An Avian Stray

The wounded magpie

Last Friday afternoon, I came home from various errands to find a magpie with a broken wing in the back yard. Seeming dazed, it was swung its head back and forth, as if its vision was impaired, and flapped wings in unsuccessful effort to fly. Then it would run, often in circles, falling over because its balance was off. The afternoon was hot, but the bird was fast enough to scoot away when I tried to set a water bowl nearby.

In the evening, I turned on sprinklers. As the sun got low, other magpies flew into the yard to peck at seeds or insects. The injured bird joined them to eat, but when they flew away, it made it’s way alone to a section of fence behind the cover of bushes. Hours later, when I took the dogs out before bed, I shone a flashlight to look, and the bird hadn’t moved. I wondered if the magpie, left behind by its tribe, felt something akin to loneliness.

I hadn’t been sure the bird would last through the night, fearing that injuries or a cat would finish it off, but in the morning, it was dashed around with more energy and coordination than the day before. I checked on it through the day, and that afternoon, was surprised to see it approach a squirrel that climbed down a tree in the shade where the bird was resting.

Magpie and squirrel

The magpie came close to the squirrel, who at that point, charged and drove it away, but this close encounter between two species I’d never seen interact before made me wonder again if the bird was experiencing something we would call abandonment.

We’ll never know, but such speculations can no longer be dismissed as mere projection or pathetic fallacy. I’ve seen numerous examples of this recently, including an article this week in The Atlantic, about an Alaskan Orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days:

“It is hardly anthropomorphic to ascribe grief to animals that are so intelligent and intensely social. Tahlequah’s relatives occasionally helped her carry her dead calf, and may have helped to feed her during her mourning…

The Lummi Nation, who live in the Salish Sea and also depend on salmon, have long understood this side of the southern residents. ‘We’ve fished alongside them since time immemorial,’ says Jay Julius, the nation’s chairman. ‘They live for the same thing we live for: family.’”

Our role in the magpie’s story came to a happy ending. We managed to scoop it into a cardboard box I’d drilled with air holes, and on Sunday morning, carried it to the Sacramento Wildlife Care Association, a wonderful organization that rehabilitates injured or orphaned birds and animals.

As I’ve said before, both modern physics and ancient Buddhist teachings agree that there really isn’t “a world out there,” out there.  The physical world we experience is what our limited senses configure out of swirling masses of energy and light. The meanings we experience are those we impute on a world that is far more dream than solid “reality.”

I never named the magpie for fear it wouldn’t survive, but in my favorite version of the dream, this bird, healed and nourished until it is strong again, will rejoin its fellow magpies, stronger than it was before, as a result of its time of trial and solitude.

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Posted in Animals, Buddhism, Dream, Nature, Science, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

Posted in Buddhism, Climate, Current Events, Health, Nature, News, Science, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What Rough Beast?

William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911

I posted William Butler Yeats’ best known poem, The Second Coming five years ago. Its time has come round again. Yeats (1865-1939), one of our greatest English language poets, had an abiding interest in the mythology and folklore of his native Ireland.

He was also a member of The Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to western esotericism. The Golden Dawn developed a series of visualizations and meditations designed to awaken subtle areas of consciousness. Yeats presented The Second Coming as a breakthrough of visionary experience, framed within his personal theory of  “gyres,” or cycles of time, analogous to the eastern idea of “yugas,” or ages.

Written in 1919 and published in 1921 The Second Coming was naturally read at the time as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. But the archetypal imagery Yeats brought up from the depths cuts deeper than specific personal or historical issues. It speaks as clearly to our own times, as if the forces that break and end eras and empires and civilizations are not exhausted in a decade or two. And though we can all identify our own Rough Beasts du jour, that doesn’t answer the key question of where the forces that drive such men to loose the blood-dimmed tide may come from…

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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The Crazy Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and fan in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” this summer’s biographical film about Fred Rogers, he says “Love – or its absence, is all that really matters.” The sincerity and quiet strength of the man, an ordained minister who chose to express this philosophy through the medium of children’s television, is one of the reasons the movie won a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As I watched Rogers’ interaction with children, the only comparison I could think of was clips I’ve seen of the Dalai Lama with young people. Both men – bodhisattvas by any reckoning – never lost their connection to the wonders and terrors of childhood.

I also thought of Saint Francis during the scene of Fred Rogers with Koko the Gorilla, who watched him on TV and was a fan.

At the end of the movie, we see a world that is changing for the worse. In a clip from a Fox News broadcast, commentators condemn Rogers for teaching children that they are all precious and lovable just the way they are. Let that sink in for a moment!

After his death, protestors gathered across from his memorial service to condemned him, not because they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), but because he accepted gays. One child in the crowd who looked miserable – in contrast to the children on Mr. Rogers’ show – held a sign reading, “God Hates America.” If Rogers had been there, he might have reminded the child and his parents that Jesus’ response to everyone he met was, “Neither do I condemn you.”

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired 50 years ago this summer. Watching this movie, I thought of the voice-over during the opening scene of Gandhi: “People of the future will find it hard to believe that such a man existed.”

