Mindfulness in a difficult situation 1/2

Mindfulness takes people away from sadness over the past or worries over the future. What if the now feels stressful? With the brutal honesty this situation deserves, I describe the fleeting thoughts and finer insights I’ve been able to obtain by being in the moment as much as I could – in a difficult situation I caused. I felt it more, which was painful, but I also learnt more than I would have by not paying attention. Once again I learn that what made this situation difficult was rooted in the past or projected to the future. This story may be difficult to read for anyone who love animals, especially cats.

A charming new friend

I’ve always loved the furry little creatures. Maybe it is growing up with The Lion King as a favourite cartoon, I am not sure. Last Monday, coming back from work I felt quite lonely. There are a lot of feral cats near where I live. The community here feed them, it’s like a little sanctuary for them. In case you were wondering, cats can live in a kind of a pride, they’re not always solitary like it is normally presumed. I don’t usually pet them.  i tell myself the reason is that they have all kinds of parasites, etc. There’s something else that bothers me though:

I feel there’s something disingenuous about petting a stray cat. I am interfering with its life, implying that I can be good for the cat, but really I don’t know if I am habituating it to being accepting of humans when it shouldn’t necessarily be.

However, this cute grey kitten of about 8 months old sat there on a garden fence, looking at me. I came over to pet it and it seemed very happy. I was very happy too. We played for about 10 minutes and then she followed me for a long stretch of the journey home. I even wondered – should I bring her to stay in my garden, feed her, etc. But there are other cats living there, who knows what they’ll do. We passed by someone in a man hole and the cat didn’t want to keep going.

She made eye contact with me as I regretfully waved at her – and ran back to her part of the beach.

Talking to a friend later that day, I reminisced about the cat that we had when I was younger. She had to be given away as I had bad allergic rhinitis. My friend reassured me that it was good for me to befriend a cat like that, and it would be right to have the cat migrate from where it normally lives.

On Thursday I was passing by the same stretch of the beach. All of a sudden the very same kitty appeared out of nowhere. I know that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but this cat new who I was as it came over very confidently awaiting to be cuddled. About 10 minutes later, I decided it wouldn’t be right to play with the cat and not feed it. After all, these cutesy cats know how to play us: they are very used to getting fed by humans. So I decided that we shall cross the road and get some tuna in the shop. You know where this is going…

Watching the consequences of bad judgement in real time

I carried the cat across the road, but as we were finished crossing, agitated, she wanted to get out of my arms. And I let her. She jumped on the pavement. We were a good few metres away from the cars at this point – and all of a sudden she bolted back to run to the other side of the road.

The next moment seemed to last forever.

I don’t know how long it took her to get across. I remember the tiny pieces of cat fur vaporised in the air as if they were feathers. I remember anxious drivers mindful of their blind spots but also aware of the traffic behind them on a busy road… At the same time, it happened so fast, I don’t even know which car hit her. I stood there terrified. Even after it was injured it relentlessly kept searching for safety, breathing fast, its back arched and eyes wide open, pulling itself by its front paws.

I felt that I had taken this defenceless trusting creature, promised her safety and negligently let her fall into the Styx.

The adrenaline was pumping, but I knew that I couldn’t just go out into the stream of cars to save her. Between the traffic coming from 2 sides and the frantic cat, all at night time, there were more moving parts than I could safely handle.The hardest part was standing there, watching the poor cat trying to get to safety having absolutely no insight into how traffic works knowing that this wouldn’t have happened without me and realising my own powerlessness.

Most of this blog is in some way related to mindfulness.

By and large, mindfulness makes life easier to be mindful as the vast majority of moments are better than anxieties about the future or ruminations about the past. This wasn’t one of those moments.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – neither should I.

There were just seconds between being a happy friendly kitten and suffering the most intense fear and life-threatening injuries.

When I came over to her, her little heart was pounding so fast I could barely distinguish a pulse.

As I lifted her, it was obvious her back legs weren’t functional. She tried to climb into a bush, dragging herself by her front legs.

