The balm of compassion

The universe persists in sending us what we need to grow in awareness and feel our connection to all that is. Often it doesn’t seem so; in fact, often it feels the reverse, especially when we’re faced with one challenge after another. But, as the saying goes, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” — within challenge lies opportunity — as a recent incident in my own life illustrates.

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At dusk one day, I heard an unusual animal sound and went outside to investigate. I quickly realized this was the voice of a young cat (or “catlet”); the voice was loud, strident, the animal in distress. The sound sourced from the big banyan tree on my neighbor’s property — the catlet was up in the tree and unable to get down.

My own cat, Bonnie, responded to the situation as well, following me around as I began to investigate.

My neighbors weren’t home (they don’t live there full time), so I went next door to see if I could help. I used my cat voice to make contact and the catlet responded, calling even more frantically. By following the sound I knew where in the tree the animal was, far out of my reach but not so high that access by a long extension ladder was impossible. Foliage obscured the view and we couldn’t make eye contact. We conversed for a few minutes, my intention (and hope) to coax the catlet down. But my attempt was unproductive and finally I walked back home.

Bonnie patrolled while I was next door and met me in the driveway near the gate.

Dusk turned to dark, and the catlet continued to call. I tried once more to coax the animal down, making my way with a flashlight. But to no avail. I was perturbed by the situation and knew I’d have to wait till morning to help further if the catlet couldn’t get down during the night. I slept but my sleep wasn’t restful and I awoke early, just before dawn.

In the middle of the night, Bonnie plucked at the screen door of the bedroom, her way of asking to come in. Very unusual: she rarely wants to come in at night. I heard her in my sleep and, knowing she would persist, got up to open the door. She came into bed with me and curled up, remaining there till I got up in the morning.

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I heard the catlet calling as I drank my morning tea. But the sound was softer, more sporadic — a sign that fatigue, shock, exposure were taking a toll.

I went next door again and called, but there was no response. I was surprised. I walked around, tried again. And again. Still nothing. Did the catlet come down while I was dressing? Had it given up? Wild animals can quickly die from shock. Reluctantly I headed back home.

Yet as soon as I got home, the catlet started calling again. So I went back next door. This time the source of the voice wasn’t where it had been before; in fact it seemed to be moving around, harder to pinpoint…lower down, perhaps emanating from a hidden nook at the base of one of the multiple banyan trunks. It was…right there…but where?

Suddenly, I saw what I’d been hearing; in fact I nearly stepped on it. The “catlet” turned out to be a tiny, rain-soaked, bedraggled orange-striped kitten whose eyes were barely open. It had fallen out of the tree — both a blessing and a curse. I scooped it up, hugged it to my heart, and walked to my other neighbor, our veterinarian. She took the little guy (yes, a male) into her care as she headed to her clinic. The rescue was a success, but would the kitten survive?

And how in the world did he get in that tree? He was far too small and young to climb it. I could only conclude he’d been dinner for an owl, yet miraculously escaped that fate.

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The day the kitten incident began, I was reading in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche — a marvelous find at the library’s recent annual book-sale fundraiser. I’ve been making my way slowly through these rich teachings. That very afternoon I’d been reading about tonglen, the powerful practice for cultivating compassion. Sogyal Rinpoche’s words touched me; they seemed to be exactly what I needed to hear. And then, as if by universal orchestration, the kitten episode. What could be more perfectly designed to evoke compassion — to open my heart — than the distress of a suffering animal?

The kitten and I each got something we needed. Tough and strong-willed, he survived and is being fostered till he finds a home.  Under natural conditions, many feral kittens don’t make it, and ironically this one’s ordeal may have saved him. Even a kitten can have a destiny.

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