In 1994 a small feral cat had a litter of six kittens in my back yard. Known by my neighbors and me as “Mama Kitty,” she has roamed my neighborhood, sometimes dining on my front porch, sometimes elsewhere, for 17 years. For the past year she has lived on my front porch, undoubtedly drawn there by the outdoor heating pad I installed for her last fall before the weather turned cold.
Mama Kitty has defied the odds. While it is hard to determine exactly, the average lifespan of a feral cat is generally considered to be about three to five years. At least 18, Mama Kitty likely has some good genes, but just as important, she has the smarts to keep herself out of trouble. Her cautious nature has served her well.
For most of her life, Mama has not let even the humans who have fed her—my partner and me—within three feet of her. A few days ago, she allowed me to pet her while she was eating. She even purred. And today, she nonchalantly walked through my front door and sat on my living room rug as if she’d been living there all her life. This from a cat whose only prior experience with the indoors happened 17 years ago when my neighbor and I trapped her and had her (and the entire litter) neutered.
My initial reaction was shock. This quickly turned into awe and inspiration. If a cat whose conditioning caused her to live in fear of humans for 17 (or more) years can suddenly chuck that fear, what are the possibilities for me?
One of Yoga’s benefits, if not intentions, is that it leads us to freedom from fear that stifles our lives. When we become present to the truth of constant flux in our lives, we realize there is nothing to cling to, nothing to fear losing—even our lives in these bodies. We understand that everything we love (or hate), everything we think we are, will eventually cease to be. Clinging to that which will necessarily change only causes suffering.
Fear of death is one of the hindrances to freedom listed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, along with ignorance of our real nature, egoism, attachment and aversion. Ignorance is listed as the source of all these hindrances, and is characterized by the failure to distinguish between (as translated by Alistair Shearer) the permanent and the impermanent, the pure and the impure, bliss and suffering, the Self and the non-Self. When we live in avidya, wrong view or misunderstanding, our lives become caught in seeking after impermanent pleasures and avoiding pain (also impermanent), rather than living fully, clearly in each moment.
Mama Kitty’s bold move away from fear and into freedom has taught me that we all have the capacity to rise above even the most elemental, conditioned fears, no matter how long we have held them. In this process, new worlds can open to us, along with new ways of living in this one. In letting go of her fear of being harmed, Mama Kitty has opened herself to new pleasures—secure, comfortable shelter and the pleasure of loving contact.
Here’s part of a quote from J. Krishnamurti on freedom from fear:
“You cannot live without dying. You cannot live if you do not die psychologically every minute. This is not an intellectual paradox. To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be dying to everything of yesterday, otherwise you live mechanically, and a mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is.
Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death. The man who is not frightened of life is not frightened of being completely insecure for he understands that inwardly, psychologically, there is no security. When there is no security there is an endless movement and then life and death are the same. The man who lives without conflict, who lives with beauty and love, is not frightened of death because to love is to die.”
What fears are you ready to release?