BIOMIMICRY

 

 

A recent study in Britain found that the average prisoner spends more time outside than the average child. I read that sometime within the past year or so and had the predictable reaction of concern for contemporary Western culture. All those yards and flowers and trees, all that sun, the rain puddles, the snow, the creatures—what a sad waste to miss out on play and learning in the physical world. Lost, in many cases, to the tyranny of screens. Then back-to-back, one client reported a SWAT team breaking in across the street, another mentioned gang threats in her mobile home neighborhood, and I remembered that there are many kids for whom the outdoors isn’t an option. A different kind of cultural problem, but also resulting in distance from nature, a lose-lose proposition. In cartoons and commercials and movies and memes, animals are consistently objectified. Plants are, too, in many cases. The leaf in the photo above, I saw on a walk this past weekend. It had fallen from one of the trees that clean and cool the air in my town—its veins, and the beads of rain on its surface, exemplars of beauty and biology, tutorials in physics. As a child, I heard about the death of languages, and how each dead or dying language represents a unique resource of wisdom, gone. Species death is similar. And what of clean water, clean air? An issue with incalculable loss is that we can’t conceive of it—but it happens anyway. It happens in estuaries and in living rooms alike. As within, so without, and vice versa. Contact is invaluable; attention matters.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names on this blog are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. In the midst of personal difficulty, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

STILLNESS IS THE MOVE

Dewy daisy

I met someone recently who has a feature on his phone that allows him to tap his screen and make water seem to ripple from the touched spot. He said it relaxes him, and given that he’s a newly recovering addict, I reigned in my critical impulse—I mean, I hope his phone does have a calming influence, since that would beat the hell out of his using heroin.

Even so, I have questions: Is such a device the portable tech version of the tabletop Zen sand garden, which is itself a marketable version of actual Zen gardens, careful oases of stillness and contemplation on a crowded chain of islands with a militaristic past and consumerist present? Is rippling water on a phone a translation of ancient wisdom for our times—a digital, audiovisual haiku—or a trading of engagement for instant gratification?

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere and nowhere these days, and I can understand why some Buddhists take issue with the trend—those of the opinion that meditation without precepts is an ungrounded activity. I don’t share that perspective exactly; I see lots of evidence that mindfulness, as a non-affiliated practice, can be transformational. Indeed, that has been my own experience. But “practice” is the key, and I don’t believe there are shortcuts for that. No apps, no props, not even good books on the subject can accomplish what just sitting regularly in meditation can.

For my groups at the jail, for example, I developed a ten-week curriculum on “The Skills of Mindfulness,” and I could open my notebook anytime, anywhere, and credibly explain my outlines and handouts. But the difference between theory and praxis is as great as the biblical “letter” vs. “spirit” of the law. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I’ve already learned from mindful meditation, how it’s made me aware of myself in a new way as I interact with the world. But whatever memory for the benefits I possess, when I’m not actively practicing, I feel different—more harried, less steady, a poorer communicator. Out of touch with myself and what matters to me.

How much meditation is enough? At a minimum, I would say five dedicated minutes every day without fail are worth more than thirty now and then, and for those new to meditation, taking on too much can backfire. Bhante Gunaratana warns against this in Mindfulness in Plain English, making clear that starting modestly allows us to incorporate a practice into our actual lives (and thereby transform them), whereas an extreme commitment is usually untenable and will quickly fall to the wayside. This also resonates with Dorothea Brande’s advice to aspiring writers, worth quoting at length:

“We customarily expend enough energy in carrying out any simple action to bring about a result three times greater than the one we have in view. This is true from the simplest matters to the most complex and of physical effort as well as mental. If we climb stairs, we climb them with every muscle and organ laboring as though our soul’s salvation were to be found on the top step, and the result is that we grow resentful at the disproportionate returns we receive from our expended energy. Or, putting a great deal more energy out than we can use, we must take it up, somehow, in purposeless motion. Everyone has had the experience of pushing a door that looked closed with more vigor than was necessary and of falling into the next room as a consequence. Or we have picked up some light object which looked deceptively heavy. If you notice yourself on such an occasion, you will see that you must make a slight backward motion merely to retrieve your balance.” (from Becoming a Writer)

One way to recognize a trend (as opposed to, say, a movement) is to notice whether it’s feeding commerce more than it feeds the human spirit. However often we now hear the word “mindful” spoken in various contexts, talking the talk is ultimately meaningless if that’s all that’s happening. There is a garden within to tend; there are waters to touch and observe. To quote that excellent song by the Dirty Projectors, “stillness is the move.”

CROCUSES AND EMPATHY

Hydrangea

What’s this about April being the cruelest month?* You’d never catch a pollinator saying that! Not in this latitude, anyway. After a seemingly endless winter, with its freezing sleep, the earth is waking up—and I, for one, spend my days diving in and out of crocuses. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the great sky behind you but suddenly distant, the violet silk of petals all around, and golden pistils lighting your way into the chambers of another world…

Okay, so I’m not a bee—but I remember vividly a time last summer when I noticed a hydrangea tree buzzing all over. As I paused to watch one bumble bee at his labors, his back legs thickly padded with pollen, something about the way he dipped again and again into the same blossom gave me a dizzying physical sensation of his motion. At a certain point, he cupped the blossom and pressed it close around his head, and I felt a kind of creature-to-creature empathy.

This became one of the activities in my mindfulness class at the jail: not to imagine we could know another’s thoughts or feelings, but to give ourselves over to the pure sensation we might extrapolate from various physical cues. Right now I’m facing a wall; what would it be like to be on the other side of the table, facing the door? I’m wearing a soft aqua sweater today; what would it be like to wear a worn gray sweatshirt instead? What would it be like to be taller, more muscular, bearded? What would it be like to hold my forehead with that tension, deeply creased? One group member was driven half-mad by a noisy cellmate, and I suggested he imagine, next time the man was carrying on, those words at that volume issuing from his own mouth.

To evoke the spirit of the activity, I passed out photocopies of this poem by Pattiann Rogers, who kindly gave me permission to post it here.

 

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Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird

 

Suppose his body was the meticulous layering

Of graduated down which you studied early,

Rows of feathers increasing in size to the hard-splayed

Wine-gloss tips of his outer edges.

 

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched

The slow spread of his wing over and over,

The appearance of that invisible appendage,

The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.

And you followed his departure again and again,

Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being

Far into the line of the horizon.

 

Then today you might be the only one able to see

The breast of a single red bloom

Five miles away across an open field.

The modification of your eye might have enabled you

To spot a red moth hanging on an oak branch

In the exact center of the Aurorean Forest.

And you could define for us “hearing red in the air,”

As you predict the day pollen from the poppy

Will blow in from the valley.

 

Naturally you would picture your faith arranged

In filamented principles moving from pink

To crimson at the final quill. And the red tremble

Of your dream you might explain as the shimmer

Of his back lost over the sea at dawn.

Your sudden visions you might interpret as the uncreasing

Of heaven, the bones of the sky spread,

The conceptualized wing of the mind untangling.

 

Imagine the intensity of your revelation

The night the entire body of a star turns red

And you watch it as it rushes in flames

Across the black, down into the hills.

 

If your father was a redbird,

Then you would be obligated to try to understand

What it is you recognize in the sun

As you study it again this evening

Pulling itself and the sky in dark red

Over the edge of the earth.

 

Pattiann Rogers

from The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing As Reciprocal Creation

 

* T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land.”