There is nothing quite like the will to reach higher planes. We’re all striving for that complete, fulfilled life and the learning to making it all happen. Sometimes it finds us in the most unlikely places, through most unlikely people, and at times we least expect. The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, is one such magical book – it illuminates the way to a happier place.
A slum kitten is rescued by The Dalai Lama himself and by virtue of living with him at his monastery in Dharamshala, is exposed to everything in His Holiness’ life, including timeless wisdom, Hollywood celebrities and lessons at the feet of Buddhist masters. A seemingly unburdened, often hilarious read, The Dalai Lama’s Cat contains spiritual lessons that will pique your interest in the big stuff and remain with you long after you put the book down.
The author, David Michie, enlightens us on the book, his writing process and learning life lessons from cats.
TFT: Why do you think people are so divided between loving cats and dogs? Are you the male equivalent of the crazy cat lady or have there been some dogs in your life as well?
David Michie: I grew up with both, not to mention parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters. I have always been keen on animals - in fact until I was 16, I wanted to be a vet. The cat vs dog thing is just a bit of fun for me.
TFT: It seems everyone who reads The Dalai Lama’s Cat recommends it to five others, just as the Buddhist scriptures themselves travel, hand to hand. What about the book do you think appeals to people so much?
DM: It's written by a cat - what's not to like?! Seriously, in 'The Dalai Lama's Cat' readers enter a warm, congenial and hopefully entertaining world where they may discover some insights or practices to enhance personal growth and happiness. Their guide is a playful and all too fallible cat who perhaps reminds them a bit of themselves. Though it's fiction, I hope it also provides a nurturing environment in which the possibility of self discovery lurks behind every page.
TFT: What inspired you to write the book from the point of view of a cat? It works perfectly, but it’s a very unusual choice.
DM: When I heard that His Holiness once had a cat I thought "What an amazing life the cat must lead. Think of all the intriguing conversations she must overhear. The celebrities who come visiting. The way she would be treated because she is The Dalai Lama's Cat". That was the starting point.
TFT: I loved how you simplified Buddhist teachings and expressed them through the eyes of His Holiness’ Cat – ‘HHC’ or ‘Bodhicatva’ as some refer to her in the book. Staying with The Dalai Lama, what do you think the most important lesson she learnt was?
DM: The importance of practising loving kindness towards others. This may seem a somewhat vague, lovey-dovey, idealistic notion, but there is now neuroscientific evidence that thinking compassionately about others is the most effective way to become happier oneself. His Holiness often talks about this, for good reason.
TFT: You seem very familiar with His Holiness’s daily routine in Dharamshala, how his office functions, the various duties his staff have etc. Were you ever living at the monastery there or do you just have a brilliant imagination?
DM: This is very much a work of fiction. Let's just leave it at that!
TFT: The characters in the book are so beautifully nuanced. Are they based on people you know? I feel like I know quite a few Francs . . . and maybe a Mrs. Trinci!
DM: Yes, I think there is a bit of Franc and Mrs Trinci in us all! Franc is someone who starts off assuming that a spiritual journey is a project of the ego, a way to be different from other people, before realizing what an idiot he is being. Mrs Trinci has anger management problems. In both cases they begin to evolve. Like other writers, I certainly look around me for characters ... but I also look within.
TFT: Do you think we’re slowly becoming religion junkies? We need a quick-fix to feel good and so we shuttle between one religion and the other, or manically learn tools like Reiki and EFT and Pranic Healing and so on, without stopping to absorb much of any?
DM: My very kind teacher once said to me: "A spiritual realization is what happens when your understanding of something deepens to the point that it changes your behaviour." Genuine realizations usually take time, contemplation and meditation to occur. There are few quick fixes. It is sad when people chase after this quasi-spiritual fad or that, constantly seeking happiness outside themselves, when its source is actually inside each one of us.
TFT: HHC discovers the importance of making time to be with yourself, be it through meditation or just watching your thoughts. Do you have any advice for people who can’t find the time to be with themselves?
DM: Set your alarm clock ten minutes earlier. You might think ten minutes is nothing, but if you're not a meditator, ten minutes of meditation a day will change your life.
TFT: How do you set yourself up for a writing session? Is there music and food involved or do you need a quiet spot with a desk and a view?
DM: I don't have food or distractions - although a mug of tea on the side is always nice. I have to squeeze my writing into a busy schedule of other daily activities, so I don't have a regular time slot either. I do ask help from all the Buddhas when writing, that what I deliver will be a direct cause for all living beings to become enlightened.
TFT: Ernest Hemingway famously said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ How much of you and your life has gone into the writing of this book?
DM: In one sense you could say less than a year. In another, it is not so much the time it took to write, as the time it has taken me to be in a position to write it, which is the journey of not just one lifetime!
TFT: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt as a writer/human being?
DM: I need to get over myself. Thinking about me, myself and I is a tragic misdirection of energy. By stepping back and taking the 'I' out of it all, it's possible to experience the boundless consciousness from which this mental elaboration of 'I' arises.
TFT: Reading the book, it feels like the best thing we can do for the planet is to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves and others. The conversation that The Dalai Lama has with the young girl who turned vegetarian but is medically advised to eat meat was so interesting because he told her it was fine to eat meat to help herself. Why did you find it important to have this in the book?
DM: Because many people have fairly hard-line, black and white views about vegetarianism (or any ideology for that matter) which is, in fact, a complex subject. Not eating meat doesn't stop the killing - it just pushes it down the food chain to the insects and bugs killed to grow vegetables. On the other hand, are some beings more sentient than others? I wanted to offer a more balanced, informed perspective.
TFT: Is there anyone you admire (besides the Dalai Lama) for living life in an evolved, contented way?
DM: There are many people, both within and outside the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but none of them are household names. For example, my Vajra Acharya, Geshe Loden, who died last year, endured enormous hardship in his early years in Tibet, before having to leave the country, but became a fully enlightened master, whose wisdom, compassion and power continue to inspire all his students. Then there's my good friend John who was seriously injured by a landmine during the Rhodesian war, and is now completely blind, and who later had his farm stolen from him by so called 'war veterans,' but who is an inspiration - always relaxed, humorous and a model of courage and equanimity. There are many other people with whom I feel humbled to walk.
TFT: How would the Dalai Lama react when presented with the ‘gift’ of a dead mouse?
DM: With equanimity.
TFT: What are you reading these days? Any books you’ve been inspired by lately?
DM: There are so many! Just three recent favourites are Daniel Gilbert's 'Stumbling on Happiness;' B Alan Wallace's 'Minding Closely,' and Andrea Eames 'The Cry of the Go-Away Bird.'
TFT: If you could do one thing all day, what would it be?
As told to Aeshna Roy, a designer and writer living in Delhi who sometimes travels to monasteries and is very much in awe of The Dalai Lama.
Fall on all fours with The Dalai Lama's Cat at www.hayhouse.co.in.
'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. [WS, Othello, III.3]Read More
By Aeshna Roy, Issue 19, Will: A Desire and A Destination, March 2013