Every now and again a proper conundrum comes along – usually because two ways of understanding collide. Here’s a version of it that came along today. We went out early for our walk to day and spotted some good things on our way around. Bath Deep Lock had our friend the heron and a family of two swans and their four cygnets. The house martins were nowhere to be seen on the first pond above the canal entrance but on our way back on the riverside we saw our first kingfisher from the riverside. Who’d have thought to see one alongside a busy building site in the centre of the city, but there it was like a jewel catching the light, flashing its prismatic colours. Opposite the railway station we saw a lesser black backed gull catch a fish from the river. Why that should be a surprise is a sign of the times! Then, to crown the morning, a professional hawker was back flying his Harris hawk on the Green; the gulls – highly alarmed – were circling and diving, mobbing the seemingly unconcerned hawk. I think, because we were standing and staring, the hawker flew the bird across to a tree just above our heads where we were able to see it more closely, and as the bird perched there a parent with a young child hurried past oblivious of the hawk sitting feet away above their heads. We would have pointed it out but the father was fiercely focused on hurrying the child somewhere and missed the moment.
So how does that lively morning’s experience interlock with mindfulness, or the Taoist discipline of non conceptual engagement. Is it OK for me to name the flowers? or should I put all those concepts to one side and simply contemplate them in that oddly detached way that I’ve occasionally encountered. Is it obsessive and dangerous to the spirit to care which species of ragwort is growing in the car park?
The Tao that can be spoken is not the TaoLao Tzu
I get it, I think, that the ‘thing in itself’ – the kestrel or the kingfisher, for instance, can never be contained within any words, concepts or pictures. The thing in itself is elusive, intangible, fleeting. We know this perfectly well when, for example, we gaze in wonder at a flower meadow knowing that it is always in a state of flux – growing, fading and dying and then regenerating. We know that we are like the flower of the field. Autumn whispers the ephemerality of our own lives to us, and so we know that it cannot be fully understood by just measuring its span or its rainfall and temperature
And then, this afternoon a kind of answer to the conundrum came during a visit to the allotment to pick herbs. As I came down the path I spotted the squirrel nonchalantly munching the sunflower seeds. If I put the sequence of my thoughts into slow motion they went something like this:
- Hey those sunflowers are ours – we wanted to save them for the birds
- Gosh how lovely to see a squirrel close-up
- Squirrels are pests, I should drive it away
- No I should take a photograph and leave the squirrel alone
I’m perfectly sure it was a lot more complicated than that but on reflection I could see how my Western dualistic mind had split the event into three – squirrel, sunflower, and me. In my instinctive response I’d set up a gap between the three of us, conceptualized a property relationship and a feudal hierarchy in which I was the Lord of the manor, the sunflower was my inalienable property which the squirrel was poaching. It’s when we react without thinking that we are most likely to expose our inner processes.
What non-dualistic thought does is to try to push to one side all those conceptualizations and reach into what cannot be spoken or understood, but is the thing in itself. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be miffed about getting seeds pinched but were they ever mine in any way that makes sense? How on earth does categorizing the squirrel as a pest mean anything? And who grew the seeds? Am I not dependent on the earth and the seasons without which there would be no sunflower and no seeds to anguish about? Of course it doesn’t suggest that I shouldn’t be seized with sufficient curiosity and wonder about a flower to want to understand it better, learn where it fits into the family of flowers and perhaps photograph or draw it. But when all that’s done I still haven’t captured or understood anything except an idol of the thing in itself which always exceeds and overflows it like a stream. The danger of too much focus on concepts is that they blind us to the extent of our unknowing. I can never imagine being a twitcher, or a botanical collector or a butterfly hunter completely focused on ticking every species on a list, but it’s just lovely to engage with a species I’ve never seen before, not because I derive any virtue from our encounter but because I found a friend I’d never previously met. Being mindful doesn’t mean struggling to empty your mind of everything, and non dualistic thinking doesn’t mean that I should search for my inner squirrel or sunflower seed; it just means that even botany has its place for wonder and we often learn more by standing in the stream without expectations.