“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.
I will never forget the look in my little Rascal’s eyes as he gazed intently at me his last night on earth. It was as if he knew his end was near, but it was also a look that said I somehow failed him and betrayed him. It went straight to my soul and shook me to my core.
He was suffering from end stage chronic kidney disease and I knew he was failing. There wasn’t anything I could do to help. I had left him for hours that day as I knew he just wanted to rest in quiet, but I should have been there with him. Just knowing I was there may have comforted him. And I didn’t realize he was so weak that he couldn’t get up to get badly needed water or a bit of food. Upon my return I sat with him and offered water and food. He rejected food but went for the water. His head bobbed strangely as he tried to find the dish, and I worried his eyesight was failing. I thought to take him into bed with me but he had shifted position and had his back to me, so I let him be.
The next morning he refused both food and water. Panicked, I asked my vet for an appetite stimulant. I gave him a small dose and checked on him regularly as always. Suddenly he yowled… I ran to him…his pupils had fully dilated and I realized he had gone blind. I raced him to the vet.
His retinas had detached due to high blood pressure, so he could barely see. He had lost a lot of weight, was anemic and jaundiced as he developed fatty liver. His body temperature was low, his organs were failing. It was all too much.
He was lethargic from the mirtazapine appetite stimulant and I believe had serotonin syndrome from it. I was only trying desperately to save him.
I watched him struggling to stand and I knew he knew where he was – at the vet, the place to get help. But he was so weak, defeated and helpless. It broke my heart. As he laid on his side, his hugely dilated eyes gazing in my direction, I looked deep into them for a sign that he had had enough. It was like staring into an abyss…it was as if he was slipping away.
So I had to make that most painful decision of my life to let him go.
I will never forget his last night, his last day, or the way he looked at me. His soul and mine are forever one. Our ashes will be commingled when I die, and we’re to be buried under the same tree in a willow grove that is forever protected, so that we can unite and return our life spirits to become part of a living being together.
I am so sorry for your loss of Rascal. You did everything you could in the moment, and you knew when it was time. It is the hardest decision most of us will ever have to make. I’m glad that you were able to make that connection (the one that can’t be put into words), and that you know he’s with you.
I very much doubt there was any sense on his part that you’d “failed” or “betrayed” him. I suspect in your own terrible sadness you misread the look in his eyes. As you wrote, cats know when their life is ebbing away, and I am sure what you saw in his eyes was his sadness at knowing he had to leave you.
My beloved little rascal was killed on the road last October, the very morning I was going away again (I was working abroad at the time). The night before, he was on the bed with me and my husband and I was sure I read sadness in his eyes. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but project into his expression a knowledge that it was his last ever night with us, but I know that’s not possible. I just felt so guilty at making him sad by my leaving, and I worried that somehow how I’d caused the tragedy. Often I feel I can’t carry on without him; he was so young and healthy and loving. We project human emotions/understanding onto our companions, but as the post advises, we have to acknowledge their cat-ness.