about Mother at that time. “Let’s see,” Mother
replied. Nothing else was said—neither then nor later—but both of us knew what was at stake.
There was no tinge of superstition about this. Everything hangs together with everything; we
know that. In principle then, we may look at one event and find in it a clue for quite a different
one, unconnected though they may appear to be. Some try this with tea leaves or planets;
others think that, in practice, this is too complex an art. There are moments, however, when an
omen lights up with such clarity that it would be difficult to deny its foreboding. Not wanting this
to be true, Mother and I knew, nevertheless, what was going on here.
Mietzi steadied herself on the back of the rocking chair, crouched, jumped, and missed. Have
you ever noticed the embarrassment of a cat when something like this happens? We tried to
console Mietzi, Mother and I, but we couldn’t quite console ourselves that evening.
The verdict was in. What was not decided was how we would handle it, and that is what really
matters.

Mother handled it with grace. Two days later, she was in the hospital again, never to return
home to Mietzi. Her mind was clear to the last, as she took care of unfinished business calmly
and efficiently. She knew in which folder important papers were kept, in which dresser; she
handed my brother the keys with a smile. Only once did she break down and cry: when Mietzi’s
future was to be decided. But a solution was found: since Mother’s apartment was at the same
time the office for her charitable work, which my brother would continue, Mietzi could stay where
she was. The “super” of the building, who was fond of Mietzi anyway, would look after her when
my brother wasn’t there.

Mother was at peace.
I sat next to her bed holding her hand, and she said, “This is how I’d like to die. You ought to sit
there holding my hand and I’d just fall asleep.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d like that, too, but we can’t plan it with such precision.” Not many hours later, I
was sitting in that very spot holding Mother’s hand when she went to sleep for good. So
peacefully did she breathe her last that there was no telling exactly when she passed from time
into the great Now.

Mietzi outlived her by a year or two, mercifully among her accustomed surroundings: the potted
plants on which she nibbled once in a while, the old rugs of which she knew every square inch
by their smell, and my mother’s empty armchair on which she curled up when she got lonely.

This is an excerpt from a story written by Brother David Steindl-Rast and featured in The Karma
of Cats: Spiritual Wisdom from Our Feline Friends, a compilation of original stories by Kelly
McGonigal, Alice Walker, Andrew Harvey, and many more!

Brother David Steindl-Rast was born in Vienna, Austria, and holds a PhD from the
Psychological Institute at the University of Vienna. After 12 years of training in the 1,500-year-
old Benedictine monastic tradition, Brother David received permission to practice Zen with
Buddhist masters. An international lecturer and author, Brother David is a leader in the monastic
renewal movement as well as the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions. His most
recent book is i am through you so i. He is the founder of A Network for Grateful Living. Learn
more at gratefulness.org.

 

 

 

 

Read The Karma of Cats today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | IndieBound

 

David Steindl-Rast: Grateful Living in the ‘Double R...

Brother David Steindl-Rast is an internationally renowned author, lecturer, and pivotal member of the monastic renewal movement. A monk in the Benedictine tradition, Brother David is also an expert in Zen Buddhism and a tireless advocate for building bridges between Eastern and Western religious traditions. With Sounds True, Brother David created the audio program The Grateful Heart. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Brother David talk about the innate longing that drives spiritual study and is the impetus for seeking out a monastic life. Tami and Brother David explore the concept of the “Double Realm” that lies beyond standard concepts of time and existence, as well as how practicing gratitude can be a doorway to that realm. Finally, Brother David considers the future of religion and spirituality as he enters his nineties.(61 minutes)

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The Basics of Nature Mindfulness

Ursasana: Bear Posture

Many years ago, a bear sat down next to me while I was meditating in the woods. It was an afternoon in mid-October in the Berkshires, and I had been mountain biking in my favorite preserve. I took a break from riding to enjoy the perfect fall afternoon. I was overflowing with gratitude. My life was going well.

I sat under a strong oak tree and closed my eyes. I asked Spirit to come and sit with me, to share in my heartfelt thanksgiving. I spoke the words aloud and immediately heard footsteps in the woods behind me. They got closer, but I continued with my meditation, until directly behind me, I heard a twig snap and a loud exhalation through a very big nose. I knew in that moment, in every cell of my body, that a bear was behind me.

My heart pounded, and adrenaline surged through my body. I was totally alert and aware. I very slowly turned my head to look behind me and saw shining black fur from shoulder to rump, close enough to reach out and touch. It was a large black bear. Immediately my mind provided options for survival. Get up and run away? Get up and yell to scare the bear away? Climb a tree? Those ideas seemed bad. Sit still, do nothing, and breathe? Yes, that made sense. And so I did. I slowed my breathing and meditated on the intensity of my body’s response to this perceived threat.

