ETERNAL LIFE

The other day two nice ladies from the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by to give me the good news — God was preparing to create a perfect world, without all the vexations we have to contend with, such as old age, sickness and, of course, death. The Mormons, and others, also come by occasionally with a similar message.

I’m always happy to engage them in conversation, since I typically have a huge reservoir of pent up thoughts on such matters. At first they are polite and even glad that someone is actually willing to talk to them. However, as my speculations and questions become more pointed, they invariably start backing away, with nervous glances at one another, like maybe they’ve stumbled upon a madman.

I almost pursued two hapless gentlemen down the street with demands to know “Where is Jesus, at this very moment?”

eternity-knotThe promise of eternal life is a powerful incentive. Nature has programmed us with an overwhelming will to live and to procreate. Every being, down to the most miserable bug, is primarily concerned with survival as a distinct, separate entity. That all evidence points to the fact that this is a losing proposition, only makes this need more urgent.

No wonder then that people take “religion” so seriously — even to the point of giving up everything to follow and promote the hopeful messages of eternal life they have come to believe in.

I read recently that “Jannah,” or Paradise, has become a very popular media topic in Pakistan and some other Islamic countries where economic conditions and terrorism have made things so untenable and hopeless that, for many, the promise of a better life after this one is looking increasingly appealing.

While the stories and dogma surrounding different religious beliefs vary somewhat in detail, the mainstream religions all make the same essential promise — believe what they say is true, behave yourself according to the principles and rules they adhere to, and you’ll have life everlasting. But here’s the rub — you can’t know for sure until after you die, presuming there will even be someone there to “know.”

That such beliefs are wholeheartedly embraced, largely on the basis of hearsay and say-so, by a preponderance of people on the planet, is probably due more to people’s insecurity, along with the authority that the major religions have accumulated over centuries in their respective cultures, rather than any thoughtful analysis of the available data.

Even Buddhists and Hindus, who are, for the most part, non-theistic, still maintain that this life sucks and that it is only through following their recommendations that one can be assured of a better existence through rebirth in a future life — or, if one is really deserving, eternal bliss in Nirvana.

Buddhists are especially creative when it comes to afterlife scenarios. Not only is there the classic carrot and stick, of Heavens (several) and various Hells, there is also potential rebirth as an animal, ghost, titan, god, or, as a human again. It all depends upon “karma,” which is a fancy way of saying that one’s behavior in this life will determine where one is reborn in the next.

Behaving well and doing good under threat of suffering in a future existence presupposes a firm faith in order to be effective. If that faith wavers, or disappears completely, then, the moral imperative wavers and disappears as well, and one is free to behave badly.

I think it would be be better if folks were encouraged to see that good behavior is worthwhile simply because it is good — because it works better for themselves and the rest of the world. I know atheistic humanists who are incredibly moral and compassionate, without the threat of punishment in a future life hanging over them.

Religions that emphasize a better life in a future birth, whether in heaven or in another form of rebirth, all tend to denigrate this present existence, which is considered an unclean vale of suffering and degeneration — merely a stepping stone to a better life somewhere else in the future.

I can’t help but think that this attitude can be self-fulfilling.

Some fundamentalist Christians even appear to be hoping that this world is visited by more catastrophes than it already has been, which will herald the final days when they will ascend to heaven. They might well get their wish if we continue to destroy ourselves and our environment. But whether heaven will be their due is an open question.

Jesus had some interesting things to say about this in Luke 17:20-21 —

“The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”

I find the first part of this saying (which is generally overlooked) to be especially significant. The “Kingdom of God” is neither “here,” nor “there,” it cannot be found by “observation.” In other words it doesn’t have a specific location, like a place existing in space. It’s not an external form or phenomena that we can see anywhere — not a future life after the death of this one or rebirth in some distant heaven. It is not anywhere that observation can reach, not even “here,” in what we think of as the present.

But he says “Behold,” so somehow, It can be seen, just not in the usual way, as an object apart from us — but “within.” And not, presumably, just within “you,” but in me and everyone, or, as some say, in everything.

I’d venture to add that not only is the Kingdom of God neither “here” nor “there,” it is also not born or created (like objects and phenomena in the external world). At the same time It is also the very source and ground of all that is born — the entire phenomenal universe of time and space, with all its varied manifestations and beings.

