“Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are.
We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
— From Coraline by Neil Gaiman
One of the most heartbreaking truths about adopting a kitten or cat is that we will probably outlive them. Most cats have shorter lifespans than most humans. The silver lining to this knowledge is that we can make the most of the time we have with our cats. What we lack in length of time together, we can make up for in depth of bond.
Many of us would agree that part of the feline mystique is, well, the mystique. We think we know our cats, yet there is so much more to these beings than we are capable of perceiving through our ideas about them. The word “cat” is a human label, a construct. Cats aren’t “cats” just because we call them that. When we begin exploring the being behind our label “cat,” to understand ourselves and our felines as expressions of the same mystery, we can deepen our bond even more.
We humans are so accustomed to labeling our experiences that often, we don’t even realize we’re creating labels. While labels are necessary for navigating life—like asking someone to pass the salt or turn left at the gas station—they can also be barriers to truly seeing another.
Thousands of articles offer conventional advice about bonding with your pet. Most of them cover topics like engaging your cat’s intellect (e.g., clicker training); giving a cat scratching posts and/or cat trees, so they can de-stress and sharpen their claws; providing hiding spaces and perches; giving them visual stimulation through windows; playing and feeding in a way that’s aligned with how they play in the wild (hunt-catch-kill-eat); and letting them take the lead in snuggle time, rather than smothering them. These are all crucial to our companions’ physical and mental well-being.
What I’m getting at here, though, is an experience of pure connection. Without the conceptual labels humans have imposed, what are these beings we call “cats”?
All of the below suggestions require removing concepts from the mind. In order to do that, we have to learn to notice that we’re thinking and pause our thoughts. That’s easier said than done, yet in my experience, the practice pays off in a much deeper connection between human and cat.
Step 1: Observe the “raw cat”
Jackson Galaxy uses the phrase “raw cat” to describe cats’ authentic nature, how they would naturally live in the world were it not for human interference. Cats are outdoor creatures, yet we humans have built a world in which it’s largely unsafe for them to go outdoors. (This is the North American perspective; in the UK, it’s often considered cruelty to keep a cat solely indoors.) To see our companions as they truly are, we have to release everything we think we know about cats in general and our cats in particular.
One way to do this is by using treat puzzles. You can create one from an empty toilet paper roll. Take an empty roll and poke a couple of nickel-size holes in the sides. Place a few treats inside, then fold up the ends. Hide it somewhere that isn’t visually obvious, such as inside a bookshelf, the “cubby” of a cat tree, or a box. Watch your cat hunt for it. Most cats will love this game. Notice their ears and whiskers swivel forward. Does their tail curl? Maybe it even quivers with excitement. Does your cat open their mouth to use their vomeronasal organ (an area of the soft palate that enables them to smell exponentially better than humans)? When they find the treat, how do they approach it? Do they hold back and then pounce in one sweeping motion? Do they approach it and bat it around? Observe even the tiniest motions as they figure out how to access the food inside.
Step 2: Look without labeling
Humans are visual creatures. From infancy, most of us are taught that the words we know are an object. Yet labels are not the things themselves; labels are sounds that we agree reference a given object or being. Sometimes these words are called “pointers” because it’s impossible to capture the experience in language. The word “forest,” for example, points to the fragrance of warm pine, and the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, but the word itself is neither of those things.
Choose another time when your cat is resting quietly. Notice all the labels you associate with him or her: tabby, tortie, tuxie. Male/female. Young/old. Aloof/affectionate. As you notice each concept, release it. What do you experience? What do you see? How does it change your perceptions of this being?
Step 3: Touch without naming
This is a sensory exercise. Choose another time when your cat is calm. Place your hand gently on your cat’s fur. Now imagine all the energy in your mind gathering into a tiny ball and moving down your arm, to the place where the palm meets fur.
Release all words and thoughts that come to mind—keep re-directing your attention to the palm of your hand. Focus intensely on the sensation. Notice when you’re tempted to label it, then consciously release the label and come back to the sensation.
Step 4: Make eye contact (gently)
Now let’s go even deeper. Cats’ eyes are the stuff that myths (and novels) are made of. Anyone who has ever lived with a cat can attest to the mysteries contained in their eyes. As a cat reaches maturity, their eyes take on a fractal-like quality, as though they simultaneously contain and reflect all the mysteries in the universe. We’re going to take a look without those concepts.
For this exercise, it’s very important to use a soft gaze; never stare down your cat. Cats, like most mammals, interpret a hard stare as a threat. Instead, soften your eyes as though you’re about to slow-blink. Choose a time when your cat is resting peacefully but awake on your lap. This works best if your cat is facing you. Soften your gaze and look into their eyes, and again, release any concepts. Look without naming. Allow your cat to stare into your eyes without interpreting their gaze. Take in what you see, and let it quiet your mind. What do you notice? How does this change your experience of your cat?
Zen teacher Adyashanti has a line I’ve quoted before: “That which is looking through your eyes is also looking through mine.” In my experience, “that” is also looking through Ariel’s eyes, and Hedda before her. Experiencing “that” created a profound shift in how I perceive Ariel. Of course, I still give Ariel belly rubs and often use a high-pitched voice to praise her (cats prefer higher frequency sounds), yet I’m aware that what I perceive—what I’m capable of perceiving through a human brain—is only a fraction of her whole being. And honestly, it makes me wonder which of us is really the guardian.
In my experience, these exercises lead to an awareness of our cat’s being-ness, their essence as a sovereign expression of nature. For me, it feels like a brief, intense “Oh wow” moment. As a writer, it’s very hard to put this into words. When you experience it, you’ll see what I mean.
In the comments, please share your experiences of these practices, and any others you’ve found helpful for connecting more deeply with your cat.