2016-06-30
Halfway through a two-week retreat at a remote Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, I was startled awake by a thud on my tiny cabin’s picture window, and then a softer dunk on the deck below. It had been a quiet week. I’d not talked to anyone and no one had talked to me.
 
To reach the cabin I had to walk down a long path through a dark gauntlet of hemlocks, their roots pushing up from the earth like bones in a shallow grave. The cabin, aptly called Cliffhanger, is perched high over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I stood at the door, uneasily gazing through a window in the opposite wall, a postcard of deep blue open water and the vast curve of the earth. The veteran nun in burgundy cotton robes and green rubber muck boots who’d escorted me here assured me in a low voice punctuated with a mischievous chuckle that the place would not blow away, even though, in a gale, the walls might shake. Then she left me.
 
Now, as I twisted around in the hard, narrow bed and squinted into the dawn, I knew, sadly, those two sounds like the words to a bad song stuck in my head. It was the second time since I’d arrived that a bird had crashed into the window. The first time, the bird stood on the deck, stunned and shaken, but alive; I watched it pull itself together and fly away. I was relieved. But this time the bird, a sparrow, remained on its side, motionless. Suddenly, I was filled with a great sadness.
 
My longing for solitude and silence baffles most people I know, but I’d been on retreats like this many times before at Buddhist and Christian monasteries. I don’t wear a crucifix around my neck or beads on my wrist. I’ve taken no vows. It’s just that there are times when I want to be silent and in a spiritual community that aspires to more than what Shakespeare called “this mortal coil.” The point of it for me is to stop running and dodging the stuff I am made of; to sit still and take in the fullness of who I really am. I remember in seminary learning how the search for self and the search for God, the 4th-century Christian St. Augustine believed, are one and the same because your truest, most complete self is written in God’s memory. That has always made sense to me.
 
The search is a meaningful one because the only way any of us is going to be really happy and of any genuine help is, as founder of this abbey, Chögyam Trungpa says, if we "discover what inherently we have to offer the world.” To find out who I am and what I can offer the world I sometimes need to get away from the world, and I like what I find: I am not so quick to anger, easily annoyed, or frequently critical. In Buddhism, it is believed this sense of clarity comes from stilling the mind; it is compared to clear water after the sediment settles.
 
It was late summer in the Canadian Maritimes—warm days and chilly, sometimes stormy nights. Scents of sodden leaves and stubbled fields filled the air and the sun went down a little earlier each day as summer slipped into fall. After a few days and nights at the abbey as the familiar drone of my daily grind diminished, I began to notice the wildlife all around me. Suddenly, in fact, I was seeing more wildlife than I ever had. I was delighted.
 
I stood in awe as schools of a dozen or more pilot whales churned by in the changeable waters of the gulf just a few hundred yards away. A bald eagle soared over the cabin’s tin roof. I almost ducked; if I’d been outside I’m sure I could have heard its wings slice the sky. Flocks of ravens traced the lines of an invisible rollercoaster as they rode the thermals above the cliff.

One morning while I was meditating on the deck, four hummingbirds, one after the next, came to draw nectar from the wildflowers nearby. One hovered a couple feet from my face for a few seconds as if to say hello. A small red squirrel scampered on the cabin roof to toss a big, stale dinner roll (scrounged from the abbey’s composting pile) onto the deck in a barely successful attempt to break it into smaller pieces to stash in a small hole in the ground nearby. I had to laugh. Animals, not people, became my companions. I began to befriend them in ways I never imagined.
 
Back at my home in upstate New York several months before, I was getting ready to leave for another hectic day at the office when a bird crashed into my big kitchen window, and it seemed like just another upsetting event among many. What’s the death of a bird compared to the thousands of people slaughtered in Darfur or blown to bits in Iraq? Or even, I’m sad to say, everything on my to-do list? The bird flew away and I thought nothing of the fact that it could have died. I felt much the same when the first bird hit the abbey’s cabin window. I’d just arrived and I was thinking about the many things I always think about. My thoughts seemed like, as I read on a bulletin board in the monastery a few days later to describe our frequent state of mind, bees trapped in a jar.
But days later when a second bird crashed and died, it was not just another event I could so easily ignore. My mind was clear and open enough to see that it was a big deal. I shuffled outside and mourned its passing. I gazed at the tiny dead bird, my head down in an attitude of prayer, as the wind ruffled its feathers. The Gospels remind us that not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight. This one had not gone unnoticed by me either. I found a shovel leaning against the cabin, scooped up the sparrow, and gave it a proper sea burial: I flung it over the cliff, and down it went in a wingless arc into the white swells detonating on the boulders of the Canadian Shield below.
 
But that was not the end of it for me. I began to see again how removing myself from human contact like this, ironically, attunes me to the shared plight of humanity—and all of existence, for that matter. There’s no other way to explain it other than that I feel a certain connection to the world that reminds me that I am not really alone in the ways all of us suffer in our lives.

And as I sit cross-legged on my cushion in relative comfort, I find myself haunted by waves of recrimination. Innumerable noble causes and people to whom I can give my attention arise phantom-like in my mind. The pathology of a frequently divisive and violent world hollering at me, now seen at distance, strikes deep into the heart of me. At the same time I feel helpless as I think about all the people—and our planet itself—in such dire straits. There were times when I could almost hear at night a collective groaning of grief gusting in the treetops. How can I possibly stop the wind?
 
In Buddhism, however, you learn to deal with what’s in front of you. And what I could do in that place and at that time was to try to prevent any more birds from the fate of that sparrow. On the inside of the big pane I put up a half dozen pink Post-It notes like small warning flags: Stay away. It worked; no more birds flew into the window for the remainder of my time there. I was relieved.
 
When my retreat was over, I told the abbey’s director what had happened. He said there were semi-transparent decals that look like spider webs in a large window of another cabin on the grounds that deter birds from flying into the glass. He made a note to add them to Cliffhanger. We thanked each other. And the birds, I noted to myself, thanked us both. When I returned home I was shocked to learn from the Cornell University Ornithology Lab website that an estimated 100 million birds die every year by colliding with windows.
"These collisions usually involve small songbirds, such as finches, that may fall unnoticed to the ground,” read the site. I put two spiderweb decals on the big kitchen window of my house, too.
 
It was a small thing, putting up those Post-It notes and spider web decals, at least compared to what else needs saving in the world. But one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön, suggests that to make the world a more humane place, you start where you are. That’s what I did, and to the birds whose lives may now be spared, that’s huge. I’ll admit that I am often still quick to anger, easily annoyed, and frequently critical—no matter how many retreats I go on. But I do try to remember now that it often takes so little to help so much.
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