Because it is unborn, it is said to be “eternal.” Because it is shared by all beings it is also spoken of as “oneness.” Yet It transcends all such conceptual categories and comparisons. It can’t even be said to exist or not exist. When it is reasoned about and spoken of, it only creates confusion.

Thus work on the mythical tower in Babylon, which was designed to reach Heaven, broke down in confusion when the builders could no longer understand each others’ words.

The Kingdom of God is not a place existing in space to which directions can be given and which one can arrive at in the usual fashion. But, “behold,” it is always “within” — as close as one’s own face.

To actually behold this mystery is not a matter of intellectual understanding and analysis, of simply reading and reckoning. Instead, it is necessary to strip away all of the conceptualizations and mental habits that have been accumulated — to become as innocent of thought and discrimination as a newborn.

When it does appear, spontaneously and momentarily, it turns out to be surprisingly obvious and ordinary.

FASTING

                    

                “All beings are evolved from food”

Bhagavadgita

 

In the late sixties, while on an extended retreat in the foothills of the Sierras, I experimented with fasting. I was inspired, in part, by the fact that I didn’t have much money to buy food. I reasoned that since fasting was reputed to have some spiritual benefits, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to see what it was like to go without eating for a period of time.

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I never looked this bad, but my little pot belly did finally disappear completely

My first attempt ended after just half a day, when I wolfed down the remains of a bag of granola, which tasted fantastic, even without milk.

Undeterred, after several more attempts, I finally managed to go an entire day and night without consuming anything but spring water from the nearby well.

I eventually discovered that fasting was like any other activity — it became easier with practice, almost like exercising some muscles that hadn’t been used much.

Humankind apparently evolved in an environment where food was not always readily available and fasting was normal. Our bodies, ever adaptable, learned to make the most of it. Recent research indicates that periodic fasts are actually conducive to health and longevity.

LONGER FASTS

Over the course of several months, I slowly lengthened the duration of my fasts. I discovered that after three days my entire organism shifted gears. Suddenly I no longer craved food. I felt as if I could go on fasting as long as I liked.

Up to that point, the only benefits I’d noticed was an increase in self-discipline (not to be underestimated) and a new appreciation for the subtle flavors in even the simplest fare. But after three days of fasting, my mind, as well as my body, settled into an indescribably relaxed and peaceful state — a peace that “passeth all understanding.” Suddenly I could sit in meditation, almost indefinitely, without being pulled this way and that by flurries of impulses and thoughts.

My fasts gradually became longer, until one summer, intent on going for two weeks with nothing but spring water, I was overcome with severe leg cramps on the twelfth day — to the point where I could barely stand. I learned later that my cramps were from a lack of salt and other minerals, brought on by walking the surrounding hills in the hot sun. I decided, henceforth, to be more moderate with fasting. I hadn’t noticed any additional benefit after three days and eventually the body will start consuming itself. Vital organs can fail. Longer fasts, of more than a week, are dangerous.

REGULAR FASTS

I eventually settled down to just two fasts a month, on the days of the new moon and the full moon, for a full day and two nights each time.

After several months on that regimen, I was intrigued to discover that not only did I know when the moon was new or full without consulting a calendar, but my appetite disappeared on those days, and fasting was effortless and natural.

After returning to the workaday world it has become increasingly difficult to fast every fortnight. But even when I can’t fast, I still observe the new and full moons by examining my habitual patterns and resolving for the next two weeks to eliminate, or at least cut back, whatever habit I deem might be negatively effecting my health and wellbeing.

Usually my fasting is from things like alcohol, sugar or marijuana, but I also frequently “fast” from other habits that have become excessive, such as the internet and TV. I’ve even thought of fasting from talking for two weeks, if it ever became feasible, just to see what effect it has on my inner life, and perhaps to tamp down my tendency to jabber excessively.

DIGESTING IMPRESSIONS

I think it was Gurdjieff who said that “impressions” are food. This is an interesting view. We can picture ourselves as a very large, one-celled organism, with our senses and mind making up a circle of awareness — like a huge mouth which consumes all of the impressions that enter it, chews and digests them, stores them if necessary, and eliminates them when they are unhealthy or used up. In this scenario, internally generated impressions, such as thoughts and feelings, are essentially the same as external sense impressions, they are also food.

