If you want to develop greater inner patience and be a better listener, become a bird-watcher. If you want to learn how to remain motionless in absolute silence for open-ended periods of time, become a bird-watcher. And, if you long to experience being so centered in present-moment awareness that nothing else exists, become a bird-watcher. Sound kind of Zen-like?
More than 20 years ago, I became a bird-watcher for none of the reasons mentioned above. I loved birds, that’s all. I loved their colors, their songs, their marathon migration flights between South and North America. Everything about them was awe-inspiring. Gradually, however, bird-watching also became a spiritual practice for me. Because my interest in birds developed simultaneously with my interest in meditation, the natural similarities became interwoven in my consciousness. Both meditation and bird-watching involve focus and quiet; they also require awareness and presence. I found that whether I was sitting in meditation at home or walking meditatively outdoors in nature, my inner consciousness and my outer behavior were almost identical.
Over the years, the peace that I feel while meditating or bird-watching has brought with it an underlying joy at being alive. In fact, the distinction between meditation and normal waking consciousness has blurred for me. The practice of centering my awareness in the present moment makes all of life a meditation. And never more so than springtime in Massachusetts, when birds by the thousands fly from the tropics to mate and raise families in North America. Every year, bird-watchers eagerly anticipate the magic of this relatively small window of time when the birds are passing through in a parade of colors and sound. Why the excitement, you may wonder?
Well, to me, their brightly colored spring plumage (reds, oranges, yellows, blues, greens) and their varied spring songs are just plain thrilling to see and hear. One of the first sounds signaling the coming seasonal changes is the ringing-telephone song of the red-winged blackbird (photo above). He lifts and spreads his wings to show off his colorful wing patches when he calls. As migration begins in earnest, the songs of the wood thrush and veery fill the woods with an ethereal flute-like quality that make me feel as if I have been transported to a sacred outdoor chapel. Two of my favorite birds are the orange-and-black Baltimore oriole and the red-and-black scarlet tanager, whose saturated colors often evoke audible gasps from bird-watchers when sunlight hits their feathers. Then there are the tiny warblers, in a class all their own, with an infinite variety of markings, colors, and songs. I especially love the blackburnian warbler, whose throat radiates a deep neon-orange in the sun, and the Canada warbler, whose lemon-yellow chest and throat are accessorized with a delicate black “necklace.”
It’s each bird’s unique beauty that captures my heart and transforms mere watching into something deeper. Meditation, contemplation, Zen peace of mind/spirit—but also more than that. There have been times when a bird has landed on a branch directly in front of me and begun to sing, looking directly at me. A thread of light, of living attention, links bird and human for a moment in time. It is then that I experience that miracle of connection that makes me believe unequivocally in the familial relationship of all beings on Earth.