One day recently I stepped outside into a hive of birdsong. The sun was filtering down between the branches of trees at the edge of the yard, and the birds were dotted amongst the boughs, positioned instinctively behind leaf and shadow. It was like entering a Bev Doolittle painting that had come to life. Soprano spirals curled into the air, sounds that had been scribbled by the practiced hand of a master, as if Matisse had been doodling on the space before him in octave-colored inks. Riding on gently bobbing twigs, their little heads turned in quick snaps, too fast to follow, their eyes always looking, scanning, searching. I realized that seeing and singing, though given separate titles by our language, arise together. There are no distinctions between them.
The fundamental meaning embodied by the songbird cannot be understood through the enunciation of its specific properties. Giving and receiving are one, a flowing, effortless simplicity, a wholeness that cannot be divided into steps.
I heard a siren, then, from a distance– an ambulance maybe, or a fire truck. The volume was just loud enough to eclipse the birdsong, but no more, as if its source came from a place located along winding trails through the sky that only a larger, black-winged bird might fly in a day. I wondered about this sudden intrusion and the effect it might have upon the rhapsody all around me. Curious how long it would take for the wake of this passing machine to reach the beach, I waited, counting… One breath… Another… A third. A beautiful, curious face trilled across the glade. The Artist was still at play… watching… composing… listening… calling forth… I exhaled again. A black fly danced a loony jig before my crossed eyes. My fifth breath was a consciously directed one that struck the little jigger like a typhoon, hurling him to far away lands, perhaps experienced as the blissful hand slap of a Zen teacher that shatters the buzzing of complacent desires. Then I looked up in time to realize the siren was fading back into the void from whence it came, receding like a strange dream over the audible horizon, an ice cream truck turning the corner at the end of the block. Throughout the brief episode, Matisse had never put his pencil down, never jolted upright and sent a streaking line into the margin, never paused to ask the question.
Having spent considerable periods of time over the preceding few days discussing the “issues at hand” with one or another of the more outspoken and discontented voices of my inner electorate, and yearning to break free again into free air, I was struck by the overlay of one world upon the other. On the one hand, I have this life within me where Jesus and I and you and Hafiz and countless others, both here and there, both creedless and devout, are all engaged in a flowing conversation that is the world. We are like those songbirds: present and alert, our songs somehow mutually interwoven, each voice both a response to what has arisen and the cause of what arises. Then, like the distant siren, there is this other world that vies for attention– a world punctuated by alarms and committees, by distress and striving, by shame and wanting.
Sometimes, unlike the wise birds behind my home, I am hooked by the siren. It is like flicking a switch and suddenly seeing the world through an inverted spectrum, and finding oneself suddenly all alone. It is as if the smooth and endless flow of being has curdled into chunky and awkward thoughts, like putting in special ear plugs that drown out the chatter of myriad beloved beings, and amplify only the sounds of whirling metal chopping the air into 700 slices per second. It is selfish, in a way, this close-quarter drowning out of fullness, my imposition of structure on what never required any to begin with. Witnessing the way those songbirds were unaffected by this other world, I was reminded that the living world is always there, even when I am seemingly not there with it.
Thought can be like a pause in between the seeing and the singing, an interruption that removes us from the continuity of what arises. This is all that is unnatural, the only thing- to hold seeing and singing apart from one another by the arbitrary distance of a thought, a cloying uncertainty. The question of how to return to the promised land is one that begs for answers, for thoughts, for a measured approach.
I am reminded of the famous line about living like birds of the field… I’m not thinking we can “learn” to do that. We can’t learn to be who we are. We can’t hope to unify seeing and singing while maintaining a passport control station between these two most natural facets of being. The birds have offered a welcome recovery. They are happy to show us the way. This realization expands through time in both directions, reaches backwards through the darkness, correcting the misperceptions of personal history and misguided concerns about a tragic future. When the process is complete, we’ll be resting in the cover of leaf and shadow, dappled by afternoon sun, hearing and seeing and knowing and chirping all at once. Like happens here. It is simple. The living world is always there, singing…