Sunday, June 09, 2013

Contemplating nature

Bewick's Wren CC*BY Alejandro Erickson
October 28, 2012

Leading a small group of birders on a sunny Sunday morning in the Texas Hill Country. I hear a bird scolding in a tree right in front of the group, only about 15' away. I see it through binoculars easily. I see its eyebrow, its taupe brown color, hear it sing a line or two and instantly know it's a Bewick's Wren. It flies out of the tree to a nearby low rock wall and others see it and recognize it as a wren. I call it as a Bewick's Wren and everyone turns away from it.

This is classic field trip behavior. Identify the bird ASAP, notify the group, call the name, game over. No one looked at the Wren again. Not even me (Personal journal entry, October 28, 2012).

Birding is like that. Compulsive almost. Get the name, fast. Good! Move on. That’s what made me think it might be a good fit with contemplative observation. Slow the whole thing down. Relax with what was going on. Be there then. To be a little more precise, I thought that the idea of contemplative birding would be to lengthen and be comfortable with the time of not knowing – the time between when you first are aware of a bird and the moment when your mind attaches a label to it – and just observe the bird in all its aspects without words. What happened in practice, however, was that my mind would race to close the gap between seeing or hearing, and naming the bird. Expanding that time seemed impossible. Luckily, it was unnecessary. It took only a short time for me to realize that contemplative birding wasn’t actually about not naming. It was about observing the mind's desire to name, and letting go of that, along with the name when it appeared.

That's just basic meditation practice applied to birding -- watch the mind’s desire to wander, to grasp, and let thoughts go and return to the present. That same kind of non-grasping way of being with what’s happening is at the heart of contemplative teaching and contemplative observation. You focus attention on what you see out there, take note of what you think about that, and what you feel, physically, in the body, and emotionally, and then let it go. Reflecting upon these outer (perceptual) and inner aspects of an experience enables insights into the relationship between the two. Ultimately, just as contemplative teaching dissolves the separation between teacher and student, contemplative observation can dissolve the separation between the birder and the bird.

Contemplative practice is about “opening what is closed, balancing what is reactive, and exploring and investigating what is hidden. To open, to balance, and to explore" (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 15).

For example, when we are engaged in thought, our senses close much of the world out. We don’t pay close attention to our direct experiences -- to sight and sound, to smell and taste, to the sensations in our own bodies. When our senses are open to both our external and internal landscapes, we are able to go from the level of concepts -- naming -- to the level of direct observation, to what is really happening.
This is one of the great rewards of birding: In searching for birds, you end up hearing, seeing, smelling a great deal more (Sengupta, 2011).
Thinking also tends to be reactive: we see or hear and immediately like or dislike. We can achieve some balance between these poles of judging by being aware without making choices. Awareness without choice isn’t hard. It’s just noticing.

Just notice.

Through being open and just noticing, we begin to see things that are otherwise hidden beneath the concepts we normally use to know about our world. Our concepts, our names for things, can limit what we see. They freeze experience into discreet, static events, even though the truth about the world around us is that nothing is static. It’s all constant flux and flow. It’s all process. We can begin to see, hear, and explore that process if we slow down enough to notice it.

Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within. … [T]he interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself (Salzberg, 2011, p. 112).

The only tools one needs to notice are eyes and ears and the other senses and all of the brain: the part that analyzes and synthesizes, and the part that sees and hears wordlessly. I didn’t know that my brain had such a part until I read the book, Stroke of Insight, by Jill Taylor (2006). Taylor, a neuroscientist, experienced a stroke that incapacitated the part of her brain that controls language, logic and math, among other things. The stroke left her capable of seeing the world, experiencing all phenomena including herself wordlessly, without commentary, without conceptual overlay – direct perception. She so valued the insight this gave her into the nature of existence that she fought for nearly a decade to reclaim her language and linear thinking skills so she could share with us what she learned. Reading her story assured me that I could see directly too, and I didn’t need to have a stroke to do it! It’s our birthright because we have a human brain.

Contemplative observation encourages us to be curious about our own essential physical character. Paying attention to our body’s sensations is an integral part of the observation. It facilitates direct perception. Brown recommends that we begin each observation with a quick check-in with the body. How are we feeling?

Directly noticing our physical experience is a non-conceptual, or pre-conceptual experience. We could simply gaze upon our inner landscape, as if we were sitting in nature and taking in the whole scene without commentary. Of course, thoughts arise; but that’s no problem, because we notice and know how to work with them. The point is that direct perception is a source of knowledge. Thoughts are another source (Brown, 2012, p. 9).

At the end of a practice session, after observation and reflection, a few moments spent reflecting on the reflection can reveal a lot about how the observer perceives and processes her environment (Ibid., p. 6).

Cardinal observation CC*BY Georgia Harper
October 14, 2012
Sitting in the garden, on the rocks that border what used to be the rose garden. It just stopped raining, the sun came out, and there are drops of water hanging like little lights all over the trees.

Perceptions: I notice a Cardinal on the upper bar of the sling chair. He faces first one way, then another. Fairly still, looking up and down. He flies to the nearby Mountain Laurel and begins to jump from branch to branch, always flicking his tail a time a two between each move. He gradually gets deeper into the foliage and I lose sight of him. Ne never sings or calls.

Thoughts: Is that the Tanager? No, it's the Cardinal. The Tanager is gone for the season. He's sort of still for a Cardinal. Oh, there's the tail flick. He's being awfully quiet. Nice view. Oh, there he goes, into the tree. Can barely see him now. I think he's moving carefully through the branches, not the kind of quick flickering of a smaller bird.

Feelings: Surprise to notice him suddenly. I didn't see him fly to the chair. I am happy to be out here. What a treat. I feel lucky. Relaxed, alert, no strain, no tension anywhere.

Suddenly there bright red
Back, forth, up, down
This way, that way, zig-zagging out of sight
(Personal journal entry, October 14, 2012).

After practicing contemplative observation for a while, we might notice becoming mindfully aware more generally (Brown, 2012, p. 8), watching everything, including everyone, the same way we practice watching birds or our students or ourselves as we teach. That’s the idea!

Contemplative observation facilitates wordless knowing of what’s out there and what’s inside. My own experience as a student at Naropa showed me how central it is to nurturing a contemplative approach to life in general. Teaching Birding with Buddha allowed me to explore that as a teacher.


Brown, R. C. (2012). Observing learning communities. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, Colorado: Naropa University.
Goldstein, J., & Kornfield, J. (1987). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Salzberg, S. (2011). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
Sengupta, S. (2011, January 14). India through a birder’s eye. New York Times. New York, NY. Retrieved from
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey.