Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Spring migration

Migrating Storks, by David King. CC*BY

Every year, about the middle of April, spring migration reaches a crescendo of species and numbers on the move. Birders get pretty busy too. Watching wildlife in beautiful places is a great way to spend April, much better than stressing out about end of semester papers, grades, and life transitions. I've done both, and believe me, it's no contest.

So, this year I met up with a friend from Seattle, and visited my favorite spring birding mecca, Southeast Arizona, then drove out to West Texas with birding buddies for a week that ended with a couple of days in Big Bend. And there were local trips to see Golden-cheeked warblers, participate in breeding bird surveys, and take friends' grandkids to state parks. Plus, there's always backyard birding. All kinds of surprises show up this time of year, along with the summer residents who've been wintering down south.

Having just finished up the beta test of my Zen Birding course, all this spring birding that is, by nature, quite focused on identification, presented an interesting challenge. It took me completely in the opposite direction. In Zen Birding, the challenge is to just be with the birds or whatever else I might be seeing and hearing (that is, to continually return the mind from its chattering about wing bars and eye rings, to simply being present and wordlessly observing). During these spring migration birding trips, the challenge is to bring every skill and ability I have to bear on the question of "what was that?"

Turns out that having two seemingly opposing objectives at the same time is, itself, very much a part of Buddhist seeing and understanding the nature of existence. After all, the sine qua non of insight is that everything is empty of self, and is, instead, a part of everything else. And yet, the experience of self is, well, pretty hard to just set aside. We experience ourselves as selves. We might be mistaken on some level, but in the everyday world we live in things are, as a practical matter, separated from other things in time and space. You and I are not the same thing.

Evidence of this seeming contradiction presents itself constantly, once you recognize that it exists and can't be dismissed. The question becomes, "how do I touch each understanding lightly enough that I can move easily from one to the other, as life requires?"

I am continually reminded of the Buddha's response to the first person he met on the path after he experienced enlightenment, about which I have blogged before -- the interchange in short was: "how did you wake up" -- Buddha drops his bag; "what will you do now" -- he picks the bag back up again and goes off on his way.

It's not that we don't or can't have things, but that we must be able to let them go, to drop them. But life requires that we get from here to there and take our things with us. We must do both.

So, during birding to identify, I was present, I was the birder who knew the names (often enough). But I wanted to be able to drop it instantly. And I wanted to be aware of what I was doing regardless of which approach I took. Because I will forget some day which bird is which, I must be able to let go of the bag in which I define myself as a good birder. I have a preference for the comfort of knowing who I am, but I have to be able to let it go to see what else I might be.

Maybe I am at least a little bit like the birds that probably love the warm south, but let it go to take up epic journeys across thousands of miles to arrive (many, but not all of them) here in North America, where folks like me celebrate their arrival by being here with them.

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