I wrote this post in December 2012. I’m re-posting it now, because some of us might have to re-consider our “cats.”
Are you trapped in your traditions? Do they serve you, or do you serve them?
I pondered this question after reading a Paulo Coelho blog piece about an ancient Japanese story, which I will paraphrase here:
A great Zen Buddhist master had a cat. The cat was his constant companion even during the meditation classes he led. When the old master passed away, another disciple took his place and continued to allow the cat to join in meditation. When the original cat died, the disciples missed its presence, so they found another.
Disciples from other regions heard about the cat who attended meditation classes, and spread the story around to others. These disciples believed that the cat was the reason for the greatness of the Zen Buddhist master. Other temples began to bring cats to class.
Eventually, writings began to appear about the importance of cats during meditation. A university professor studied the issue and wrote a thesis about the effects of cats on concentration and energy. Disciples began to believe that cats were essential to meditation.
Soon, an instructor who was allergic to cats decided to remove the animal from his daily classes. Other disciples were aghast and reacted negatively, believing the cat to be essential to their success. But his students made the same progress even without the cat.
Generations passed and, one by one, monasteries began removing cats from meditation. After all, it was a burden feeding all those cats. In fact, students began to study the benefits of meditating without animals. More time passed until “cat,” or “no cat” was no longer a matter of consideration. But it took many years for the full cycle, because “during all this time, no one asked why the cat was there.”
Christmas is one of the most tradition-bound times of the year. Christmas trees, shortbread, gifts, overspending on gifts, turkey, family gatherings, family fights, church services, candles, crèches, Santa, pageants, parties with too much rum eggnog, carols . . . These things have been part of our current version of the holidays for so long we have started to believe that Christmas is not Christmas without them. If we were to suggest not including them, people would react with aghast negativity.
Why are those “cats” in the room? Is feeding them becoming a burden?
Christmas means different things to different people. For me, it recalls the birth of a compassionate movement toward “all is one.” It recalls the birth of a man—an activist—who sought social justice and lived the idea that every person contains the divine spark.
As I meditate my way toward Christmas this year, whether I invite some of those “cats” to join me or not, the movement toward “all is one” by all of us divine sparks continues regardless.
“A bayberry candle burned to the socket puts luck in the home, food in the larder and gold in the pocket.”
We adopted the tradition in our house, until it became almost impossible to find bayberry taper candles. Taper candles are out of vogue generally, and bayberry candles even more so. Imagine how pleased I was, then, when one of my book club members gave me bayberry taper candles for Christmas. (She might have been a little taken aback by how pleased I was with the gift.) When I got home from my book club meeting, I happily placed a bayberry candle in my nativity scene once again.
I did a little research, and I discovered that my mother-in-law’s version of the tradition differed from the original. According to on-line sources, the candles were burned on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, not Christmas Day like my mother-in-law did. And my mother-in-law lit her candle on Christmas morning and let it burn throughout the day, whereas the traditional bayberry candles burned on Christmas Eve evening, and the flame had to continue burning into Christmas Day to carry the luck forward; same for New Year’s Eve.
I thought, ever so briefly, about changing my tradition to align with the legend, but then I dismissed the idea. Traditions—the good ones, anyway—are really rituals, and rituals—the good ones, anyway—warm the soul, revive memories of loved ones and centre us in what is really important.
If I were to light a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, it would feel wrong, like a betrayal. It would not warm my soul.
So I’ll keep on lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas morning. When I do, it will warm my soul, it will remind me of my mother-in-law, and it will centre me in what is really important. And that, I suspect, will bring me more luck than anything.