Birding and Being
Hello and welcome to Friday, January 28, 2022. Today is a rare and precious day that will never come again. What will you do today to make it memorable? Me? Besides writing this, I’ll be doing some Mindful Birding.
All in all, birding and bird photography is making me a better human. I would be remiss, however, if I wasn’t forthcoming about the ways in which birding can also create trouble and tension in my life.
Though I do my best to be aware of it, it’s easy for me to get bit overzealous. Birding and photography can be so enjoyable that I am sometimes tempted to disregard or compromise other responsibilities. While driving, for instance, I sometimes find my attention directed away from the road and towards telephone poles, fence posts, and roadside shrubbery looking for, well anything wingèd. I’ve even [unsafely] stopped abruptly on a narrow shoulder to identify and photograph a feathered friend. I’ve had a few occasions where I was late getting back to work.
Besides being a tad fanatical at times, I can also get distracted. When people talk about being distracted, they often say with a shrug and a grin, “squirrel.” Well, for me, it’s a bird, an actual bird. If I’m having a delightful conversation with my sweetie and mindlessly avert my eyes and attention out the window to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that just fluttered by, well, this is destructive of our intimacy. Now, I’m pretty sure that the love of my life knows that she’s more important than my passion for birds and taking their pictures, but what do my wandering gaze and attention demonstrate?
So that’s the dark side of my passion for birding. On the bright side, birding teaches me how to live a more meaningful life.
Being a Mindfulness instructor and coach, I feel like I understand quite well the importance developing a stable and focused mind, so that we are not distracted by birds or squirrels, or fearful thoughts about the far-off future, or that thing that our sister-in-law said in 1992.
One skill that we use to develop our attention is Shamatha, mindfulness of breath meditation. During this meditation, we focus our awareness on the sensations of breath as it enters and exits our body. Maybe we focus on the rise and fall of our belly, the expansion and contraction of our chest, or the subtle sensations of air as it enters and exits our nostrils. In Shamatha, when we notice that our mind has wandered (when, not if), we then let go of the thought, or distraction, and gently return our awareness to the breath. As we repeat this process of noticing and letting go over and over, we gradually train the mind to pay attention to what we choose to attend to. That’s all.
Sounds simple. But everyone I know reports that “simple” doesn’t necessarily coincide with “easy.” It is a practice after all.
While this meditation practice works, quite well actually, the breath isn’t all that interesting. It can be easy to “allow” the mind to drift toward more enticing thoughts. While I’m learning to maintain a stable focus on and appreciate the nuance of a breath, the multi-colored, fancy-plumaged birds of my imagination are flitting just at the periphery of my awareness.
Birding has become an adjunct to my formal meditation practice. I love watching birds. They are interesting. They hold my attention. It’s not boring. Birds engage my curiosity and wonder—they act as an attention magnet.
Here is how birding makes me a better meditator: when I sit down on my meditation cushion, I do my best to cultivate the same level of curiosity and interest toward my breath as I have for birds. And it works! Off the cushion, I apply this practice to the rest of my life, which makes me a better human.
I love my life when I’m birding: I’m outside, I’m present, I’m not thinking about issues of past or future or elsewhere, and it’s enjoyable. But not everyone likes birding and bird photography as much as I do. Surprising to me, some show very little interest in things avian. This fact tells me that there is nothing inherently spectacular and engaging about birds and photographing them. Clearly, the joy of birding is a matter of perspective. How I engage in all the other areas in my life is also a matter of perspective. And, we have the ability to change our perspective.
I have no desire to change my perspective of bird photography. Inspired by this passion of mine, I’ve been able to change my perspective of other areas in my life.
Meditation has helped me to develop my attention. Nevertheless, when I’m birding, the level of my senses and engagement is enhanced. For example, when I bring my Burrowing Owl level of awareness into my conversations, my ability to communicate more effectively blossoms. When I bring my Varied Thrush level of curiosity into my mundane chores: washing the dishes, making the bed, and folding clothes all become more enjoyable. When I bring my Great Blue Heron level of focus into my daily activities, I recall more of my day and appreciate my rare and precious life in ways not previously known.
If you happen to be one who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for birding and photography, I hope you don’t think I’m trying to persuade you to take up birding and invest in a camera. My intention today is to pass on a practical way in which you can learn from what you are most passionate about and practice applying that same level of attention, curiosity, and interest to all the situations in your life.
If you are interested in learning more about how Mindfulness and Meditation can enhance your life, I am here to help.
You are Loved by me, Unconditionally!
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