Holiday traditions and why you may, or may not, need a cat

I wrote this post in December 2012. I’m re-posting it now, because some of us might have to re-consider our “cats.”

Are you trapped in your traditions? Do they serve you, or do you serve them?

I pondered this question after reading a Paulo Coelho blog piece about an ancient Japanese story, which I will paraphrase here:

A great Zen Buddhist master had a cat. The cat was his constant companion even during the meditation classes he led. When the old master passed away, another disciple took his place and continued to allow the cat to join in meditation. When the original cat died, the disciples missed its presence, so they found another.

Disciples from other regions heard about the cat who attended meditation classes, and spread the story around to others. These disciples believed that the cat was the reason for the greatness of the Zen Buddhist master. Other temples began to bring cats to class.

Eventually, writings began to appear about the importance of cats during meditation. A university professor studied the issue and wrote a thesis about the effects of cats on concentration and energy. Disciples began to believe that cats were essential to meditation.

Soon, an instructor who was allergic to cats decided to remove the animal from his daily classes. Other disciples were aghast and reacted negatively, believing the cat to be essential to their success. But his students made the same progress even without the cat.

Generations passed and, one by one, monasteries began removing cats from meditation. After all, it was a burden feeding all those cats. In fact, students began to study the benefits of meditating without animals.  More time passed until “cat,” or “no cat” was no longer a matter of consideration. But it took many years for the full cycle, because “during all this time, no one asked why the cat was there.”

Christmas is one of the most tradition-bound times of the year. Christmas trees, shortbread, gifts, overspending on gifts, turkey, family gatherings, family fights, church services, candles, crèches, Santa, pageants, parties with too much rum eggnog, carols . . . These things have been part of our current version of the holidays for so long we have started to believe that Christmas is not Christmas without them. If we were to suggest not including them, people would react with aghast negativity.

Why are those “cats” in the room? Is feeding them becoming a burden?

Christmas means different things to different people. For me, it recalls the birth of a compassionate movement toward “all is one.” It recalls the birth of a man—an activist—who sought social justice and lived the idea that every person contains the divine spark. 

As I meditate my way toward Christmas this year, whether I invite some of those “cats” to join me or not, the movement toward “all is one” by all of us divine sparks continues regardless.


I see the divine spark in Waffles’ eyes 🙂

3 thoughts on “Holiday traditions and why you may, or may not, need a cat

  1. New Earth Paradigm

    Hi Arlene — I’ve been giving away my “cats” for years with regard to Christmas traditions and only participating to the extent of my joy. This year, living in community with 60 others, I find myself enjoying my own and others’ traditions, as we come together to make ornaments and decorate the tree, prepare gourmet potluck meals, play games, make music and exchange white elephant gifts we found in the “free” room. Simple pleasures, shared and enjoyed — no fighting — it’s the best of Christmas, with or without cats.

    Incidentally, I think Waffles appeared to me in a dream a few nights ago. A dearly departed relative came to “visit” me with a dog I know well and a cat that I recognized in my dream but then realized when I woke up that I had never seen the cat in this life. So say Hello to Waffles for me and thank him or her for coming to see me in the Dreamtime. Merry Catmas! Alia

  2. roughwighting

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t get to this post until now, Arlene. It is BRILLIANT and asks the right question, in a gentle and nonjudgmental way. But the message is right on – watch what we feel we ‘have’ to do, whether to celebrate Christmas or Valentine’s or Easter; whether it’s to succeed in business or whatever our career is; whether it’s to make it through the day, day after day, or to make it through the night. What are our cats, and do we really need them to accomplish our goal? I think as we age and let go of some of our ‘traditions,’ it’s easier to see what really counts. I love your “all is one” philosophy. May we find our divine sparks every day in 2017. xo


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