In my yoga I had learned that strong sensations and emotions, including fear, can be powerful doorways into meditation. Rather than turning away from an uncomfortable experience, I had learned to breathe into what I was feeling. In this case, the fight-or-flight response was a huge wave washing over my mind, body, and soul. Instead of making a big story about what was happening, I remembered to face the experience in all of its raw power. I had the thought, This is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me! I had another thought, too: This might be the worst thing that has ever happened to me! Many hundreds of hours, I had practiced breathing through the intense sensations of yoga postures, watching my experience without reaction and allowing things to be the way they are. All that training on the mat was now being put to the test in a pose I had never tried before, Bear Pose, or Ursasana.

For a moment, I wondered how it might feel to be bitten by a bear. That was not a helpful thought, so I returned to my breathing. Moments seemed to stretch into hours. The bear walked out from behind the tree and sat next to me. It was smelling me. Still I remained motionless. In time, the bear walked away. I turned to look as it walked away. It turned to look back at me. Our eyes met, and then it disappeared down the hill. I stood up and fell down, my legs weak and wobbly. I stood again and got to my bike. I climbed on board and pedaled out of those woods like a bat out of hell!

For days, I was in a state of profound shock and elation. My life was filled with magic, possibility, and power. Anything could happen. I felt incredibly alive. The presence of the bear stayed with me—even to this day. I have never been a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane or tried bungee jumping. I’ve always been drawn to more meditative outdoor activities, like canoeing, archery, or watching birds. But sitting in meditation with a bear gave me an unexpected adrenaline jolt.

While sitting with a bear is not likely to happen to many people, you may encounter other life-forms or elements that can help you awaken and experience a greater degree of aliveness. We long for connection with our relatives who roam the forests and wildlands, and we still find nourishment in their company. In mindful rewilding, we open ourselves up to the sensations and life-giving experiences that the land holds for us. Such moments of communion between you and the living earth can open doorways into a more magical, mysterious, and meaningful life. And it makes all the difference to have the right mental tools and preparation to help you ride the waves of powerful energies you will encounter in both the human and the more-than-human worlds.

When sitting with that bear, I used a technique we lovingly call “BRFWA”: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. You might use BRFWA on your first walk in a park or a wood that is new to you. You might use it during your first solo camping experience or when you see an animal that frightens you. I once used BRFWA when I got caught in a rip current while swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii. It allowed me to remain calm and to act skillfully, possibly saving my life. In any survival situation, the first advice is almost always to remain calm and think, not to react or panic. But how we are supposed to do that is not often explained. 

By practicing mindful rewilding, you are not looking to put yourself in a survival situation, though many of these skills can help you feel more confident and capable when you’re away from the conveniences of modern society. Inevitably, the more time we spend outdoors, the more likely we are to come up against our comfort zone or find ourselves in a situation where remaining calm and being skillful are necessary. In these moments, BRFWA can be a great ally.

I recommend that you use BRFWA regularly as a moment-to-moment practice. Using it daily will support your developing a general state of mindfulness. You can also use BRFWA to go deeper into a pleasant experience. Maybe you practice it when you take a walk or when you dip your feet in a cool stream or when you feel a fresh breeze moving through your neighborhood. Practice BRFWA regularly so that when something truly challenging happens, it is second nature for you, as it was for me when I had my encounters with the bear and the rip current.

BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow

To begin working with BRFWA outdoors, try the following steps:

  1. Go outside. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and have a view of a natural, outdoor space. (This might also be the place where you want to establish your daily nature meditation.)
  2. Get grounded. Feel your sitz bones and imagine they are plugging in to the earth. As you ground down through your seat, also lengthen your spine and let it rise up through the crown of your head. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a great tree and you are the bridge that connects the heavens and the earth.
  3. Breathe. Soften your belly, and slowly deepen your breathing with each inhalation and exhalation. If possible, breathe in and out through the nose. A good ratio for this breath is to inhale for four counts and hold the breath gently for seven counts; then exhale for eight counts, and repeat the cycle. As you breathe, notice the qualities of the air. What is the temperature? Is it hot, cold, or somewhere in between? How moist or dry is the air? What can you smell? Leaves, pine needles, the smoke from nearby fireplaces? In which direction is the wind moving? What can you hear? Your breath, your heartbeat, your joints settling? Branches creaking against each other, leaves rustling in the breeze, dew dripping to the ground, chipmunks or squirrels scampering, crows cawing, pigeons cooing, an airplane passing overhead?
  4. Relax. As you breathe, begin to consciously scan your body. Notice any places where you are holding tension. Focus on each of these places, as you continue to breathe calmly and deeply, and invite these places to soften and let go. Maybe your forehead is tense, and your brow is furrowed. Maybe your shoulders are tight and raised with tension. Perhaps your jaw is clenched. See if you can allow your jaw to relax, so that your teeth are parted. Invite your tongue to sit heavy and relaxed in your mouth, with the tip of the tongue resting against the ridge of skin behind your two front top teeth. With each exhalation, feel tension melting out of your body, mind, and spirit. Relax into the support of the earth element. Feel the earth beneath you and within your bones and muscles.
  5. Feel. As you continue to breathe and relax, notice what you can feel. Notice your body and what your body can feel—the air on your skin, the earth against your buttocks and legs, the light on your skin or coming through your clothing. Notice your heart and how you are feeling right now, not from a place of judgment, but from a place of compassion for yourself, and from a larger perspective, from your witness. Notice how the breath moving in and out helps you to feel more. This is one of the great secrets of yoga: the more deeply you breathe, the more of your own life you can feel.
  6. Watch. Be the witness. Observe your experience and allow as much space as you can for whatever is happening to be the way it is. Simply observe the land around you. Notice movement wherever it may be. Watch the play of light and the subtle movement created by the atmosphere’s constant state of motion. Watch everything, and be curious about any life you see, whether birds in the bushes or trees, ants crawling on the ground, or a squirrel leaping from limb to limb. When you come into the present moment using these steps, doors of perception will open to you. You will see the world through new eyes.
  7. Allow. Let it be. Let the moment be exactly the way that it is. Let go of grasping to your idea of what this moment should be. Let go of any aversion to things as they are. See if you can simply allow this moment to be as it is, and give yourself the opportunity to experience this moment right now in its pure expression. No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, can you allow this living earth and your relationship with it to be the way that it is? Moment by moment, can you keep letting go of your opinions, preferences, and judgments? It’s not easy for any of us, which is why we practice. This awareness is something to come back to moment after moment after moment, always beginning again.
  8. This is an excerpt from Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Theresa Reed: Monkey Mind