Negative impressions that we consume (or generate), such as violence or hate, have a negative effect on our system, like a psychic belly ache, while positive impressions, such as beauty and peace, are nutritious and conducive to long term health.

With that in mind we might be more careful about the impressions we seek out. I think it is possible to become addicted to the stimulation that negative and violent impressions generate. We don’t have to run away from difficult situations, but we can learn ways to digest them without bad effects and “fast” from them occasionally by retreating to places where impressions are healthy, such as into beautiful natural surroundings.

MEDITATION AS FASTING

To meditate is to fast from impressions, particularly thoughts. The circle of awareness is allowed to return to its natural state, which is clear and open. The incessant stream of accumulated impressions are digested and eliminated, simply by letting them disappear into that original clarity. Eventually they empty out and there is recovery and renewal.

When I’m meditating, if I’ve been over-stimulated by meeting lots of people or from surfing the news on the internet, those impressions, the dialogues and storylines, tend to come back up on me, like acid reflux of the mind. It can take some time to digest and eliminate them.

So if I stop posting on this site sometimes, it might not be due to writer’s block, but simply because I’ve decided to fast from the internet for awhile.

SWEATSONG

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CHIEF AMERICAN HORSE

I was initially unaware of the spiritual significance of the sweat bath. I just liked the remarkable feeling of rejuvenation and freshness produced by the right combination of heat, air and moisture.

Perhaps this propensity was encoded in my genes by the Finnish part of my ancestry. There’s some speculation that the Finnish sauna and the Native American sweat lodge share a common ancestry in the Nomadic tribes of central Asia.

I built my first sauna using an abandoned chicken coop and recycled (scrounged) barn wood, with rough cedar fence boards for lining the interior. Underneath the small, rustic structure, a capped-off steel pipe with holes drilled along its length was attached to a five gallon propane tank, providing an instant and steady source of heat to a large, heavy steel pan full of rocks that fit into an opening in the floor.

When the hot rocks were splashed with water, a perfect blast of moist, steamy heat, known a “loyly,” or spirit of life, by the Finns, would rise up and fill the sauna.

The sauna was situated behind an old ranch house in the Sacramento Valley, under a huge, one hundred year old, fig tree whose leaves reached the ground on all sides like a translucent green dome. A cold water shower attached to a garden hose hanging over a branch completed the picture and soon I was enjoying the camaraderie of communal bathing, as friends and neighbors started showing up for regular sweats.

That first custom-built sauna functioned beautifully for several years. But it had one serious flaw — it didn’t have a thermostat or timer to automatically shut it off. At my own peril I ignored Murphy’s First Law. “If something can go wrong it will.”

Late one night, after taking a sauna, I was awakened by a tremendous whooshing noise, like a jet plane landing in my back yard. I leapt, half asleep, from bed to window.

A monster pillar of fire was shooting about fifty feet straight up into the night sky from where my sauna once stood. The inevitable had finally happened. I’d forgotten to shut off the burner. It had gotten so hot and dry inside that the wood walls had burst into flames. The ensuing heat caused the propane tank to crack open — hence the whooshing pillar-of-fire.

My first impulse was to return to bed. Maybe I could go back to sleep and find out it was just a dream. Instead, I ran, butt-naked, out into the night in a rush of adrenaline, performing superhuman feats of strength and endurance to extinguish the blaze.

Both the early Finns and the American Indians viewed fire as a dangerous element, but one that could be harnessed with the appropriate rituals to produce power and vitality.

The next sauna I built, in the late seventies, employed the lower section of a water heater tank to heat the rocks — with a thermostat that shut it off automatically when it became too hot. Located behind our house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, on a steep bank overlooking the San Lorenzo River, it had a sod roof that sported ferns and other forest plants trailing down the dark redwood exterior. The inside, lined with choice golden brown cedar, was dimly lit by narrow insulated windows. A thick section of a madrone branch supported the ceiling.

