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Excerpt from "Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living From A Feline Zen Master"

Lesson Three: "Just Sitting" by Poohbear Degoonacoon, the Feline Zen Master

by Kat Tansey

Twenty years ago, our heroine, Kat Tansey, was a successful business consultant. Her book tour was to begin in a month, and everything she ever wanted was coming true – fulfilling work, success, recognition, love, and “the works” as you humans like to say.

And then Kat was struck down by an unknown malady (known now as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and was forced to spend years on her couch, learning how to get well. I arrived in her life and on her couch at that point.

In Lesson One, I introduced you to the concept of your Ordinary Mind, and asked you to spend a few minutes each day observing the chaotic and flea-like nature of it, as this activity often provides excellent motivation for learning to meditate. In Lesson Two, we discussed the importance of building your support team and beginning your search for a teacher. Today we will begin your instruction in the basics of learning how to sit.

When Kat began her search for a meditation teacher, she entered a world that was quite foreign to her. The Meditation Center she found in Koreatown in Los Angeles looked like an ordinary craftsman style house from the outside, but when she pushed aside the curtain she entered a large room filled with black cushions on the floor, Zen art on the walls, and the smell of incense in the air. A young Buddhist monk explained that the practice on Sunday morning was to sit together in meditation for an hour, and then listen to one of the teachers give a dharma talk. Dharma referred to the teachings of the Buddha, he told her.

So with no further instruction, Kat just imitated what the others were doing by choosing one of the large flat black cushions and trying as best she could to sit in a lotus position. She had read in one of her Buddhist books that she should sit up straight, place her hands in the mudra position, and follow her breath. The mudra position means that you touch the tip of thumb to your index finger, and leave the other fingers in an open position.

Well, you can probably imagine how well all this worked for her during her first excruciatingly long hour of sitting. Fortunately, her legs went to sleep quite early before the pain got too intense. Her lower back was quite another matter, however, but she found she could very slowly make slight movements to relieve the pain by shifting it to another part of her spine. After a while her fingers began to cramp in the mudra position. She peeked around the room and saw that everyone was in some sort of deep meditation with their eyes closed, so she decided to risk relaxing her hands in her lap before they went into uncontrollable spasms and she had to be dragged from the room trailing her permanently numbed legs behind her like a rag doll.

Needless to say, Kat came home quite discouraged, and immediately sought me out to share her dreadful experience. In addition to all the physical difficulties she encountered, she said she had a terrible time following her breath, and that trying to do that made her so anxious she had trouble breathing at all.

After she finished telling me all this, I sat quietly for some time to allow her to calm down and become more present. Then I suggested that she try sitting with me for a while to see what happened. When she asked how she should sit, I told her to just find a way she could sit comfortably for some time – which is the same advice I give you. If you have never sat in a lotus position, why do this to yourself at the same time you are trying to learn to meditate? Sit in a chair or against a wall for back support, and find a position that works for you. Just fold your hands in your lap in a relaxed manner that, again, feels right for you.

I personally sit with my front paws tucked underneath me, a position you can imitate by sitting on a high cushion or a small wooden meditation platform, but again only do this if it is comfortable for you. Cats have been sitting this way for generations, so we are built for this. The key is to find a position that works for your particular body.

Now, as to the breath. Following something that is moving will typically increase your agitation. I personally focus my attention on the contact of my chest on top of my tucked-in paws. You might focus on the feelings of your hands in your lap, or on the contact points of your buttocks on the cushion or chair. Your mind will of course wander off into thought. This is to be expected. When you notice that you are off in some other world, just gently return your attention to the contact point you have chosen. You will do this many times, like gently tugging on the leash of an errant puppy to bring him back to the sidewalk.

My last point is perhaps the most important. Kat assumed that those other seemingly perfect meditators were sitting there enjoying the vast spaces of their Buddha Mind most of the time. She later learned this was not true, and I am going to save you much anxiousness by letting you in on a little secret. New meditators are all struggling with trying to master the basics, and they usually pretend they know what they are doing. Something about being human causes this behavior, I suppose. Experienced meditators have learned that each sitting is different, to let go of their expectations and, as I like to say, “Just sit.”

To sum up my instructions: Find a way to sit that works for you. Focus on a still contact point. Gently bring your thoughts back to that still point. Let go of your expectations and enjoy being a beginner. Find a cat to sit with if you, if possible. You can’t compare yourself to us and we won’t judge you.

Next – Lesson Four: Finding Joy

Choosing to Be is a deceptively simple story that delivers a powerful message for all who are better at “doing” than “being.” Drawn from the deeply personal reflections of a formerly depressed person, this lively, magical, and enlightening book revolves around a wise Maine Coon cat, his kitten muse, and the author Kat Tansey. They take the reader on a challenging and often amusing journey as Kat moves through the disorienting haze of depression to the freedom and clarity of her Buddha mind. Kat Tansey is an award-winning author and innovative educator who believes in the power of a well-told tale to teach while it entertains. After twenty years in a high-pressure career, her active life was derailed by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her journey to regain her physical, emotional, and spiritual health was the genesis for Choosing to Be. www.choosingtobe.com

Kat Tansey

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