If you’re like me, you love cats. Why do we find these creatures so irresistible?
Perhaps like myself, you’ve owned a cat — or more likely, been owned by one. You know the joy that cats can bring, even when they’re being obnoxious. What is it about cats that captures our hearts and enslaves us through their charm?
What follows can also be applied to dogs. But I’m a cat person, so I’m focusing here on cats.
These beautiful creatures have a rare quality that we humans would do well to cultivate: a large capacity to receive affection. When a lovely cat saunters our way, it’s not easy to resist the impulse to stroke him or her, even when it’s not so wise. On a recent trip to Thailand, I spotted an irresistible cat in a café. I foolishly felt safe to approach her with an offer of affection. When she rolled on her back, I took this to mean that my advances were welcomed. But shockingly, she abruptly changed her mind and scratched me before I had time to withdraw. Perhaps this was a cat with an ambivalent attachment (link is external)style.
As blood was flowing from my hand, the café owner offered a belated warning: “I meant to tell you she’s a feral cat and it’s best to keep your distance.” I replied, “Well, thanks for the warning, but she seemed so irresistible.” Next time, I’ll maintain better boundaries, but the incident made me wonder why some of us (or is it just me?) will expose ourselves to danger for the potential gratification of petting a darned cat?
One reason we may love to stroke these adorable creatures is because the rhythmic action of stroking their velvety fur feels good. It focuses our attention, as happens in meditation. But I’m convinced there’s more to it than that.
I believe that a major reason we love cats is because of an uncanny ability that few humans possess: they register our tactile presence in a deeply felt way. They really know how to let us in! They’re right there in the delectable moment receiving our touch.
Delighting in our physical presence, they may begin to purr and perhaps roll on their backs, exposing their vulnerability — as if to say, “I trust you. Give me some love and make me feel good.” Their gift to us is that they receive us deeply, without any troubling cognitions or disturbing memories of less savory moments, such as when we forgot to feed them or clean their litter box. They let all of that go. They’re just here with us right now.
Perhaps you’re blessed to have a partner who receives you in a deep way. What a gift to sense that your partner is really letting you in! But sadly, most of us humans have blocks to receiving deeply and freely. Perhaps past conflicts or traumas have muddied the waters. Or, we’ve been taught that giving is nobler than receiving and we believe that we’re selfish if we receive uninhibitedly.
Cats teach us that this ain’t so! Most likely, we don’t judge cats as being selfish; we relish how openly they let us in. Or, perhaps we think they’re selfish, but we don’t mind. We humans could use more healthy narcissism in regard to receiving people more deeply.
Research has shown that cats can be very healing for us. A 10-year research study(link is external) suggests that cat owners were less likely to die of heart attacks than people who have never owned one. The latter group was 40 percent more likely to die from heart attacks and 30 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Other studies confirm that cats can lower our blood pressure and release dopamine and serotonin(link is external), which reduce stress and improve immune functioning.
Cats can also help release oxytocin(link is external), which is associated with the feeling of being in love. As we know, love heals, and perhaps an important aspect of this healing is the bonding created by their ability to receive us deeply. I have fond memories of my now deceased cat slowly sauntering toward me and lying on my chest, purring. It’s a precious feeling that puts us into a relaxed state.
As expressed by Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule(link is external), this love bond may explain why “people spend thousands of dollars to treat a pet medically rather than euthanize it and simply get a new animal.”
If you’re fortunate to have an affectionate cat in your life, notice how he or she receives your affection. How do you feel inside when you’re being deeply received? Similarly, when someone who you like gives a hug or offers affection, experiment with letting it in. Be a cat. Get out of your head, take a deep, easy breath, and be mindfully present with how it feels in your body to receive a hug and affection from a loved one. Whether from a cat or human, letting in love just might heal you.
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships(link is external). His other books include The Authentic Heart(link is external) and Love & Betrayal(link is external). He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy. www.johnamodeo.com(link is external)