Monday June 22, 2009
So there I am, walking home late one evening after what has been a long and arduous day. For much of the day I have been sitting in meetings, talking over cups of coffee, and wrestling with ideas and thoughts and words and all the other things I spend my days wrestling with. But now, as I walk through the evening light – this is a couple of days ago, just before midsummer, and although it is late, the darkness has not yet fallen – I see a blackbird up in a tree, belting out a song, and I stop dead in my tracks. I don’t know enough about the politics of birds to know what it is singing about – whether it is yelling “Get off my land!” or whether it has (and this, I know, is more controversial) just had the thought, somewhere in it’s blackbird brain, “Oh, look, it’s a nice evening… What the hell, I’ll just have a little warble whilst I’m sitting here…” Either way, it is simply beautiful. And for a moment, as I listen to the bird, I find that I have no thought in my head about the comings and goings of the day. The bird is silhouetted against the evening sky; its song cuts through all of the clamour of the day. And the beauty of it all is breathtaking.
Biophilia, love of the world: this is not something spiritual or abstract or even particularly elevated. Instead, it is that sense that we can have, living beings that we are, of being alive, that immersion in the world of the senses where birds sing and light slants, and the path beneath the feet unfolds, the everyday, ordinariness of it all. And on that evening it was, for a few moments, so unutterably beautiful that the clamour of the various dramas in which I had been immersed for the day subsided. So I stood for a while admiring the blackbird, then I thanked it (it seemed the only polite thing to do) and made my way home.
It is remarkable how such a simple thing – an evening walk, a bird in a tree yelling its head off – can manage to cut through so much mental entanglement, can revive you when you are tired, can bring an almost immediate sense of well-being. And it occurred to me that evening that one of the things about the world is that it is largely indifferent to the human stories that we weave. We may be, as I have said before on this blog, storytellers by nature; but nature itself is not story-like. And because the stories that we weave can so often be limiting, can so often trap us, or can so often simply go over the same old ground, again and again, this attention to the world can loosen the bonds a little, can give us over to a kind of thinking that can help us find new paths and tracks through the world.
For me, there is a kind of Lucretian peace that can be found in attention paid to the world; and it is for this reason that frequently I find in scientific understanding a kind of stillness. On the other hand, I often find that religious dreams and ideas simply generate further clamour that adds to an already clamorous world. It is the tendency of projecting what are parochial human dramas onto the universe as a whole that depresses me most about a good deal of religious thought. This tendency seems to me to be both a discourtesy paid towards the universe, and also a denial of the true astonishment of living.
In these moments of astonishment at being alive, there on the road home, in these moments when the human dramas that we are caught up in find themselves in abeyance, there is a kind of bodily, living sense of being immersed in the world that breaks with all the dramas that we carry around in our heads. What I find most fearful about religion is this: that in its hunger to make everything conform to human stories, it might eliminate all those oases in which we can have respite from a kind of clamour that is entirely of our own making.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Mental Discontents: Monday June 12, 2006
Can we eradicate mental discontent?
Shocking Revelations, Radical Changes and Dramatic Events: Thursday January 8, 2009
Drama, the news, and the latest shocking revelations.
The View from the Chariot: Wednesday January 30, 2008
The Buddha: bad psychologist?
Without authority...: Tuesday August 25, 2009
Blogs, mainstream media and the idea of authority.
Doing Nothing: Saturday August 25, 2007
Hanging around, doing nothing.
Buddhism and Philosophy Part IV - Practices of Attention: Friday December 30, 2005
Philosophy, language and the practice of attention.
O, Unhappy Philosopher!: Friday July 6, 2007
Why so glum, you philosophers?
My New Brain: Friday July 13, 2007
A note on the pleasures of having a new brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: Wednesday September 10, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
A Viable Way: Friday January 15, 2010
Wisdom from the bestselling book “How to Marry a Western Woman”…
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.