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Several months ago, I started volunteering at my local no-kill animal shelter. Spending time there has now become one of the great joys of my life. How can it not be when I am greeted by a sweet face like this when I go into work?

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Darla

At first I was rather intimidated by the whole thing. I was scared it was going to be depressing. Plus, the shelter needed the most help with the cats, and I’ve always been firmly planted in Camp Dog. The night before volunteer orientation, I stared at the ceiling at 3 am, convinced that this whole shelter idea was going to be too hard and just wasn’t my thing.

I’m so glad I try things that I’m convinced aren’t my thing. (See also: doing yoga in a really hot room.)

I immediately fell in love with my new gig and found myself a niche. I now tend to work with the … um … “difficult” cats. For unknown reasons, I gravitate to these troubled souls. I love the ones who have just recently come into the shelter, the ones who are not cute nor cuddly. They are freaked out and terrified and just a tiny bit evil-looking.

Usually, with lots of patience, love and salmon-flavored treats, they get more comfortable. They slowly relax and become sweet creatures who can be adopted to their new forever homes. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch a cat under my care transform from holy terror to purring lap companion.

The other day, I was working with a cat that has been exceptionally challenging – Xena. I was just talking to her for about 20 minutes while she was in her cage. I attempted to slowly scratch her ears but she kept backing away and giving me that wide-eyed killer cat look, and so I just talked to her more. I hate to admit it but at a certain point, hearing myself blabbering on to her – without seeming to give her any comfort – got a little tedious.

My mind wandered. I thought about checking my phone, I wondered if we had food in the house for dinner…when WHAM! SLASH! Out came Xena’s claws and suddenly my hand was a bloody mess. I was shocked: she had felt me mentally wandering away and my lack of mindfulness had made her nervous and defensive.

By the time I stopped swearing and pouring hand sanitizer all over my shredded fingers, it all struck me as pretty fascinating.

Animals are much more in tune with things like this, but anyone can see it when we are really being aware. Xena’s behavior exemplified something that happens everywhere in my life – when I forget to stay in the present moment, life gets much more uncomfortable and challenging.

Another place I can see that very clearly is the hot room. I can be doing a perfectly acceptable Standing Bow, but when I let my mind go off to write that email and recreate that misunderstanding with my friend…I fall on my face. It’s all about balance and when my monkey-mind is in charge, the balance is off. When I’m truly present in my yoga practice, I can connect with each muscle and tendon and cell in my body.

When I’m present with the shelter cats, I can be totally attuned to the nuance of the connection with them. I can feel when they are overwhelmed and need to crawl back into their beds to be alone. I can feel when they are ready to surrender a little and that sweet, warm motor inside them starts to purr. I can feel when they are ready be held for a little while and I can walk them up and down the aisles of the shelter so they can observe the bustling activity from the safety of my arms. I can connect with both myself and the world around me when I’m not distracted by my own thoughts.

But when I’m lamenting about the fact that I need to go return that thing at Home Depot, I miss all that beauty. I overlook all the potential in Xena, the potential in me and the potential in life itself.

And living that kind of life that is even more painful than Purelle on a cat scratch.

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