|Blue Dacnis (Honeycreeper) by Dario Sanchez: CC*BY|
“Words can express no more than a tiny fragment of human knowledge, for what we can say and think is always immeasurably less than what we experience.” --Alan Watts’ “The Way of Liberation”
Last year I decided to develop a course about Zen birding. Birding beyond naming, beyond identity. I developed a framework and the basic ideas, and then tried to practice the kind of birding that I was preparing to teach. My annual spring Arizona birding trek was the perfect outdoor laboratory, because though I know the birds in some sense, there's always a "relearning" curve because I visit only once each year. At the beginning of each trip, I always have those moments where I hear or see a bird and don't know what it is, though I think I should. The idea of Zen birding is to expand just such a moment, to lengthen and be comfortable with the time of not knowing, to just observe the bird in all its aspects. What happened in practice, however, was that my mind would race to close the gap between seeing or hearing, and naming the bird. My mind wanted so badly to identify the bird, as though that mattered more than anything in the world. Of course, the premise of Zen birding is that it does not matter more. I was there only about 4 days when the gap was down to a minuscule fraction of a second for most birds. Naming became instantaneous. I couldn't not do it. That's when I had an "ah-ha" moment. Zen birding wasn't actually about not naming. It was about observing the mind's desire to name, and letting go of the name as soon as it materialized. That's just basic meditation practice applied to birding -- watch the mind and let thoughts go. Don't grab onto any of them.
As usual, simple enough, but not easy.
It's not easy because learning requires discernment and discrimination, so naming is certainly functional. In short, the ability to name and learn serves us in everyday life. Still, this kind of learning is not necessarily the most we can achieve, the height of accomplishment. Meditation can take us beyond ordinary thinking to a wordless awareness that unites us with all phenomena in the all-encompassing process that life is. Larry Rosenberg, author of Living in the Light of Death, notes that when we cultivate what he calls comprehensive alertness, and learn to recognize a thought as just a thought, to let it go without attaching to it, we are better able to see what our experience really is. That by itself might be a very good reason to let go of naming. But Rosenberg's insight about how the self is reborn every minute out of our attachments really nails the difficulty of letting go of naming birds: it's hard because it's letting go of the self I make out of my attachment to being a knowledgeable birder. "I know this bird. I am a good birder." To not name is to give up the self that prides itself on knowing!
Letting go of words that come to mind in the midst of daily life is hard because the ego creates itself out of those thoughts, minute by minute. It's absolutely astounding how desperate the clinging is. To be, without grasping, for even a second or two, lets me glimpse that I exist as part of the process unfolding in front of me. But in the next second, the ego jumps up and names something, and I am back again to observing it grasping for its identity, creating itself every second, over and over, again, now again, and again. I want to turn everything into a static event: "That's a Wilson's Warbler. Two Wilson's, a Townsend's and an Arizona Woodpecker all flew into the tree at once." The ego makes itself up from these events -- frozen as discrete, graspable things. It just can't exist in the ocean of process; rather, it exists in the momentary repeated events that separate the birds from the air and the trees and the flowers, the soil and rain and sunshine, and of course, that separate me from all of that.
Zen Birding is designed to help us see process and our connection with nature and the amazing diversity of plants and animals. By slowing down, by looking and listening in a very different way from how we usually do, we can actually experience our environment differently. The course is about going deeply into the space between our first awareness of a bird and the moment when we name it. It's about learning to expand the time that we don’t know by simply being with the bird, observing everything we can with our unaided senses, and letting go of names or other words that come to us while we observe. The purpose is to open up that which naming tends to shut down – our curiosity.
We actually see and hear differently when we quiet the part of our brains that analyzes, classifies and names. When we’re not analyzing, classifying and naming, we can see flux and flow, constant movement. Nothing is frozen into an “event;” nothing labeled, put in a box and dismissed; nothing judged unimportant. This way of seeing and listening presents us with a different mix of information about our environment and what’s happening in it, from the information we get when we look and listen with our analytical brain switched on.
So, there's nothing wrong with naming birds. But, it is limiting. And in Zen Birding, we go beyond that limitation. Watts describes the inherent limitation of language and naming in The Way of Liberation, like this: "Words can express no more than a tiny fragment of human knowledge for what we can say and think is always immeasurably less than what we experience. This is not only because there are no limits to the exhaustive description of an event, as there are no limits to the possible divisions of an inch; it is also because there are experiences which defy the very structure of our language, as water cannot be carried in a sieve.” I can't say it any better!