I thought I was just making another sauna, but I was to discover that the small womb-like structure I’d built was actually something more — a sweat lodge. No sooner was my new sauna completed, than I was introduced to various devotees of the Native American spiritual path who began showing up for frequent sweats.

Chief among them was Standing Bear. When I first met him he was a pipe-bearer, conducting pipe ceremonies using a beautiful traditional medicine pipe with the name “Kind Heart” carved on the bottom of its red pipestone bowl. He kept it in a large bearskin pipe bag, along with a feather incense fan for smudging with sage and other special objects used in the ceremony.

When he would take out the pipe and raise it to the heavens, the atmosphere seemed to abruptly change.

Bear was a former Catholic (when he was know as Arthur), and he apparently had retained a feeling for ritual. The only other place I’ve experienced such profound reverence was while traveling in Mexico, where I sought out the local village churches for my meditations. I’d sit off to the side near the altar, which was invariably inundated with small offerings and votive candles that cast a halo of dim light over the worn wooden benches and ancient plaster walls. As I gratefully drank in the moment like some rare wine, a pilgrim would come crawling down the aisle to the altar, knees bloody from the distance he had traveled.

It’s unusual to witness such deep devotion towards something so intangible and mysterious, especially in a world more concerned with concrete attributes such as what we’ve done and what we own. But from the truly religious perspective, it can be said that we ourselves have never really done anything, much less owned anything.

After carrying the pipe for some time, Bear gave it to someone else, just as it had been given to him. The odd thing was that when he gave away the pipe, it was if he also gave away the energy that went with it. He was suddenly somehow diminished and more subject to the usual human foibles and egotism — as if the pipe had conferred on him a special responsibility and power.

Bear was expert in all kinds of traditional lore. He showed me how to make a water drum, traditionally used in the peyote ceremony, but perfect for playing in the sweat. The edge of a piece of deerskin is formed over marbles, around which a continuous piece of cotton rope is wrapped and tied over the legs of an old three-legged bean pot, to pull the deerskin tight. When the cast iron pot is partially filled with water and the deerskin is wet, these simple drums produce a wonderfully resonant sound when struck with drumsticks fashioned from wooden dowels.

For years we held weekly sweats there on the side of the river and many different people came and went, bringing with them songs and chants from all over, some in English, Lakota, or Navajo, others in no known language.

Sitting cross-legged, the brown walls and bodies only faintly visible in the dense golden light and steam, with the throbbing rhythm of the drums reverberating in my chest and the different voices rising as one, I would remember the old Finnish saying, “In the sauna one must conduct oneself as one would in church.”

Occasionally I traveled with Bear to traditional sweats, in lodges built in the prescribed ritual manner. In these structures, willow branches are bent and tied together to create an igloo-like framework, over which a thick layer of rugs and blankets is laid, with a flap left for entry. In the center a shallow pit is dug, around which aromatic cedar boughs are spread to sit on.

Into this small, low space, as many as fifteen or twenty people are crammed together side by side, sitting with knees against chest, almost in the fetal position. When the flap is closed, it is pitch black and you can’t even see your own nose. Tactile senses suddenly become very acute. Sounds and smells are heightened.

Outside, rocks are heated in a roaring fire. When the sweat leader calls for them, rocks are rolled into a pit in the center of the sweat lodge with a pitchfork of deer antlers. They are greeted with salutations, like honored guests. Each rock is the size of a human head and so hot they glow white in the darkness. Pinches of cedar are thrown on them, producing little sparks that dance in the darkness like stars, as a pungent woodsy odor instantly permeates the lodge.

When water is splashed on the rocks, a rush of overpowering heat spreads out and assaults every fiber of one’s being. Sometimes, vainly seeking some cool air, I’d try to bend down near the ground, until I had almost reversed my fetal position. But there would be no escape and finally I’d have to sacrifice body and mind to the relentless heat, melting into a tiny little spark of essence calmly shining in the darkness.

The sweat leader reminds us that suffering is an unavoidable part of life, that the brief pain we experience is in sympathy with the suffering of all beings everywhere. He exhorts us to walk in balance with the earth and the other creatures on it. The Creator is in the creation, not separate. We must show respect and consideration for all of life.

And finally, he asks us to always speak from the heart.

