What Buddhism can teach you about cleaning up cat hair

August 31 | Guest post by Ginny Bartolone
Week 12 - Dust Bunny Large Enough To Have a Name
By: kim_carpenter_nj – CC BY 2.0

It's Sunday morning at 7 a.m., and I'm up with unexpected energy. I lay out my yoga mat and sun salute to plank position. And this is when it happens. A tumbleweed of cat hair the size of a small muffin bounces past my face. My eyes come into focus, and, horrified, I realize that the floor is covered in mini-tumbleweeds of cat hair and other mysterious dust. I lunge back into a child's pose of despair and debate interrupting my practice to vacuum.

But here's the thing: I vacuumed last night. Literally about twelve hours before this moment, I went through the whole room with my "pet hair specific" vacuum, equipped with this crazy little filter that sucks the floating fur out of the air, you know, the pesky ones that get caught in the ceiling fan and circle you as you're trying to sweep. And here I am, convinced that the coast is clear, that I can be proud of my morning floor! Instead, I lie here wondering what I did wrong. Tiber and Viola have already found a corner of my yoga mat to flatten themselves across, launching a puff of loose fur as they plop.

This isn't a new problem. As soon as I moved into an apartment with my husband, we happily adopted a cat. Since then, our very loved fur balls have been haunting my yoga time. I realize the great irony. The purpose of yoga and meditation is to rejoin my body with my mind. It's the way I set up my brain and intention for the day ahead. It's what I do to avoid marching around like an anxiety-ridden grump-pants all day. So I've had to do a lot of work in order to find a way to tackle this cat fur distraction, a distraction which was clearly trying to teach me something.

Over the years, here were the three options I saw before me, and their results:

zen and the art of cleaning cat hair

1. Ignore the dust, keep doing yoga

In other words, suppress! Suppress with all your might. I found that carrying on with yoga with the intention of ignoring the floor dust did not help me. It was the same as seeing an emotional issue, telling myself to "choose happiness," and quashing those nagging little emotions back to whence they came. The remainder of my yoga was rushed, frustrated, disconnected. And it was always during these moments that Viola would get up in my face even more, usually finding some way to lovingly wrap her paws around my head while I try to hold a precarious position. It's as if to say, "Hey, we're still here, do you see me? Helloooo, do you like my fur? Are you gonna clean that up?"

2. Stop doing yoga, clean the house in a fit of rage

Also not awesome. For a period of time in my last apartment, I began a campaign against the dust. I decided that come springtime, I was going to eradicate dust and fur from our house forever. I mean, how hard could it be? I've been to so many people's houses with cats that do not seem to struggle with this, so there must be something wrong with me. So I'd put away my mat and break out the Swiffer. I'd get in the corners, the top of the mantle, under the side tables. Nothing was going to escape me this time. And then by the time I look up, my yoga moment has passed, and I have to get my butt to work. And as I am packing my purse and saying goodbye, I see a rogue tumbleweed bouncing in the breeze, newly produced by Tiber, currently snuggling my foot. So I storm out of the house, completing nothing.

3. The Cat Fur Practice

I have some good news. Though it is still a work in progress, as a yoga and mediation practice will always be, I have finally made some peace with the cat hair.

One of the biggest challenges for me while studying Buddhism is discipline. I consider myself a caring and responsible person, but as far as discipline in my cleaning and organizing, I'm still a bit of a hot mess. And I didn't expect de-cluttering, a simplistic home, and a discipline in cleaning to be a part of this tradition. Turns out, having a clean home has little to do with impressing your guests. It is your space to develop and care for, the same way you strive to keep your body healthy. It is a vehicle for your creativity and growth. So of course you want to take care of it.

Just the way I will never say, "Well, I did it! I have completed the yoga for all of time!" I will also never say, sadly, "Well, the house is clean forever, I did it!"

The difference to cleaning is in my approach (and again, this is a huge work in progress). Instead of seeing the cat hair that creeps up on my downward dog as something to be guilty of, I see it as the next step to my practice. Just the way I will never say, "Well, I did it! I have completed the yoga for all of time!" I will also never say, sadly, "Well, the house is clean forever, I did it!"

I think that is one of the misconceptions about cleaning anything that slowly drives us mad. If we do the dishes, there will never be anymore dishes. Or if we vacuum up the cat hair, that's the end of that. We live here, and we love living here. So it is going to get dirty. And as the Buddhist idea of Impermanence has taught me, everything is always changing, no matter how much we think it's going to stay the way we left it.

When I was little, my mother used to sing while she vacuumed. She often picked the song "If I Loved You" from Carousel. When I was in high school, I can't tell you how excited I was when I found out that a callback song for a show was "If I Loved You" from Carousel. I jokingly asked my musical director if I could bring a vacuum to the auditions. But I learned a lot from my mother's singing and vacuuming. Cleaning was a part of a practice. If I could remove the dust as part of my yogic goals, then I am simply continuing my morning growth, opposed to "fixing" something that I had somehow done wrong. It is just another step to focusing my day.

