Q&A about Choosing to Be
1. Choosing to Be is a rather unusual story in that it involves a talking cat. What is the book about, and why did you decide to write it in this way?
Choosing to Be is the story of how I overcame depression by learning to meditate. Perhaps the quickest way to explain what it’s about is that it is a bit of a Don Quixote type of story, except that instead of Quixote’s trusty horse, my companions were a Feline Zen Master and his kitten muse.
As to why I decided to tell the story in this way, the cat, Poohbear Degoonacoon, was with me throughout my journey and he was a very important part of my recovery. I could have chosen to write the book as a narrative, simply describing what I went through. But much of the story is about what was going on in my mind. Describing something that happens internally needs a creative device to engage the reader.
People learn best from stories – this is why myths and fables and fairytales are so important to us. I wanted to create a story with a heroic plot, compelling characters, thought-provoking dialogue, and some humor thrown in for good measure. The two main characters in the story are Poohbear and me. Since I wanted to write dialogue, well, Pooh had to be able to talk.
This is a true-life story about becoming a meditator — the struggles, the frustration, dealing with intense emotions that arise in mediation – all the things one experiences on this journey to understand how our “ordinary” mind works — and to attain the freedom of what I know as our Buddha mind.
2. There is also a kitten, Catzenbear. Why is this character important to the story?
When you are deeply depressed, it is difficult to gain clarity – there is too much “noise” coming from your depressive thoughts. Poohbear suggested that a good way to begin our journey was to get a kitten, because kittens are closer to the original Buddha nature – to Beginner’s Mind, if you will. I also needed something to change my state, to change the environment. A kitten would bring laughter and joy back into my life. Catzenbear also served as a great example for some of Pooh’s teaching points – the kitten was the muse for the Feline Zen Master.
3. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
I’m aiming for nothing short of magic – to have an impact on the reader’s health and happiness. By demystifying Buddhism and meditation through an entertaining story, which is a very different approach from that of other books about meditation, Choosing to Be illustrates the true power of meditation, and helps the reader believe that becoming a meditator is within their grasp.
So many people today are becoming human “doing” machines. Stress, burnout, depression, and chronic illness are taking their toll. $40 billion a year is spent on antidepressant medication. And stress is hurting not only our health, it is shutting down our creativity, at a time when what we need is clear and creative thinking.
My mission with Choosing to Be is to promote the practice of slowing down and learning to be still. By doing this, we become more aware of the world we are creating in our minds – and this awareness allows us to explore more mindful choices about how we live our lives. It’s all about mindfulness.
4. Why do you believe meditation and mindfulness are so important?
According to the polls, most people seem to agree that our by and large frantic activity is not resulting in fruitful outcomes. We generate a lot of action, but we do it mindlessly. With the mind-warping speed of technology, we are “on” all the time. The use of prescription drugs is skyrocketing, depression is our 3rd biggest health problem, the planet is being abused, animals and food are being genetically modified – basically we are out of our natural context. And all of this is being created from our “ordinary” minds – stressed, fearful, anxious, flea-like minds that are hopping from one thought to the next, with very little awareness on our part of what is actually going on in there. And what is going on in our minds is running what we are doing out in the world.
Contrast this with a world in which we are aware of our thoughts and we are not governed by them, where we take the time to sit in silence, to learn to observe the passing parade of feelings these thoughts generate, to develop tolerance for “difficult” or “scary” feelings instead of pushing them away with busyness or mind numbing substances. This would be a much different experience – where we listen more than talk, where we take time to reflect on our behavior and learn from it, where we learn compassion for ourselves and others, and find joy in the simple act of sitting still with nothing to distract us from our minds.
Many studies have proven that there are very real benefits to our health and well-being from meditating – and all of these are very important. But what drives me to ceaselessly promote meditation is my vision of a world where people are run not by their “ordinary” minds, but one in which they know the freedom and peace of their Buddha minds.
5. If there are so many documented benefits from meditation, why don’t more people do it?
Why don’t more people lose weight, or stop smoking, or exercise, or – whatever they know is good for them? Doing any of these means we have to change our thinking and our behavior. Just setting an intention to do something and thinking that will work is doomed to failure. We set intentions with our conscious mind (which is 5%). But we are controlled by our subconscious mind (95%) – and by our environment. So – we need inspiration, support, teachers, and, most importantly, a road map of the ups and downs on the path ahead so that we have a realistic picture of what to expect when we attempt to change our thoughts and patterns of behavior.
6. In the book, you encountered many obstacles and setbacks to becoming a meditator. Would you share a few of these with us?
The first obstacle for me was one of motivation. I had tried to meditate before and hadn’t succeeded, so I didn’t see how it could be any different. I needed to be reminded of my motivation, and Poohbear did a great job of this when he said:
“What does it matter whether it is different now, Kat? You have been struggling with this depression for a long time, and as you have said yourself, you are at the end of your rope. You must trust that you picked up this book this morning for a reason. It is a sign. You need to open yourself up to answers you cannot even envision yet.”
He paused for effect and gave me one of his wise, omniscient looks. “I know more about Buddha nature than you can imagine. I can help you. It is only a matter of deciding where to begin. ”
So — there you have the tough talk, encouragement, support, and inspiration one often needs in order to find the courage to change.
Another big obstacle in the beginning was dealing with a very basic problem – how is one supposed to physically sit? I won’t go into the story here, but suffice it to say that Poohbear taught me there is no “perfect” way to sit, that I needed to find a way that worked for me. That changed everything.
Perhaps my favorite obstacle comes in the middle of the book, when I have made a great deal of progress in my meditation practice, but then I begin to experience very strong and uncomfortable feelings coming up in my sittings. I don’t know how to deal with these and am ready to give up when Pooh tells me:
“The problem you are having, Kat, is that you cannot solve this in the logical way you have solved problems before. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem at the same level at which it was created. In other words, you cannot solve these problems with your ordinary mind.”
To me, this sums up the situation we are in today. We are trying to solve extraordinary problems with our ordinary minds. We are working at this at the wrong level and the harder we work at it, the less progress we will make. It is time for us to stop Doing and Doing and Doing — and begin to value the paradigm shifting power of choosing to Be.