As a doctor, I have a certain confidence when it comes to emergency situations: I was trained to handle emergencies. However, it turns out this only applies to specific emergencies. Given the time of day, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a vet. Just like the cat’s, my instinct was to hide in my own metaphorical bush – carry her home, to my safety. As I carried her, I thought she might be dying. Cats’ pupils are usually so tiny. This cat’s were so dilated, I could barely see the green of her irises. She was supine in my arms, staring into space, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth.

I’d never seen so much anguish in any creature’s eyes.

Reflection and rumination

What stopped me from crossing on my own to get the cat food? It seemed like it would be so much fun to go together. It seems that with all that scrolling through Instagram, I’d forgotten that animals aren’t a form entertainment. They have fragile lives that we don’t understand the same way that they do. One of the reasons I didn’t think that it was in issue to bring the cat across was that I’d seen plenty of cats crossing the road like they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve seen a few lucky escapes by less than knowledgeable cats, but they somehow didn’t come up in my mind quite so prominently. It was possibly a semi-conscious decision to refuse insight as it seemed that doing things together with this cat was my way to connect with it and to feel less lonely. She’s a lonely stray cat, and I felt like a stray that day too.

It felt right to pick her up – and felt wrong to be overly calculated about it.

As she ran back across I tried to stop her. Even at that point, I was a bit scared but mostly confident she knew what she was doing.

There’s a certain arrogance that comes with being human.

When I picked her up the first time, I was sure I knew how to handle a cat. I felt I knew more about what’s good for the cat than she did. But really, what am I capable of? I can’t pause the traffic. I can’t keep a cat due to family circumstances. I can’t expect to find someone to home a sick cat in a country full of stray cats. I can’t even be sure I can pay the vet’s bills.

It’s a terrifying realisation: how fragile we all are. It is so hard to handle this concept. It’s hard to not feel helpless knowing how vulnerable we really are.

Not only was this creature fragile, but also lacking in insight. This poor cat didn’t know how it worked even though it lived by the road.

And it just reminded me of how we all are: we don’t know why things happen the way they happen.

Things seem random and dangerous. We try so hard, we give it all we’ve got, but we don’t know how to get to safety any better than this little kitten.

Guilt, guilt, more guilt

Is it all just guilt? There’s a lot of guilt. While everything I did was well intended, it was also negligent. I should have known that the feral cat isn’t that used to being picked up, that it may want to run home, that it may not understand how the road works.

It’s difficult to recognise that being well intended, I ended up putting this cat into a horrible situation.

At the same time I know that I was never going to be perfect. I err; it is my nature as a human being. I can forgive myself at some point, given that I learnt. It’s tough to write this. All of this is written while crying. I’ve been crying multiple times a day since this happened. It’s my n-th draft. The least I can do is learn and share what I learnt. I can’t let go of this until I learn everything I can – and of course, do everything I can for the poor cat.

Of course, I realise that all of these ruminations aren’t very mindful. However, I have no intention of purging them as I know they’re trying to teach me something. Most of this is written as they occur.

I know it’s better to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings: the good, the bad and the ugly rather than trying to get rid of them. It’s the choices and actions that count, so that’s my focus now.

No vet was open at this late hour. I rang a few “emergency” numbers where the vets all advised me to wait until tomorrow. I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to focus on my breath as my mind insisted on replaying the events of the night as well as all the ifs and the should haves… It was particularly hard to let go of those. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I woke up very early the next morning. It wasn’t clear whether it was alive as it hid behind the air conditioning unit. I didn’t want to wake it. It was only a fleeting thought of yet another part of me that I am seriously not proud of that she was dead so that I wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions at the vet’s like having to “put her to sleep”. It wouldn’t be sleep though, would it?

