Our Animal Natures

Aug 9, 2017

The cat, whose thick orange hair often lay matted and knotted against his body after his lackluster attempts at self-grooming, could never poop when he left the house. Any time Kacie and I left for the weekend and dropped him off at a cat hotel, he would sit frightened in the corner of his carrier until I coaxed him out, while the kennel employee, often a young woman, crouched nearby, watching us, giving us encouraging coos. Eventually I would have to pull him out the last few inches, grabbing him by the belly as he struggled to gain a foothold on anything that could keep him in the carrier. He never meowed, even in times of great stress like this; he would just get a wild and frightened look in his eyes as he scanned for an exit. After depositing him in his temporary cage I would wave goodbye, smile encouragingly at the young woman, and be off. Then he would not poop for two days.

I am the same way. I cannot poop on any day in which I travel. I'll feel the need; I'll try. But I won't be able to poop. Something inside me will have sensed the difference, the change in surroundings, and interpreted it as danger: a whole complex of muscles will have tightened, tensed, preparing for action and in the process closed off my sphincter. Sitting still, grunting, for a period of time is a luxury my body is convinced it cannot afford. Even after years of mindfulness practice, this is a reaction whose reasoning I don't have access to. There's nothing conscious I can sense, nor, after careful probing, unconscious, that explicates this bracing. It seems entirely physical.

The tightness in my throat seemed to be of the same nature. For a while I thought it was actually a physical ailment - the hard knot in my throat that curled up and was sometimes so painful it caused me to gag was probably a cancerous lump. One night, in college, I gagged and gagged until I started spitting up blood. I went to the hospital; predictably, they said there was nothing wrong with me. Perhaps a stomach bug, they said, and the bile had worn at the lining of my throat.

I took it as a fact of life, but it constantly pulled me away from wherever I was and absorbed me in its world, stirred up worry and fear that there was something wrong with me, something fundamental, there was no better evidence than this, that I was in constant pain. I was different from other people, worse, damaged.

The first psychiatrist I saw to get a prescription for antidepressants was a kooky old man who saw patients out of his house in the north Berkeley hills. I biked up there - at the time I biked everywhere - and was sweating profusely by the time I arrived.

"Did you look me up like I told you to?" was one of the first things he asked.

"Um, a little"

"Well you should always look up the people you're going to see. Me, you see, I'm a radical skeptic. If you had looked me up, you would have found this article I just wrote. Here, take a look."

He pulled out a copy of Radical Skeptic magazine, with a picture of a UFO on the front. Uh oh, I thought. I just wanted this to be over as fast as possible. I didn't even want to take the medication, it was only after having worked in therapy for several months that I began to see the need for it. I still retained a streak of Puritanism from my upbringing - the only real good in life comes from work and suffering; anything easy was suspect.

He droned on, finally getting around to asking me what I was looking for here, and asked me to describe what I meant by "depression". I explained, eventually getting to the tightness in my throat and chest.

"And when do you feel it?" he asked.

"All the time," I answered.

"All the time? Really? Even right now?"


"Well that's ridiculous. You're not under any stress right now."

That visit didn't go well.

A decade later, after years of therapy and medication and mindfulness practice, I began to be able to see the knot form. It would start, actually, with a clenching of my jaw, in anticipation of some event - seeing my mother for example. I would periodically become aware of the pressure on my molars, and then notice that the muscles around my jaw and up my cheekbones had tightened; they were tensed in anticipation. After a day or so the muscles on the bottom of my chin would start to constrict, and eventually, that old familiar spot on the left side of my adam's apple would start to ache with a sharp pain. Just like the cat, my body braced itself of its own accord, under its own volition, entirely apart from my conscious control. There was nothing I could "do" to alter this behavior; I could only watch. But that's the beauty of mindfulness - in watching we transcend. My conscious mind wants nothing more than to escape, to avoid the pain. With a still mind I've been able to watch it unfold, to trace the progress of a whole host of interconnected muscles tightening and tensing. And somehow, the spread of these fires has started to lessen.


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