New Thought Journal 4(4): 16-17. Fall 1997.
"The Sound of a Little Bird Landing"
by William R. Stimson
Yesterday, I was walking down the street when I heard a little sound - a sound I had never heard before.
Without thinking, my head turned in time to spot a little bird landing on the concrete by the railing in front of a building. I didn't actually see it land. Fast as all this happened, it wasn't quite quick enough for that. But I did catch the feeling, somehow, of that instant right after landing. I actually felt, as if it were happening in a part of my own body, the diminutive and lightweight frame of the bones and muscles making their series of instantaneous adjustments to being on the ground instead of in the air. The postural realignment only took an instant but for the duration of that instant the texture and the "feel" of the little bird's featheryness and its beakedness ran all through me. The whole hum of its busy little metabolism inhabited my own being. And then it was gone. The instant had passed.
It occurred to me a short while later that the reason the American Indians could know the world was alive and wasn't a thing apart from them was because they spent so much time outdoors, in the quiet and vast expanse of nature, and probably had many, many such experiences as mine with the little bird. An Indian hunter, armed with only a bow and a few arrows in stealthy pursuit of a fleet deer, watching his prey closely with what must have been a meditative intensity as he crept within shooting range, anticipating its next move, might surely be visited with an experience such as the one I had with the little bird. For the duration of a brief flash he might certainly be overcome with an expanded sense of identity in which the deer being stalked was not a separate being from his own. In such an instant we get an experiential inkling of the true dimension of our extended and interconnected being - not just the being of the animal and ourselves, but the being of all things near and far. I myself, who seem to have so little talent in this direction, experienced that it was alive - everything - that everything was alive - seamlessly, extensive, immortal. It was my real self and its way of sensing and knowing was my own deeper way, not a thing alien to who I was, or who the bird was, for that matter.
I feel that it's this same attitude the stalking brave has of utter silence - such that when he walks, the twigs underfoot don't even snap, when he moves through the underbrush, little animals nearby or the birds on the boughs overhead are not even startled into a noisy retreat - it's this exact same intensity of silence coupled with alertness that meditation is all about. It would seem to me that to the extent we develop this capacity for quiet, this gift for stillness, in our meditation practice, we are really developing something so much more than we can imagine. It's not a thing to be imaginable to us, or even to be reasoned about. It's a thing instead that seems to act through something akin to innocence and joy - or perhaps just plain wonder. To the extent we become capable of participating in those traits it has, by drawing away from the absorption with the ones that dominate and clog our noisy and superficial realm - to this extent that we develop this habit, so to speak, sometimes it can happen automatically at unannounced times that we are gifted with something strange and wonderful like this, something unexpected and beautiful - something that flies in the face of the kinds of things that normally happen to us. We realize that something special has occurred. We know, instinctively, to be grateful. We leave it. We proceed with what we are doing. Above all we don't cling to it and try to figure it out. And yet, somehow it doesn't leave us. We are changed; made different. We know that another in a series of such happenings has been visited upon us. It is as if a koan has been dropped upon us from nowhere. Not a koan like a riddle to be figured out, but a koan like a marvel to be savored - until the depth of the savoring itself becomes a kind of understanding, a way of knowing.
In meditation we practice quiet, little suspecting that this quiet, what seems to our busy botheredness like "emptiness," is really the capacity for a kind of fullness beyond anything we could possibly know to expect. It's nothing less than another kind of mind, so subtle in nature as to be able to see and hear and feel a little tiny English sparrow alighting on the pavement on a quiet side street in New York City. And it has its own very different kinds of priorities. Where I was going, what my life was about, who I was - all that fell aside before the landing of a tiny little bird. The little bird was top priority. The sound of its small feet coming to a scratchy rest on the concrete was picked out from a hundred other sounds in the city around me to remind me who I was in time for me to turn and see for myself what my life was all about.
It took me six years, after college, to get a Ph.D. in biology from one of the best universities in the world. But this counts as nothing insofar as education about life is concerned, compared to what happened between me and the little bird in only a fraction of a second. For such a particulate consciousness as mine, bounded and temporal, to receive such an unexpected realization of the unbounded nature, the immortality, and the aliveness beyond any possible concept of aliveness, that it shares with all things, living and supposedly non-living - this is an education. This is truly my life's highest educational attainment. This truly informs and restructures consciousness from the root, rather than merely tampering with its surface constructs and leaving intact the illusion of separateness upon which its mistaken identity is founded.