When we got to the vet in the morning, this woman in her early 40s didn’t seem enthused at having to see a stray. She examined the cat: there was reason to believe that the spine could be broken and the bladder ruptured, both of which a guarded prognosis. I cried again in the vet’s office. The vet wasn’t in any way unprofessional, but she had a cold and clinical style. It seems I was sufficiently inconsolable to get her a bit more involved. When she was writing up the cat’s chart, the vet asked me what the cat’s name was. This is when I really stopped being able to speak through the tears. Obviously, cats don’t give consent, but if they did, I felt that I surely didn’t have it. I failed this animal, I didn’t have any rights over her and surely she was not the sort of cat who has a name. She was a feral cat, and it was time for me to finally respect that fact.

I am crying again while I am writing this. My emotions seem completely overwhelming.

I had a role to play in this cat’s misfortune. I made an error in judgement. I realised yet again our fragility and transience. It’s bad, but it doesn’t explain how intensely bad I feel.

Transference and empathy

To some extent, I feel that this isn’t a stray cat, but my old cat from years ago. Freud called it transference. On another level, I feel that I have much in common with the cat. I believe that is what they really call empathy. Being an NT type on Myers-Briggs, it seems to me that I don’t feel things as intensely or as quickly as some others seem to. I might come across as cold to some people, but I it’s not really what it’s like for me. I cry from watching films, reading books… I can’t watch fail videos… I couldn’t even finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in the same way that, I would argue, the main character wouldn’t finish it either.

Having a habit of reading deeply into things, I wonder if being a thinking type (as distinct from a feeling type) is a form of defence – because experiencing real, insightful empathy is utterly intolerable.

Perhaps that’s why most nerds seem kind of maladjusted socially and don’t relate well to people.

IQ combined with EQ allows one to see things that are very scary – and nobody wants to be this scared. Perhaps having a high grade on both of these stops being evolutionary advantageous.

Of course,  it is about how one uses it, but even that requires constant overriding of primal limbic empathy. I remember seeing pictures of Syrian children that went viral and feeling awful on one level, simply as any human being would towards a harmed child, on another – recognising that such emotionally charged images are used to promote certain political interests, that most people who see the images don’t realise this and that this lack of insight from the mass readership of social media and newspapers is instrumental in the advancement of the said political interests. It’s not that I have the opposite political interest, it is the fact that politics is involved that made it feel nasty. In other words, suffering children are used to condition the masses in a way that suits some elite. This isn’t all that deep, but it’s just an example of IQ and EQ working together to show how the world is a hugely complex place. Why am I using the word complex? Why not just say that its nasty? Well, because I know that I don’t fully understand it. Maybe the consequences of this media reporting are going to be better than the alternative. I will never know.

A few attempts at rationalisation

Years ago, I read about Shingon Buddhism. It’s not something that is written about a lot on the internet or indeed in print. It teaches about right and wrong in a way that we’re not used to.

For example, if a tiger kills an antelope, we conventionally feel sorry for the antelope. There’s something wrong about it. In reality, the tiger needs to kill the antelope because its little tiger cub will shrivel and die otherwise. What is right and what is wrong?

We like the day and fear the night: but they can’t exist without each other. I guess Buddhism, in general, tells us that it’s difficult to judge what’s good and bad, at least as far as external circumstances we’ve no control over are concerned.

Of course, part of me is consoling myself and searching for a rationalisation. However, there genuinely may be some good that will emerge from this experience. Maybe my learning will help me – or someone reading this – to do something better than what we would have otherwise done. In a strange twist, a day or two before this happened, I was replying to someone’s comment and saying that meaning remains after death, regardless of whether one’s top of the food chain homo sapiens or… a feral cat. I hope she doesn’t die from this, but in any case, she is very meaningful to me.

Lessons I learnt

We’re all fragile. A moment can change everything. It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.

What else did I learn?

At no point during the ordeal did the cat show any signs of giving up.

I am here lamenting and analysing. The cat is getting on with her life. Tildeb recently introduced me to some old English literature, and in particular this:

Whether fate be foul or fair,

Why falter I or fear?

What should man do but dare?

