I am a birder. For those of you who may not understand what that implies, it is a subset of "bird-watcher". And both of those are subsets of the science "ornithology". Many bird-watchers exercise their passion by feeding birds in their yard, and paying close attention to when, in the year, certain species arrive and depart. They watch yard birds build nests and fledge young. That kind of bird-watching is NOT me. I am a birder; I am a "lister". I want to build lists of birds I've seen. Listers do this in many ways. Some will keep geographically-based lists (e.g., yard, county, state, national, and world) or time-based lists (day or year are the most common), or some combination of those. Others are more interested in building the number of species as high as it might be. I am one of those. And, because of that passion, I've been known to travel hundreds of miles in a weekend simply to see a rarity, and add it to my list.
You might have gathered that there is a bit of a competitive edge to the kind of birding I do. And there is, although I'm not as competitive as some.* Mostly I'm competing against the clock -- I want to see as many different birds as I can before I'm unable to watch any more. So, if I'm out looking for a rarity, I want to know WHERE to look and WHEN to look (and usually if there is a rarity, other birders have pinned those details down). In other words, I want to get to the location, see the bird (maybe even "watch" it for a few minutes), and check it off in my bird book. Then I can move on. The idea of sitting still for a long time waiting for the bird to appear is almost anathema. Patience may be a virtue. and it may be a virtue for great birders, but it is NOT mine!
I've been musing on "patience" for the last week or so. I recently ran across a quotation from Buddhist teacher Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron:
I loved the image of planting, and letting the seeds grow without daily check-ups. Simply to tend the good seeds, weeding out the bad, and trusting that the good will grow. It's similar to the advice given to dieters: "Don't weigh yourself every day; once a week will do. More often than that won't yield any better, more healthy, results. I will only feed some unhealthy behaviors."
I'm a victim of my culture; I admit it! We are told to speed things up, to get things done -- preferably quickly (as a bread-baker, I'm especially grateful for "RapidRise Yeast"). How counter-cultural, then, it is to refuse to be sped-up! And, of course, the counter-cultural nature of many religions is highlighted by teachings such as Chodron's. A quick glance at the Wikipedia article on "Patience" suggests that religions have thought on this much more than any other discipline.
Many western Christians are now observing the season of Lent (it began last Wednesday). It is a season of preparation for the great feast of Easter, and is often marked by various spiritual exercises or disciplines. As someone as driven as I, it made sense for me, after reading Chodron, to simply work on one of the most difficult disciplines for me: patience. I'm going to go sit somewhere occasionally and let the birds come to me. And I'm going to say "No" to RapidRise Yeast when I next bake bread!
*If you want to see how this can run amok, watch the recent movie "The Big Year", with Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Friday, February 17, 2012
There were many paths that led up into those mountains and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers. . . . Long days after they had climbed out of the valley and left the Last Homely House miles behind, they were still going up and up and up. It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long. Now they could look back over the lands they had left, laid out behind them far below. Far, far away in the West, where things were blue and faint, Bilbo knew there lay his own country of safe and comfortable things, and his little hobbit-hole. He shivered.*
Tolkien doesn't write it, nor does Bilbo voice it, but the reader (at least this reader) can sense confusion and uncertainty. Bilbo had been uncertain from the moment the quest began, especially in his assigned role as the group's "burglar". Yet he had found himself carried along on the beginning of this adventure. And now it was really changing.
They had left the "Last Homely Home" and, now, up on the crooked path--one of many--on the Misty Mountains, he could look back and recall "his own country of safe and comfortable things". That, and the cold, was enough to make him shiver. It was a point, a time, of confusion. And we, when confronted by uncertainty, yet with a summons forward are often prone to look back, and perhaps to follow that gaze, to where things were safe and comfortable.
Maybe not the wisest, or best, choice -- to hunker down, or circle the wagons. Certainly that safe, comfortable, home had qualities that made it so. But circumstances change. And that change may imply that the old comforts are inadequate for the new times. These are opportunities for us to be stretched, to be changed, to grow. Great spiritual/religious leaders consistently have called us to leave places of comfort. They may promise an attractive future security, or an equally compelling future with NO security--but the promise is usually enough to galvanize followers to leave their "Last Homely Home" to try to create a better one.
My sense is that times of confusion, of seeing a myriad of roads going everywhere, or nowhere, are times to collect what we love about the "Last Homely Home" and pack it up for a journey, or in Bilbo's case, an adventure. As the hobbit learned, the journey over the Misty Mountains wasn't the only challenge he and his companions would face (he did know, certainly, that there was a dragon to encounter). But he didn't turn back. The promise of the adventure contained within the confusion was enough to convince him to carry on.
Spoiler alert: he made it over the mountains, met the dragon, acted as a burglar . . . and was changed! Better than staying home, huh?
