The Crows Have Something To Teach Us

Raven

Where did toughness turn into weakness?

On my way to work this morning, rejoicing in the blessing of rain that has seldom come this winter (this took place in the winter of 2018), I peered up at the sky and saw two crows perched on a power line, bunkered down and waiting out the storm.  Though grateful for the rain, I was happy to be in my car, dry and relatively warm.  I imagined the crows out there all night amidst the cold and rain, and felt a special pinch of awe for these, and all animals, who live so much closer to the fluctuations and rhythms of nature. 

Birds do make nests, and many other animals have their own dens and burrows, but they definitely don’t have heating and cooling systems, and when they do have to leave their shelters and ‘go to work’, they must eventually brave the elements.  Whatever physiological adaptations they’ve evolved over the millennia their species has been in existence is the only protection from the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow, the drought.  And not to diminish the ingenuity of animals’ physical adaptations - how mammals have adapted to return to the sea and stay warm in the freezing waters of many oceans is miraculous (just one of many examples).  But when I think of the coyote, or the deer, facing weather that can fluctuate from 80 and sunny to 20 and snowy within a 24-hour period, I feel a profound sense of respect for these animals that in many ways are just flat out tougher than I’ll ever be.

I consider myself a Nature lover and an ‘outdoorsman’.  There is a good chance you’ll find me outside on any given day, and I’ve done my fair share of braving the elements, whether through long-term adventures on bike or foot, or simply by living remotely in less ‘developed’ places (please ask me separately why I put the word developed within apostrophes).  I keep the heat low in my home, if on at all, and prefer to put on a sweatshirt rather than pay an exorbitant utility bill or use natural resources I can’t fathom the impact of.  I prefer to sleep with a window open. I enjoy being in the rain (for bits of time) and don’t mind getting dirty.  Yet I am still a creature of comfort.  I do like to live most of my life dry and warm (but not too hot), and so for the most part, when the elements are anything but that, I seal myself off in whatever container I happen to find myself in – home, car, workspace, café – and get to live in a perfectly controlled climate all year round.  And so is the story for the majority of us fortunate enough to have work and shelter, which, apart from the homeless population, those struggling to pay their utility bills, and those few but growing masses trying to ‘get back to the land’, most of us are in the United States.

Crows come from a family of birds named Corvids, and Corvids are known to be quite intelligent.  Their ability to adapt to new environments is quite impressive, but their range is still smaller than that of humans.  One of Homo sapiens brilliant qualities was and continues to be the way we harnessed our mental powers to adapt to pretty much every environment on the Earth.  Unlike animals however, we did not do this as much through physiological adaptations of the body which allowed us to be ‘tough’ enough to brave the elements (though there are some cool signs of this), we did this more-so through physiological adaptations of the brain which allowed us to manipulate our environment to create the comfort we needed.  We made tools.  We took the fur, blubber and skins of other animals to keep us warm.  We made shelters out of rock, wood, and even ice.  Humans spread from the equator north and south, and were able to live in most extremes – desert, heat, ice, rain, cold.  This was our toughness.  We were able to survive by adapting Nature to meet our needs, rather than adapting our bodies to live within Nature.  And yet, even with all of those primitive adaptations, we were still mostly within Nature’s elements. 

These days, I wouldn’t consider myself tough when it comes to how well I hold up in the elements, especially in comparison to the crow.  I have not had to create my own heat and dryness. When did we move from a tough species, able to live in any environment, to a weak species, only able to exist in a small range of climate control?

It seems that toughness of the body has been replaced by ingenuity of the brain.  And yet, I feel vulnerability in this.  I feel separation in this.

Vulnerability because: “What if the power fails and the water supply runs out?”

Separation because: “How closely tied am I to the weather anymore? To the seasons? To the other animals? To the natural rhythms and cycles of life?”

And I wonder: How much of our lives do we spend protecting ourselves from the feeling of vulnerability? How much does this create a false sense of immortality? And how else does this ail our species? David Whyte puts it poetically and succinctly:

“To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances is a lovely illusionary privilege, and perhaps the prime, and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human, and especially of being youthfully human.  But it is a privilege that must be surrendered by that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with a loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers, powers eventually, and most emphatically given up as we approach our last breath. The only choice we have as we mature, is how we inhabit our vulnerability.  How we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate with our intimacy with disappearance.”

 - David Whyte, On Being Podcast

And so I again return to this profound realization in my life right now: It appears that one of our central tasks as humans is to open up despite the pain that pushes us to close up; to be vulnerable and authentic at the risk of criticism and judgment; to come back to love amidst an onslaught of hate; to live fully in this life, knowing that at any moment, it could be over.

