Looking at the world through bird shit

As a climate activist, I take the novel approach in my activism of doing nothing for the cause from time to time. If you've read this blog with any regularity, you know that I have a strong – perhaps unfortunate – habit of participating in silent meditation retreats several times a year. I can assure all my activist friends that this habit of mine is completely useless. By “useless” I mean that nothing tangible is produced. Nothing is accomplished. And since we live in a culture that considers it offensive – even obscene – to deliberately accomplish nothing for an entire week, I will make no attempt to justify this habit. That would also be useless. Typically I opt for Zen retreats, which means that I accomplish nothing in a very boring and colorless kind of way. This time, however, it was a little different. This was a new kind of Vipassana retreat called Insight Dialogue, in which we broke all kinds of rules, wearing normal (IE colorful) clothing, sleeping in luxuriously until 6:00 AM every morning, and actually talking to each other for much of the time. The retreat was led by Gregory Kramer, the founding teacher of this unusual practice technique. You can follow the links if you want to read more about it, but I warn you, you may find it very interesting, especially if you're an activist.

That's not what I want to talk about in this blog though. I'm here to talk about bird shit.

The place where we held this retreat was on a beautiful island peninsula in north Puget Sound. I will not disclose the actual location of the retreat, for fear that to do so would unleash a hoard of tourists (all four of you reading this blog), to descend upon this place in yet another fruitless attempt to do nothing. But as you can see from the photograph, the view was beautiful. Except for one unfortunate complication.

The dining hall was located on a rise with a particularly spectacular view of the surrounding waters, islands and mountains. Lots of swallows had built nests in the eves above the picture windows in the dining hall. These swallows had mastered the art of releasing their excrement at precisely the right moment, as they swept into their nests, so that it collided directly with one of the picture windows. Which just goes to show, once again, that humans are far from the only intelligent species with a mischievous sense of humor.

All of the retreat participants were given a daily chore to help keep things running smoothly. Mine was to clean the toilets in the men's bathroom, which I diligently tended to, in spite of my initial intention to do absolutely nothing during the retreat. Unfortunately, no one was given the job of cleaning the bird shit off the picture windows. So for the first several days, I pretended, along with everyone else, that the bird shit wasn't actually there, obscuring my view of the gorgeous surroundings. By the time we were several days into the retreat, I had become quite adept at mentally screening the bird shit from my field of vision.

But as I was having breakfast on the sixth morning, an unsettling question arose in my mind. “How long am I going to look at the world through bird shit before I stop waiting for someone else to clean it off the windows?” And as I pondered this obviously deep and profound question, I got the uncomfortable feeling that these windows were a metaphor for my own mind, and the bird shit was a stand-in for the fear, resentment and anger that so often obscures my perception of a heartbreakingly beautiful world.

That did it. When breakfast was over, I scrounged up a ladder, a bucket, some soap, and a long-handled brush, and set about cleaning those windows. When I returned to the dining hall, I was scolded by some for interrupting their meditation on bird shit. But most thanked me for having the gumption to actually clean the windows that had been obscuring their view all week as well. Which only goes to show that when we remove the excrement that is obscuring our own vision, it usually opens things up a bit for others as well. And sometimes we have to do nothing for awhile before it becomes clear what actually needs to be done. Acting skillfully from a place of composure is usually far more effective, even in small doses, than flailing around for days and weeks at a time, however sincerely, in a fog of anxiety and fear.

Composure and peace of mind sometimes get a bad rap in activist culture, for the simple reason that they are the fruit of non-doing, which is patently against the rules. Such composure is evidence of a flawed commitment to the cause, since, as the saying goes, “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” This belief has always troubled me. What are the implications for our lives if to pay attention is automatically to BE outraged? This is not the kind of attention I'm talking about here. The Zen teacher John Tarrant has described meditation as “a fasting of the heart in which, for a time, we do not go with our wanting and our fear. We cease to attach so strongly to the things of our lives. This is not because they lack worth, but because, when we are full of them, there is too little of us; we cannot discriminate between things, or love them enough.”

One of the fruits of skillfully paying a more open-hearted kind of attention, one that is not hemmed in by a habitually judging mind, is that such attentiveness orients our perception toward what is whole and complete in the world, and not merely what is broken and in need of fixing. Seeing into the deeper textures of wholeness that undergird our lives makes room for spontaneous waves of gratitude. And when such gratitude is present, the need to be somewhere else vanishes. The need for things to be different (and better) than they are disappears into the upwelling generosity of now. The persistent undercurrents of anxiety and inadequacy that drive our frenzied and often unskillful actions cease stalking our every move, and a sense of ease can settle in to inhabit even the most ordinary moments and tasks.

In other words, meditation helps us clean the bird shit off the windows of our own mind, revealing a world both inside and outside that is much more beautiful than anything we might otherwise have dreamed possible.