In his native tongue the sweat leader sings an invocation, accompanied by a drum. The other participants are then invited to offer prayers, to seek help for loved ones, or guidance on the path. The prayer moves clockwise around the sweat lodge, as one by one each voice cuts through the burning darkness.

Always there is someone who goes on at length, until suddenly their voice chokes with emotion and a wave of healing tears sweeps silently through the lodge.

Between rounds the flap is opened and fresh air and light stream in. If anyone needs to go out, this is their chance to leave. No one moves. More rocks are called for and there is another round of sweating, singing and praying.

After a last round, glowing bodies finally emerge from the dark, moist interior of the sweat lodge, as if from the womb of Mother Earth herself, purified and cleansed — reborn.

*This piece first appeared in Coast Magazine in 1996.

HORIZONTAL AND VERTICAL

 

Detached from appearances, unmoved, immediate and true,
All things are like a dream, a phantom, a shadow,
A bubble in a stream,
Or a flash of lightening.

Diamond Sutra

 

11195728Past and future are often thought of as if they were real places existing in space, like East and West.

That is the horizontal view, where the self is seen as an entity moving through time.

Thus there is talk of time travel, as if one could just motor over to the future or back to the past, like a trip to the next county.

In fact, unless it is remembered, the past, by definition, is always gone. And even if it is remembered, the memory of it actually occurs right here, in the present.

Thus that memory is not really the past itself but a another new event here in the present.

Likewise, the future, unless it is anticipated, has never happened, and if it is anticipated, the anticipation of it also occurs here, in the present.

Thus it can be said that the present is all there is, and within this present moment there is no actual past or future — just constantly changing phenomena, that, fortunately, follow natural laws of cause and effect, duration and continuity, and which, although infinitely complex, can be studied and understood logically.

Observation of changing phenomena is what creates the illusion of a past and future, when in fact everything occurs in the present moment.

If the constant flow of change, which produces the sense of time passing and of a past and future, is the “horizontal,” then the present is the “vertical,” which cuts through it.

When we can step back, completely relax into this present moment, and let go of passing phenomena, including our own thoughts, then everything is naturally resolved and it is like finally returning home.

In that moment, even though birth, old age and death appear, there is essentially no change whatever.

MEDITATION ON EMPTINESS

“The world does not know we must all come to an end here; but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.”              The Dhammapada

Empty Field, 2004, oil on canvas, 36"x48"

Empty Field, 2004, oil on canvas, 36″x48″

Turning the mind from outside concerns and looking within, we discover that there is nothing concrete to lay hold of — only a stream of impressions, images, thoughts and feelings, constantly arising and disappearing, within what can best be described as “emptiness.”

There is no one sitting inside, similar to a passenger in a car looking out the window, that can be positively identified as a separate “self,” distinct from the passing view.

It is not just like that internally, everything in the external world, animate and inanimate, is the same way — essentially empty.

Take the example of a tree. If all of the constituents that make up a tree are taken away, such as the roots, the trunk, the bark, the branches and the leaves, would we expect to find a “tree” inside of the tree?

Of course not. “Tree” is something that is put on it from the outside, to distinguish it from other objects.

A human being is much more complex than a tree, but like that example, if all of the internal and external elements that manifest as an individual person are taken away, the physical body and brain, along with seeing, feeling, thinking, and so forth — in other words, the entire movie, which is experienced moment to moment, if all of that is taken away, all that is left is emptiness. There is nothing that can be separated out from those phenomenal characteristics and identified as an independent self.

The usual concept of self, the “I” who did this, who wants that, who experiences things, is just that — a concept, a collection of thoughts centered on an idea.

Of course, the idea of a separate self, distinct from others and the surrounding environment, is a very useful, even necessary, concept. But it creates problems because most of us get attached to a concept of self as something concrete and definite, even though it is constantly changing and there are often several different versions of it. If someone insults this construct that’s regarded as an individual self, the usual response is to get upset, and when someone praises it the result is happiness and a feeling of well-being.

Talk about building a house on sand!

This idea of an independent self is not something anyone is born with. It is laid on us as we develop, first by parents, then by interactions with other people, until eventually we identify with it, not just as an idea, but as an object in a world of other objects.

At this point you might say, “So what?” or, “That’s nonsense, I’m sitting here, who else is it?”

