we can learn from teachers, sacred texts and cat ladies, but we also have to trust in our experience and be lamps unto ourselves
The cat lady
My Guru is an old lady with eleven cats who wears striped elastic waist pants and a flowered shirt that doesn’t match I have never seen her speak except to her cats at feeding time on the partially dried hedge covered porch
Her nirvana garden an unruly display of rocks, dirt piles and an occasional weed the Zen yard of least labor framed by neighboring roses and picket fences
In comfortable shoes she sets off to the grocery store buying only what she can carry she does not venture often beyond the front gate As I watch and wait each day
When the man from code enforcement stops by she peeks out the window but does not answer the door it has gone on like this for years like an unrequited lover the officer will return only to be rebuffed again
As I walk by in admiration my Guru catches me staring and in a rare moment she speaks to me I wait for her words of wisdom of simplicity and age, She exclaims, “Why don’t you mind your own fuckin business!”
This poem was previously published in River Poets Journal
The Bible as Cat Lady a thought sparked by the poem
For many Christians, Jews, and Muslims the guru isn’t a cat lady. The guru is a sacred text. It’s the Bible, Torah, or Qur’an. I know it sounds a bit blasphemous, but after reading Kathleen Jacobson’s poem, I have to ask the question. What if you turned to the Bible seeking an answer to a big question and the Bible responded: “Mind your own f***in’ business!” It is possible that your Bible is in a bad mood, and you might want to try again. But it is imaginable that this is your guru’s way of saying something like what the Buddha allegedly said on his deathbed: “Be a lamp unto yourself. Partake of no external refuge. Work out your salvation with diligence.”
Here’s the point. Perhaps we make too big a deal of external refuges, textual and otherwise. Perhaps the seemingly callous response of the ornery guru is actually a loving response: a way of saying “Don’t focus so fervently on external sources, look to your own experience.”
It’s an invitation to spiritual empiricism and, at the same time, a critique of bibliolatry.
It’s not as if, once you’ve turned to your own experience, you will necessarily find a final answer. Once you turn to experience, you realize that you are on a journey and that, at every stage in life, there’s an un-decided and indeterminate future, the contents of which cannot be predicted in advance. You discover what Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat call the spirituality of questing. It will also dawn on you that the questing will have no precise end. Just as one question leads to another, so one questing leads to another. This can be unsettling but it can also be enlivening. It means that spiritual fulfillment does not lie peace that ends all questing, but in an endless journey that can include a feeling of peace amid the questioning: what Allan Watts once called the Wisdom of Insecurity. “The merest hint as to finality of statement,” said the philosopher Whitehead, “is an exhibition of folly.”
It is also possible that, once you’ve claimed your own experience as an authority, you can fall into another trap. You can assume that your experience is yours alone, and that “you” are something like a skin-encapsulated ego cut off from the world by the boundaries of the skin. But a little introspection shows that this is not the case. Wherever you turn in your experience, you find others: other people to be sure, and also hills and rivers, trees and stars. You find human artifacts, too: sacred texts, for example. They are all part of you, and you wouldn’t be “you” without them. At every moment, says Whitehead, the many of the world are becoming one in the immediacy of the here-and-now.
With this in mind you can then turn back to your guru, not as an absolute authority that forecloses thinking for yourself, but as a good friend who can be a companion in the journey. You can leave the cat lady alone for a while and then, in time, return and invite her for a cup of tea. You can ask her about her life and listen reverentially. You may or may not find a provisional answer to your original question, but you’ll find new questions and perspectives that will enliven your life. You may grow to love her, even as you give her needed distance. Your ornery guru will then be your friend, and you may even visit her every day in your daily Bible study.