They say that animals often come to resemble their owners. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I am not sure where that statement came from, but I would probably say there is a nugget of truth to it. Perhaps we do become more like our critters, or more likely, we simply learn from them. 

A decade ago, my husband and I adopted a little black cat from the local shelter. As soon as they plopped him in our hands, he began to purr like a motor. We bundled him up, took him home, and named him Monkey.

This name seemed to fit him much better than his original moniker, Phantom. Monkey wasn’t a cat who liked to hide away, and he wasn’t very stealthy either. Instead, he was restless, animated, and liked to play rough. Always in movement, he could barely sit still long enough for a picture. He’s got a true “monkey mind.”

I hate to admit this, but in a way we’re a lot alike.

Like Monkey, I am easily distracted. I blame this on my Gemini ways, but the truth is that’s not an excuse for having too many projects running at the same time with all the technology in the world clamoring for my attention. The blips and dings that alert me that I’ve got mail or texts or other such things keep me in a state of high alert. “What’s happening? What’s going on?” Or, more accurately, “What did I miss?”

Like a pinball whizzing around the flippers and bumpers, my brain is in constant motion. Sometimes I’ve found myself amazed that I was able to get anything done at all.  

My writing sessions were punctuated by petting sessions, and cooking a meal required one hand on the spatula while another held a laser pointer to keep Monkey from biting my heels. Disruption via feline was a way of life around my house, so, as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for a focus-challenged person like myself to remain present much of the time.

One day, I was tapping away on the computer when I noticed Monkey staring down a bug. He was poised to pounce, eyes wide, and completely still. The bug wasn’t moving. Neither was Monkey. This was a total showdown between cat and bug—and neither was going to move until the time was right.

Fascinated, I stopped what I was doing to watch this duel unfold.

The stare-down continued for a few minutes. This cat wasn’t going to flinch until he witnessed a glimmer of activity. Finally, I saw a flicker of movement as the bug slowly lifted his leg. Monkey’s eyes widened as he wriggled his bottom. Suddenly he pounced on the hapless bug, and in an instant, it was over. The bug was lying face up, with no sign of life. Monkey sniffed around it for a second, then sauntered away. The job was done and now it was time for a nap in the sun.

I found myself pondering this long after the deed was over.

How could this cat, who detests the house rules and who seems to be in constant squirm motion, remain so deeply engrossed? How is it that Monkey was able to deftly finish his work while I sat at my desk, still stuck on finding the first opening sentence for my latest project?  

The truth was staring me in the face as the little familiar beep that alerted me to an incoming text pulled me away from my work.

I had created a maelstrom of technology and distraction around me. This was preventing me from effectively “killing the bug.” If I was going to be prolific, effective, and calm in both my work and my spiritual practice, I needed to set myself up for success. It was time to commit to making my world distraction-free so I could tame my own monkey mind.  

This is an excerpt from a story written by Theresa Reed and featured in The Karma of Cats: Spiritual Wisdom from Our Feline Friends, a compilation of original stories by Kelly McGonigal, Alice Walker, Andrew Harvey, and many more!

Theresa Reed has been a professional, full-time tarot reader for more than 25 years. A recognized expert in the field, she has been a keynote presenter at the Readers Studio, the world’s biggest tarot conference, and coaches tarot entrepreneurs via numerous online courses and her popular podcast, Talking Shop. Theresa lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more, see thetarotlady.com.

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