But how? How do we come back to ‘inhabit our vulnerability’?

I have some sense that the crows have something to teach us.

 

 

Conversations With Reality - A Path Toward Authentic Living

Author, poet and speaker, David Whyte, describes what he calls the “conversational nature of reality” as the meeting of who we think we are with the reality that is presented before us in any given moment, any given situation.  In his words:

“The only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier.”

Source: https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-the-conversational-nature-of-reality-dec2018/ 

The conversation that takes place at this frontier between our inner world and outer reality can take many different forms, depending on our emotional state, depending on our willingness to meet the reality before us – perhaps with resistance, perhaps with acceptance, perhaps with fear or excitement. Just as any conversation between two humans can be a dialogue (results in opening and learning) or debate (results in walls and argument) depending on our current inner emotional state and attitude toward what we want or expect from that conversation, so too does our personal conversation with reality look differently depending on how we are showing up for it.  

Take the above video of trees blowing in the wind.  Bay Laurel, Madrone, Douglas Fir.  Each tree blows in the wind in a different way.  The boughs bend differently – Madrone is strong and resistant, barely moving in the breeze; Bay is more flexible - they bow in their reception of the wind.  The leaves of each tree are impacted differently – some flutter and excitedly expose their lighter undersides and darker top sides as if in a dance, bringing its own show of color into the reality of the wind.  The sound that each tree makes as the wind blows through it is different, has a unique pitch, a unique cadence. 

This conversational nature of reality shows up in all things, all beings.  These trees are testament to the fact that even the trees are in conversation with reality.  The qualities of their inner world – that which makes them Madrone, Bay, or Fir – are the very reason they dance as they do, so uniquely in conversation with the reality of the wind. 

“The stairs are your mentor of things / to come, the doors have always been there / to frighten you and invite you, / and the tiny speaker in the phone / is your dream-ladder to divinity. / The tiny speaker in the phone / is your dream-ladder to divinity. // Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the / conversation. The kettle is singing / even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots / have left their arrogant aloofness and / seen the good in you at last. All the birds / and creatures of the world are unutterably / themselves. Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you.” - David Whyte, Everything Is Waiting

But, Whyte also points out how much time we humans spend away from that frontier. He points to how easy it is for us to distract ourselves away from this conversation - through the multitude of stimulation available (which disables our ability to actual know and feel what’s happening on the inside of us), and through our unique capacity to hide what’s actually wanting to come out. He even goes so far as to say that we are the only creatures on this Earth that can be anything but ourselves. I think about the masks that I wear each day, the personas I play, to appease someone, to fit into some standard of how or who I’m supposed to be, and I mourn the loss that happens each time I choose to be something or someone I am not.

Whyte honors John O’Donohue, another brilliant poet, by infusing some of his wisdom into this conversation: O’Donohue used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out. Whyte points out that as we abstract ourselves out of our direct experience, we also abstract ourselves out of a “deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.”

Personally, I am coming to agree with O’Donohue and Whyte, that this act of conversing with reality from an authentic place is indeed one of the central tasks we have as humans. And no doubt there is good reason to distract and to hide:

When we are our authentic selves, we are vulnerable.

To be vulnerable is to be exposed; to be exposed means we can be seen; to be seen means we can be touched; to be touched means we can be hurt. Thus, living in authenticity is an ultimate act of trust in the Universe - trust that we can continue to show up for an authentic conversation with reality, despite the response we get, whether that prove to be what we perceive to be painful, or perceive to be easeful.

So, what is this ‘deeper, broader, wider, possible future’ Whyte speaks of? Why should we choose this path of authenticity and vulnerability? 

The answer to this I believe lies in Wholeness and Integrity. When we live on the outside what we we are carrying on the inside, we tune ourselves, we come into harmony with ourselves (and who here hasn’t appreciated the beauty of musical harmony). We come into Integrity - Oneness, Wholeness. This frees us from expending the energy needed to live out of integrity (which is actually quite a lot that we don’t even realize), and allows us to now spend that energy on what we came to this world for: to give our most unique gifts in service of others and the world. Living in integrity, we are more honest with ourselves, and only then be more honest with each other, creating more harmony in our relationships. With this newly released energy, we can be more creative, more playful, more artistic, and go to bed each night knowing we have shown up at that frontier and for life as honestly and authentically as we can be.

This is the conversation with reality that I want to be having.