The cat doesn’t give up. The cat is always preoccupied with her surroundings. She’s constantly looking around and just does her best to adapt. The night before we went to the vet she cried, I assume for her relatives and because of pain. I’d never heard a cat cry before. It’s kind of like a dog squealing, but less protracted and a bit more like a meow. It’s also completely heart-wrenching.

I also learnt a huge amount about guilt, compassion, motivation, bias, empathy, sense of self and expectations.

To be continued….

mindfulness in a difficult situation
No words

10 Comments Add yours

  1. tildeb says:

    It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.

    Unintended consequences. Feeling bad, knowing part of the series of unfortunate events included you. Self recrimination. Guilt. Blame. Perfectly understandable.

    So what’s the lesson? Damned if I know, but I do have an interpretation: I understand the importance of intent and – with that – forgiveness. Acting on good intentions can lead to tragedy, it’s true, but it can also lead to profound and positive impact. You simply cannot do one without the other. As a doctor, you know both sides of this coin. So why should real life outside of practicing medicine be any different?

    The Order of the Garter I mentioned in the previous thread is based on exactly this kind of examined questioning of bad results. Because the hero of the Green Knight – Percival – is put into an impossible situation and so fails in his quest, he – like you – throws some blame outwards and inwards, It’s King Arthur who understands that the desired ends are not always obtained by even perfect means (perfect chivalry in the case of Percival)! He establishes the Order of the Garter after Percival returns from his ‘failed’ quest to indicate that the highest virtue is to be fearless regardless of fate, to keep acting on the very best of informed intentions above any actual results. And I think this real life example you are living through is very instructive; the cat’s fate has been foul but you must not allow yourself to be diverted from doing your best based on such good intentions.

    That’s how you learn to forgive yourself.

    Living with the consequences of our actions is hard and yet it really does take courage and fortitude and yes some fearlessness to earn the necessary experience to really know what this sometimes means in real life… paid by the same coin for the tragic and the triumphant results – and still try to do our best knowing that in our personal quest foul fate might befall us or those we care about at any time. That’s one reason among many why living well really is a heroic journey.

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    1. Aw, thank you for the profound message. I accept everything you said as true, however, I do believe that I was negligent here. You can have good intentions and still be negligent. I should have known that the cat isn’t used to being handled and could get nervous, that she is too young to understand how the road works, etc.

      I was getting a bit self-destructive at one point. However, I realised that all I can do is do my best for the cat now and to learn – which part of the reason I decided to publish the experience here.

      I think that the experience has been extremely instructive. I’ve learnt a huge amount and I will write it up soon. The cat will thankfully get better – she had surgery for a broken leg and is recovering now.

      I will definitely go back and read the books you talked about.

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    2. Naomi Byrnes says:

      I found this so refreshing and moving – your openness to observe all your emotions and hear the learning as well as compassionate acceptance of limitations. I found your piece so soothing as it expressed the painful dilemma we experience in exercising our best intentions without knowing what the consequences might be and without having power over so many of the other factors. What I hear is: You understand you didn’t cause this pain or loss of life but you can see and express the sorrow and you want to learn from it. I think our world would be so much safer and wiser if we could be mindful and tender in this way about learning by living and sharing. Warmest, Naomi

      Like

      1. Thanks for the supportive Naomi – that summarises what happened rather well. Thankfully the cat is going to get better! I felt that I had to learn from this and had to share! Love your pictures – and visual meditations (and Joy!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Naomi Byrnes says:

        Thrilled that You spotted the lovely Joy, our cat. She came with that name. It’s great because it means I say that word several times a day. So glad the kitten is doing well.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks so much Naomi! Looking forward to seeing more of your art!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. tildeb says:

    I’m glad to hear it.

    Just as clarifying quibble, I did say the interpretation is “to keep acting on the very best of informed intentions”. Good intentions are not enough and it here where we almost always fall short and, upon honest reflection, understand that we can do a better job mitigating bad results by doing this part – informing ourselves – but by no means eliminating them.

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    1. I understand what you meant now by “informed”! Back to thinking before acting eh? 🙂

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