Of course, everyone has an experience of a life that is uniquely their own. When someone tastes honey, they alone know whether it is sweet or not. If they had never tasted it and someone tried to describe what honey tasted like, that description would not be nearly as meaningful as actually tasting it. That is the immediacy of life. But it’s an immediacy that gets lost in all of the ideas that are developed in regard to life, most significantly ideas of a separate self.

Some forms of meditation entail simply watching what comes and goes, such as thoughts and feelings, without interfering. What no one seems to notice, is that it is technically impossible to watch something, especially thoughts.

If a thought comes up and we “watch” it, we’re not actually seeing that thought as it occurs, but an instant afterwards. First there is the thought and then there is another thought in which the previous thought is seen, as if in a rearview mirror. Why? Because we ARE each thought. There is not a separate entity that can watch when a thought actually occurs.

Because it is impossible to have a thought while watching it, a good way to put a stop to thoughts is to simply “watch” them.

When completely relaxed or half asleep and images spontaneously arise and disappear one after another, it might appear that we are watching them, but if we really look, we realize that we are each image as it appears. We are also the thought of watching when that occurs. This is the immediacy of life.

With each experience, we are the experience, nothing more. Smelling a rose, we are the rose — the fragrance, the color and the lovely shape. However, because concepts and ideas are entertained, not only of a separate self who smells the rose, but of the rose itself and of smelling and seeing as well, something extra is added to the experience.

So, someone might think, “Oh my, I have to prune and feed the roses. The year is going so fast, I’ll never get every thing done by summer. I wish…” and so on. Another, less real, layer is added to life. We are no longer a life, but a story line. There is the thought of a self, separate from the rose, separate from the experience of seeing, smelling and thinking, separate from everything. Separate from life.

Each individual has a unique experience of life, which in the final analysis is what gives us a sense of a separate existence apart from everything else. Life is, nonetheless, constantly moving and changing. There is nothing that is permanent — there is only emptiness. That is who we are.

Every life arises and disappears within emptiness, and cannot be separated from it. Thus emptiness is not really empty. We are empty, but within that emptiness are all the experiences of life, moment by moment, one thing after another, like a flowing stream or a movie.

Emptiness can be referred to as the “host,” and whatever arises within it is the “guest.” At an inn the guests come and go, but the host remains.

There’s a story from ancient India that illustrates what it is like to realize that there is no permanent, separate self. A man was walking in the jungle at dusk, when he saw a snake on the path ahead. He froze with fear. As he leaned forward and looked closer, he suddenly realized that it was just a piece of rope. All his fear vanished and he breathed a sigh of relief.

At first glance, there might appear to be little comfort in emptiness. But, ironically, the ultimate feeling of security and self-confidence is the realization that there is no self that is separate from our life and vulnerable to the insults and tribulations inherent in a transitory existence.

When life is viewed from the standpoint of emptiness, each experience is seen as arising within emptiness and going back into emptiness. If there is a crazy, self-centered thought, it is seen for what it is, empty, and it isn’t allowed to continue. There are still all the usual problems, but they have less power over us, and we can take control of them. There is more inner clarity and less reactivity to external circumstances. Life becomes lighter and less burdensome.

Although emptiness can be used to take away the notion of a separate self, true emptiness cannot be taken away, for the obvious reason that there is nothing there to take away.

True emptiness cannot be predicated or grasped intellectually, because it has no attributes — no sides or bottom, no beginning or end, no shape or form, and no location. Emptiness cannot be picked up or put down. As soon as it’s brought up in words, it leads to complications. Even though it is not a separate “thing,” emptiness can be experienced, and in a sense, “seen.” It is often equated with consciousness, but both consciousness and unconsciousness are transitory, they arise and disappear within emptiness.

In emptiness there is not only no self, but no other as well. Thus in emptiness we realize that we share our most basic nature with everything else.

Although the word “emptiness” is inadequate, at least it has the virtue of being somewhat descriptive of how it is most directly accessed. Emptiness is experienced by being completely empty, because inherent nature is also empty. This is not an escape from the world. On the contrary, it’s being open to the incomparable illumination that manifests as our life.