*J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Rev Ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), 64.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Okay, so I wear reading glasses. And, when I'm not wearing my contact lenses, I wear bifocals. It' not a big deal for me, more of an inconvenience. Of late, however, I've started noticing something. It has probably been true all the time, but sometimes I'm a bit slow on the uptake. The insight? There are times when it's not the amount of magnification, or even clarity of focus, that is key. Rather, it's the amount of available light. Turning a brighter light on the object of my examination often reveals the answer to whatever mystery/problem I'm trying to solve. And musing on that minor revelation took me down some other semi-dark paths.
Illumination is one of those things that we often crave. We seek answers. Those answers may be clarity of purpose, a showing of the way. A song entitled "Shine" by the 1990's band Collective Soul begins:
Give me a word, show me a sign
Show me where to look -- Tell me what will I find
Lay me on the ground and fly me in the sky
Show me where to look -- Tell me what will I find
Oh -- Heaven, let your light shine down!
Oh -- Heaven, let your light shine down!*
The band denies that the song is "Christian", but the song certainly suggests some religious, or at least universal, longings for answers, for reasons, for clarity. And religions often use the image of "light" to suggest that their teachings will provide that light. Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells Israel that they are to be a "light to the nations" (42.6, 49, 6), that nations will com to that light (60.3). The Buddha is described as manifesting light.** Jesus claims that he is the Light of the world", that "whoever follows him will never walk in darkness" (John 8.12). Surah 24 of the Q'uran states that "Allah is the Light of the heaves and the dearth." The light shines out, drawing others to itself.
But the "enlightenment" experience I recounted above is a bit different. The light was NOT shining ON me, nor was it directing me or drawing me towards itself. In other words, the light was not drawing attention to itself; the light was shining on the object of my observation. And I begin to see that the light of all those traditions, aside from illumining us, helps bring into sharp relief the situations around us. And, for those of us who adhere to these traditions, who claim to reflect, or refract, the light of the divine, if that light shines through, us, it, too, helps bring into relief our surroundings.
The light is mediated by our experiences, as well as our current context. To use the image of a prism, different angles or distances (as well as the shape of the prism) will bring the color combinations to bear in slightly different ways, even if the light entering the prism is the same. Our challenge, recognizing those differences, is faithfully to reflect/refract that light for the benefit of all.
*"Shine", Collective Soul, from the album Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, 1993.
** "The Land of Bliss," in The Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosha, trans. by E.B. Cowell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 28-29.
Friday, February 3, 2012
I recall, too, the movie Groundhog Day in which poor Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over and over and over . . . every day being awakened to Sonny and Cher singing "I got you babe" on the clock-radio.
On Tuesday of this week, I was listening to radio reports out of Florida as the Republican primary election was occurring. One of the comments I remember hearing more than once was that the voters were SO grateful that the election had come, so they wouldn't be subjected to more attack advertisements, robo-calls or debates. In other news items, I heard references to our "national debates" about this issue or that issue. And, in the discussion we had this week over Anne-Marie Slaughter's book The Idea that is America, we noted how she refers to the need for conversation/discussion/debate about various American values.
And I began to ponder "debates." I remember formal debates when I was in high school; forensic societies still exist both in secondary and higher education. Each side has an opportunity to make a case, and then rebut the opposition, regarding a specific proposition. At the end, a winner is declared -- by different mechanisms, depending on the venue. I recall debates being the marshaling of facts, persuasive argumentation, even some cleverness on the part of the debaters. A far cry from the way "debate" seems to have devolved in our public discourse.
Yes, debates probably should have winners or losers. But what we see on TV seems a far cry from any decent debate; they seem to be more a public forum for airing a position and attacking the opponent (or the media). And when we translate that kind of "debate" to a national (or local) issue, it seems we seldom have a discussion of substance where we can learn from one another and arrive at compromise or consensus. Civility is lost, rancor increases, animosity results. Nothing changes.
Research shows that attack ads work, even though no one reportedly likes them. And cries go out -- apparently unheeded -- for a change in the way we conduct ourselves in public discourse. Why do we keep doing what we don't like? Is is just because we have to satisfy our own need to be "right" -- even if it comes at the expense of another person? I've intimated this before, but what if we actually respected our opposition and learned from them rather than demonizing them and discounting them? What if we inhabited their world and they ours? What if we accepted the fact that their ideas had as much merit as ours, and that, together, we might forge something new and worthwhile?
In the meantime, can we declare a moratorium on the word "debate" unless it really it really has something to do with forensics? Can we return to discussion/conversation as a means of discourse? We've got so much to do as a society -- so much more than name-calling, polarizing, and demonizing.
I believe we must; I believe we can. And I'll keep saying it from time to time, in different ways, hoping . . . . someday we'll really wake up.