Purrfect happiness on International Day of Happiness

Mar 20, 2014, 08:42 IST | A Correspondent

Today being Happiness Day, these extracts from the recently released book The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring might throw some light on that elusive subject – through a cat’s eyes

It’s International Day of Happiness and what better to mark it than a browse through a book about finding happiness? More so since it is World Storytelling Day, too. In this novel, the Dalai Lama asks his cat, Rinpoche, to find the true causes of happiness, and the feline obligingly sets out on her journey of discovery. Some extracts...

I remembered the psychologist down at the café describing how people often have little idea about what will make them happy. His illustrations were intriguing, and as he spoke, something else struck me about his message: it was quite familiar because the Dalai Lama often used to say the same thing. He didn’t use words like presentism, but his meaning was identical.

His Holiness also observed how we tell ourselves that our happiness depends on certain situations, relationships, or accomplishments. How we think we’ll be unhappy if we don’t get what we want. Just as he pointed out the paradox that, even when we do get what we want, it often fails to deliver the happiness we expect.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring by David Michie is published by Hay House, Rs 399, available at bookstores and online
The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring by David Michie is published by Hay House, Rs 399, available at bookstores and online

Settling down on the sill, I gazed out into the night. Squares of light flickered through the darkness from the monks’ residences. Aromas wafted through the first floor window, hinting at the evening meals being prepared in the monastery kitchens.

I listened to the bass-toned chants from the temple, as the senior monks brought their early evening meditation session to a close. Despite the trauma of the afternoon and coming back to an empty, unlighted home, as I sat on the sill with my paws tucked under me, I felt a contentment more profound than I would have ever predicted.

What makes you purr? Of all the questions in the world, this is the most important. It is also the great leveller. Because no matter whether you are a playful kitten or a sedentary senior, a scrawny alley Tom or a sleek-coated uptown girl, whatever your circumstances you just want to be happy. Not the kind of happy that comes and goes like a can of flaked tuna, but an enduring happiness. The deep-down happiness that makes you purr from the heart.

I was padding along the corridor of the executive wing when Lobsang called out to me. “HHC! Come here, my little one! There’s something you’ll want to see.” I ignored him, of course. We cats are not given to kowtowing to every plea, entreaty, or even humble petition made by humans. Lobsang was not to be deterred, however, and moments later I was being picked up, taken to his office, and placed on his desk.

“I’m Skyping Bhutan,” he told me. “And I spotted someone I thought you’d like to see.” His computer screen revealed a sumptuously furnished room and to one side of it, a window seat on which a Himalayan cat was lying on her back, sunning her tummy. She had her head tilted back, her eyes closed, and her legs and bushy tail splayed in what Ludo might have termed “the pose of the starfish.”

For cats, this is the most defenceless, trusting, and contented of all poses. It took me a few moments before I realised… could it really be? Yes, it was! But how she had grown! “Her official title is Her Royal Highness’s Cat,” Lobsang told me. “And they tell me she is as adored at the palace there as you are here at Namgyal.”

I watched the rise and fall of Snow Cub’s tummy as she dozed in the sun, remembering how miserable I’d been just days earlier when Chogyal had removed the beige blanket from the bedroom and with it had deprived me of the tender memories of my little girl.

Or so I’d felt at the time. Since then I had come to learn that my unhappiness had been inflicted not by Chogyal but, unintentionally, by myself. By wallowing in my own nostalgic memories, spending so much time thinking about a relationship that had moved on, I had been needlessly carrying pain. Suffering. Meanwhile, Snow Cub had grown into a new life as the beloved palace cat of the queen of Bhutan. Could any mother wish for more?

Turning, I stepped closer to where Lobsang was sitting at his desk and bent down to massage his fingers with my face. “HHC!” he exclaimed. “You’ve never done that before!” As he responded by scratching my neck, I closed my eyes and began to purr. Ludo was right: happiness was not to be found in the past. Not in trying to relive memories, however beguiling. It could only be experienced in this moment, here and now.

Lobsang said, “There are few of us, I think, who don’t make the same mistake. Believing in I’ll be happy when I retire. When I have such and such an amount of money. When I achieve this particular goal.” He paused, smiling at the absurdity of it. “We create our own superstitions and then persuade ourselves to believe in them.” “Superstitions?” challenged Sam. Lobsang nodded. “Inventing a relationship between two things that have no connection, like a broken mirror and bad luck, or a black cat and good luck.”

Lifting my face from the saucer, I looked over at him at that precise moment. All three of them laughed. “Or a Himalayan cat,” offered Serena, “and extreme good luck.” I resumed my lapping. Lobsang continued. “We begin to believe that our happiness depends on a certain outcome or person or lifestyle. That’s the superstition.”

“But I have shelves and shelves here” Sam gestured behind him “filled with books on goal-setting and positive thinking and manifesting abundance. Are you saying they’re all wrong?” Lobsang chuckled. “Oh, no, that’s not what I mean. It can be useful to have goals. Purpose. But we should never believe that our happiness depends on achieving them.

The two are really quite separate.” There was silence while Sam and Serena digested this, broken only by the sound of my lapping and the dogs’ snuffling for crumbs under the table. “If any object, achievement, or relationship was a true cause of happiness, then whoever had such a thing should be happy. but no such thing has ever been found,” continued Lobsang.

“What’s saddest of all is that if we believe that our happiness depends on something we don’t currently have, then we can’t be happy here and now. Yet here and now is the only time we can be happy. We can’t be happy in the future; it doesn’t yet exist.” “And when the future arrives,” reflected Serena, “we discover that whatever we believed would give us happiness doesn’t make us as happy as we thought.” “Exactly,” Lobsang said.

Sam was shifting in his seat. “There was a neuroscience study on this not so long ago. I think it was called ‘The disappointment of success’. It looked at pregoal attainment versus postgoal attainment. Pregoal attainment the positive feeling people get working toward a goal is more intense and enduring in terms of brain activity than postgoal attainment, which elicits a short-lived feeling of release.” “Followed by the question, Is that all there is?” suggested Serena. “The journey really is more important than the destination,” confirmed Lobsang.


On Boredom
Boredom. It’s a terrible affliction, is it not, dear reader? And as far as I can tell, it’s an almost universal one. On an everyday level, there’s the boredom of being wherever you are and doing whatever task lies ahead, whether you’re an executive with a dozen dreary reports to produce before month’s end or a cat on a filing cabinet with a whole empty morning to doze through before those deliciously crispy goujons of sea trout — perhaps with some clotted cream to follow — are served for lunch down at the café.

How often i overhear tourists say, “I can’t wait to get back to civilization” — the very same visitors, I expect, who for several months earlier were eagerly crossing off the days on their calendars in keen anticipation of their once-in-a-lifetime trip to India. “I wish it were Friday” is another variation on the same theme, as if we must somehow endure five days of oppressive tedium for those precious two when we may actually enjoy ourselves. And the problem goes even deeper.

Raising our heads from this particular batch of month-end reports or this specific empty morning on the filing cabinet, when we think of all those still to come, our boredom slides into a more profound existential despair. What’s the point of it all? We may find ourselves wondering, Why bother? Who cares? life can seem a bleak and endless exercise in futility.

For those beings with a broader perspective of Planet Earth, boredom is sometimes accompanied by a darker companion — guilt. We know that compared to many others, our lives are actually quite comfortable. We don’t live in a war zone or in abject poverty; we don’t have to dwell in the shadows on account of our gender or religious opinions. We’re free to eat, dress, live, and walk however we like, thank you very much. but even so, we’re bored beyond measure.

But Chogyal’s death had been an urgent reminder: life is finite; every day is precious. And simply to wake up in good health truly is a blessing, because sickness and death can strike at a moment’s notice. Even though I had known this before — it was, after all, a theme His Holiness often spoke about — there is a big difference between accepting an idea and changing your behaviour.

I had been complacent before, but now I realised that each day of good health and freedom was another day in which to create the causes and conditions for a happier future. Boredom? Lethargy? They seem so irrelevant when remembering how quickly time passes. I understood with stark clarity that for a truly happy and meaningful life, it is necessary first to face death.

Authentically, not just as an idea. Because after that, the twilight skies are never so resplendent, the curls of incense never so mesmerising, the smoked salmon morsels garnished with Dijonnaise sauce down at the café never so lip-smackingly, whisker-tinglingly, tail-swishingly delicious.

Why do cats purr?
The answer may seem perfectly obvious, but as with most other feline activities, it is more complex than it appears. Yes, we purr because we’re content.

The warmth of a hearth, the intimacy of a lap, the promise of a saucer of milk — all of these may prompt our laryngeal muscles to vibrate at an impressive rate. But contentment is not the only trigger. Just as a human may smile when she’s feeling nervous or because she wants to appeal to your better nature, so cats may purr.

A visit to the vet or a trip in the car may prompt us to purr to reassure ourselves. And should your footsteps in the kitchen lead you almost, but not quite, to the only cupboard of feline interest, you may well hear a throaty purr as we curl a tail suggestively around your leg or plead with a more imperative swishing around your ankles.

Bioaccoustical researchers will tell you something else fascinating: the frequency of a cat’s purr is ideal therapy for pain relief, wound healing, and bone growth. We cats generate healing sound waves much the way electrical stimulation is used increasingly in medicine, except that we do it naturally and spontaneously for our own benefit.

(Note to cat lovers: should your darling feline seem to be purring much more than usual, perhaps it’s time to pay a visit to the vet. She may know something about her health that you do not.)

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