I do hope this helps you in your tidying, dish washing, and cat-fur wrangling as it has begun to help me. Because no matter what anyone tells you, no one has a perfectly clean home all of the time, and if they did, then I couldn't imagine a whole lot of living was going on there. But there is also a way to not crash into a pit of cat-tumbleweed despair. Just as you eat a nice breakfast, go for a run, or write a blog post, cleaning can be a part of your daily nourishment and does not need to be saddled with guilt.

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  1. I had to laugh when I read this because I did major cleaning recently and feel like most of it was undone when I looked on the couch and saw a massive cat hair tumbleweed courtesy of my fur baby. Time to break out my DustBuster again..

    2 agree
  2. Are you me? I encounter the same obstacles with my yoga practice. "More dog hair on my mat? How many toys does this kid have? Oh my gods, is that a mouse turd?!" It's been a big lesson in staying present and practicing with what is, rather than with what I wish was.

    Namaste, comrade in mindful cleaning!

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    • I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It happens every time to me, it's such a challenge to keep going when I spot all the little things on the floor. Thanks so much and same to you!!

  3. I've battled with cat fur before because even though they make me sneeze, I love them too much not to have a cat!

    Some things I find that help is to bathe them (roughly every other week) – in water if they'll tolerate it. I say tolerate because my cats certainly don't like it, but they can be persuaded. If not, at least dry shampoo. After they dry, give them an excessively thorough brushing. When I vacuum, it actually takes three passes once a week before my vacuum stops sucking up cat hair. Its definitely extra effort but keeps the rest of my life healthy and happy.

    • Same here! I've grown up with cats so I can't imagine not having them. That's a great idea! We have one cat that oddly loves water so may be into that, but the other would definitely freak out. Definitely a thought. Thanks for your comment!:)

  4. I needed this SO much! Thank you for sharing.

    I don't know where I got the idea (where DO we get the idea?! I can't be the only one!) that there is a "done" point to anything. Well, somehow I acquired that way of thinking and recently decided that's probably a big contributor to my anxiety. I grew up with this idea that by about this point in my life, (31) I would be as confident, smart, and successful as I could possibly be…that I'd hit a perfect spot and be completely happy with myself and my life. Nope. I've been trying to apply the idea of a "practice" to big things in my life, but I appreciate reading how you apply it to little things!

    Thanks again for sharing. You have also inspired me to learn about Buddhism.

    6 agree
    • Hi Carrie! Thank you so much for your comment, I'm so happy it was helpful. That's such an excellent point to compare it to larger life issues, and it is definitely a constant struggle to remind myself of that as well. I stumbled upon Buddhism in high school, almost by accident, so I highly recommend reading Pema Chodron if you need a good place to start.

  5. I've always felt irritated by certain chores like laundry that seem to be never *DONE*. Maybe this mindset will help me keep on better track. It's all part of the cycle. 🙂 Thanks!

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    • Me too! I was definitely kidding myself for many years in thinking that somehow other people "finished" cleaning while I couldn't seem to. Helps to know I'm not alone in this. Thanks for reading!

      1 agrees
  6. This is my life. Everything I own is gently sprinkled with cat hair.
    I actually surrendered to it for awhile. Just allowing it to be… Basically, I gave up.
    Then that started to drive me crazy, but I'm overwhelmed by the prospect of tackling it all.
    We're just gonna move away from it all, start fresh, ya know?
    (We're moving for other reasons, but at the new place, we'll be more inclined to stay on top of it!!)
    I shall use your philosophy to help keep me sane as I pluck another cat hair out of my spaghetti.

    1 agrees
    • I completely understand! It's very easy to just accept that that's the way it is sometimes, I have for a while actually. Also, I am sure I have had the same thought about moving every time. It's as if I can start new with no fur!! Best of luck with the move and thanks for your story!:)

  7. Lovely article! On a practical note, I find my vacuum cleaner is quite powerful and the filter and motor (on the back of the cleaner) sometimes waft strange balls of dust from under the sofa and into the middle of a room. we also have laminated wood floors which encourage dust-balls to waft! I try to be aware that if I point the back of the vacuum cleaner in certain directions it's likely to blow a dust-ball out into the room. But at least then you can clean it up! The previous owners of our house had pets and a lot of built in furniture which trapped dust and dirt in places you couldn't get too, or see and frankly it smelled pretty grim until we redecorated!

    • Very true Zoe! I feel like every time we move our furniture, that's where we find the giant ones, like they've been hiding. Thanks for the advice and for reading!

  8. My mother's house is always spotless. Because of this, she's always cleaning and always stressing that it's never clean enough.

    Once I moved out, I would run myself into a tizzy trying to make sure my apartment was always clean after living with those expectations, and then I realized I was becoming her. I've learned from her, in my own way, that cleaning will never be done, and it will always be there. So I'll just tackle what I can, one day at a time, and still make time to enjoy life. Homes are made for living life, not cleaning up all the time.

    It was very helpful to me to see that others struggle with trying to keep a clean house but not lose your marbles once you find a cat hair tumbleweed after just cleaning. Thank you for sharing.

    • I completely agree, thank you so much for sharing! I felt for a long while (and still often feel) that I'm supposed to be constantly trying to maintain some sort of perfectly clean home. But we live in our house too, and don't mind it looking that way. So glad it was helpful!!

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