There are few pleasures more all-encompassing than watching the birds at the feeders. It usually starts on a weekend morning sitting curled up in the sofa, sipping a cup of tea, savoring the aroma and taste of the spices that blend with the black tea leaves. It’s a year of grosbeaks – steely-eyed females and showy males fluster on and off the grid of the feeders, trying to find their place in the hierarchy of woodpeckers, blue jays, and cardinals. No matter how often we fill the baskets, how quickly we race out there to bridge the gap between depletions, the birds don’t seem to learn that there is a never-ending supply of food. Always frantic, always pushy, and always determined to be the only ones at the stand.
It’s interesting because it’s not a question of intelligence. Some of these beasties have figured out how to undo the latches on the feeders, flip open the suet holders, and even carry off the lighter feeder into the woods. Whatever it may be, it’s a fascinating sight and the flurry of wings would make for amazing photography, if I felt so inclined to get myself off the sofa and snap a few shots.
It’s also interesting because they don’t suffer from the process. (At least to my minimally perceptive mind, they don’t.) For all the flapping around, everyone gets a shot at the sunflower seeds and, when they don’t, they hang out at the mixed seeds feeder until a shift change happens. There’s a persistence and patience in the whole process that I’m only just starting to appreciate.
A willingness to wait things out has been a theme in a few conversations I’ve had lately with dharma friends and one of my dharma teachers. Success, we’re noting, has been re-calibrated to be less about ownership of object or space and more about connecting as possible and then moving aside. And, repeating this as needed. This last bit is something we often forget or, perhaps out of hubris, we don’t believe is necessary. It wasn’t uncommon for our reflections to touch on how we used to (still?) feel frustrated by the time and effort required to establish ourselves, be it in business, a career, a role, whatever. So perhaps I should call it skillful repeating or mindful engagement with the world.
This dance of holding and letting go, giving and releasing, touching and retracting is a beautiful one when we allow it to happen. There’s a looseness and delight in approach and turning away. Oh and let’s not forget the seeds of nourishment we receive in that space between contact and moving away. Even as I write this I feel a rhythm in my breathing, a settling in of muscle and bones, loose-limbed and fluid. Like the sumi-e brush skating across the paper, sharing its ink with the compressed, pale fibres and lifting off to wait by the ink stone for the next opportunity.
The dharma talk given by these birds brought me to a better understanding of the dynamics of natural desire and greed. Walpola Rahula in What the Buddha Taught explains that our desire for existence is the source of tanha (thirst) and is found in the aggregate of Mental Formations. That’s not to say all striving is bad; there are ethically-motivated desires which lead us to make changes necessary for well being. But without the awareness of that tipping point between skillful striving and wild grasping we can end up training greed. Typically, when digging into the roots of grasping or greed we are advised to bring up the energy of generosity. I found it interesting and more helpful to notice that the energy of patience is equally present.