PERFECT LOVE

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Wrentit, Chamaea Fasciata

Not long ago I found a small brown bird perched on the step at the back of my house. Just sitting there. It didn’t fly away, even when I reached down and gently picked it up.

Small and remarkably round, the bird fit nicely into the palm of my hand. It was still alive, but appeared to be unconscious. I figured it must have flown into the glass door, thinking it could fly straight through the room and out the window on the opposite side of the house — the same way these little birds zip through the thick brush outside.

My examination of the dazed bird was interrupted by a commotion in a large rhododendron bush behind me. It was another bird, sounding very agitated. Although I couldn’t see it, I was sure it must be the mate to the one I held in my hand.

Spurred to action, I glanced about the yard for some place safe, high enough to escape the notice of cats, where I could set the injured bird down to allow it to recover in peace. The only spot I could think of was the roof of my teahouse, which was some distance away.

Cupping my other hand over my little passenger I set out across the yard towards the teahouse. As I moved up the path I felt the bird’s feet grip my finger.

Nestled in a small clearing surrounded by dense brush and moss covered pines, the teahouse seemed a good place to set an injured bird. I reached up and carefully placed it on a shingle near the edge of the low roof.

My teahouse is a small structure built of rustic redwood board and batten with a shake roof. Used more for meditation than serving tea, it is inspired by the romantic image of the isolated hut in the wilderness where the ancient Chinese recluse dwelt far from the tumult of ordinary society and all outdoors became a garden to wander freely. In the words of America’s most famous recluse, Henry David Thoreau, “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds: not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”

I checked back occasionally to see if the bird was any better. It just sat there, beak hanging open and eyes glazed over. I began to doubt it would make it. I decided that if it didn’t recover by nightfall, I would bring it in and put it in a box over a heating pad.

I remembered seeing a pair of these birds, a few days earlier, as they bathed at the edge of the small pond near the house.  Plain brown, round, with no neck, and eyes on either side of their body, they were about the size of ping-pong balls, with perky tails that bobbed up and down as they flitted busily about. One bird would bathe while the other stood guard perched on the head of a stone stature of Kwan Yin that stands at the edge of the pond.

I was able to identify them later as “Wrentit, Chamaea fasciata.” They are a species all their own, neither a Wren nor a Tit (chickadee). Shy, reclusive and seldom seen, these non-migratory coastal denizens dwell within a one or two acre territory. They mate for life and are constant companions: grooming one another, sharing the incubation chores, and curling up together at night in what has been described as a “headless, puffed-up ball of feathers with two tails and four little feet protruding.”

As it was starting to get dark, I walked back and peered up at the teahouse roof. The Wrentit hadn’t moved.

I reached up, intending to take it into the house, when suddenly I heard a noise off to my side. On the ground only a foot or two away was another little bird. It was jumping frantically from side to side, looking up at me and emitting a rapid series of trp trp sounds that managed somehow to simultaneously communicate encouragement to its mate and alarm at what I might do. I was stunned at the depth of feeling in those odd notes.

I quickly left the scene and circled around behind a clump of trees.

A few moments later I returned from another direction. Both birds had disappeared. All that remained on the roof where the comatose bird had been was a small pile of white birdshit.

Later I was told that birds that smash into windows will sometimes abruptly come-to like that. But what stuck in my mind was the devotion of the bird’s mate.

Now, when I sit meditating in my teahouse, I frequently notice the Wrentit’s distinctive song (two notes followed by a receding burst of stacato notes) and I’m reminded of the love these little brown birds have for one another.

Humans, the strange featherless bipeds who have wreaked so much havoc on the natural world, are not the only creatures capable of deep feelings for one another. Love plays an important part in the preservation and continuance of every species. I think love serves a higher evolutionary purpose as well.

It’s been said that all love is really self-love. The Wrentit was trp, trping because he thought he was about to lose his little puff-ball. I know how he feels.

For most of us love does not extend very far beyond our immediate circle. We only love those who are closest to us, or those who are like us. But human beings are also capable of a higher, more unselfish form of love, in which our separate individual self dissolves. Then loving and caring for the world is loving and caring for ourselves.

*This piece first appeared in Coast Magazine in 1996.  I posted it here so that it will go into my permanent archives.