Fifty years ago, America felt like felt like a nation torn apart: an escalating war in Vietnam; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic convention, were punctuation marks in a year of one bad headline after another. Frightening times, yes, but no one living then would have ever imagined a summer in which we’d see children caged in concentration camps as a fascist administration, emulating the tactics of 20th century dictators, tries to stir up anger and fear at a people convenient to scapegoat. Fred Rogers would have been heartbroken!

What would he have done?

The movie showed Rogers’ testimony before a congressional committee that seemed determined to gut funding for PBS. With quiet sincerity, in a brief speech, he convinced them to do otherwise. He would have certainly found a way to speak before congress.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to say, but it seems that those who behave as heroes in the face of naked evil – people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and others, find ways to avoid growing numb in the face of repeated outrage, while keeping the anger alive, but under control, so it can be harnessed as energy.

One thing Mr. Rogers would have certainly told us is this: in the 2014 midterm elections, only seven states saw a voter turnout higher than 50% (source: The United States Elections Project). He would have made certain that every child in the audience understood how important it is that this November be different.

Now that Rogers is gone, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves!

Posted in Culture, Education, Entertainment, Inspirational, Movies, Spirituality, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Buddhist Statement on the Separation of Families

“Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions…

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level.”

A Statement on the Separation of Families.

Posted in #TheResistance, Buddhism, Culture, Current Events, Politics, Psychology, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Crazy Wisdom of R. Mutt

In the first of this series of posts, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, I spoke of Picasso’s leap of vision and imagination in 1942, when he sculpted a bull’s head by swapping the usual positions of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Nowadays we call such creations “found object sculptures,” but Picasso and other artists of his time called them, “readymades,” a name coined by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp 1952 (Photo by Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though Picasso gained more notoriety, Duchamp was the more revolutionary artist, and shaped the course of 20th century art more profoundly. “By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first ‘readymades’ sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today…Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual Art.” (1)

Duchamp, who was even better at mathematics in school than art, rapidly lost interest in art that appealed to the eyes only. “Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” (2)   Continue reading

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Reflections on Crazy Wisdom

So far in this 21st century, much of our conventional wisdom has failed us. Crazy times demand a matching wisdom, and these are crazy times. That made it all the more strange that I couldn’t seem to write a followup piece to my last post, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, which I thought would be the start of a series.

I’ve come to believe it’s because Picasso and the others I’d planned to feature were exemplars in their fields, people we think of as “special,” a breed apart from the rest of us. This is the opposite of the real point I want to make. The modern concept of “genius” was born in the 18th century. Of far more use to us now is the original meaning of this Latin word:

Genius of a family. Roman, 1st c. Photo by Luis Garcia, 2009. CC-by-sa-3.0

“In ancient Rome, the genius (plural genii) was the guiding spirit…of a person, family, or place. The noun is related to the Latin verb, genui, genitus, ‘to bring into being, create, produce’, as well as to the Greek…word for birth.” [1]

The genius of a man, or Juno of a woman, was similar to our modern idea of a guardian angel – a protective spirit as well as a creative guide to our individual destiny  and life’s meaning [2].

From this perspective the difference between you and me and the great creative spirits of history is not that they have a genius and we don’t. It is more a matter of degree – “The Force is strong in that one.”

Since none of us really believe that some white-hatted genius is going to ride into town and save us from ourselves, it is more important than ever for as many as possible to find their genius or juno within and begin to listen and cultivate its wisdom. Continue reading

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Crazy Wisdom is No Bull!

Bull’s Head, 1942, by Pablo Picasso

“Crazy Wisdom” is an attribution given to certain “unconventional” holy men in eastern traditions, but it applies equally well to some of our western saints. Saint Francis preached to birds and wolves, while Aquinas, after a lifetime of scholarship, had a vision at the end of his life that caused him to declare that all of his writings “were so much straw.”

“Crazy Wisdom” is not some rarified, exalted state of mind, accessible only to the gifted few. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master with whom I have been privileged to study, says that when a person is able to cut through conditioning and begin to connect to their Source, their Inner Wisdom, one typical reaction is flexibility and freedom from our own “knee-jerk” reactions, as well as from cultural conventions that have lost their meaning or usefulness. No one said it better than Emily Dickinson:

Much Madness is divinest sense (620)

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail – 
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain –

I know of no simpler and better illustration of how this works than Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” a found object sculpture he created in 1942. He was looking for “ready made” objects in a junkyard, and saw a bicycle seat lying near a pair of disconnected handlebars. In that instant, the Source of creativity within him saw a pattern no previous artist had.

Why Picasso but none of the bicyclists or sculptors before him? Tenzin Wangyal would say that he was present, fully aware, with a mind empty of other concerns. He wasn’t focused on what he was going to have for lunch or any of the other myriad concerns that occupy most of our waking hours.

Again, this vision of new connections is not reserved for famous artists, but is available to anyone who can find a way to clear their vision and mind and tune into the moment. Nothing, nothing, nothing may be more important at this time, when “the starkest Madness” rules our land.

To again quote Buckminster Fuller, in the previous post: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

An added benefit is that this kind of thing drives literalists nuts. Beancounters and most politicians can’t deal with this sort of ambiguity. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” sang Bob Dylan 50+ years ago, and it may be even more true now.

So go out and have some fun and be subversive – find some connections you’ve never noticed before!

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