Years ago, when I was reading about the meditation technique of Centering Prayer, Abbott Thomas Keating wrote that the great contemplatives either meditated or spent a great deal of time in nature. I never forgot that: That I could exchange hours on a meditation bench for hours in deep nature and somehow achieve similar benefits.
I’ve shifted over to a Buddhist meditation called Vipassana now and I especially love the writings of Tibetan Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, famous for his practice of walking meditation. I do a bumbling version of that when I move very purposefully through my back yard, quieting my mind so that I can focus on the tiny perfections of nature.
Hahn says that there is perfection in each moment, but we must be quiet enough inside to recognize it. Each day, I realize more deeply than the day before how addicted most of us are to moving very fast, racing into the future with no appreciation for the present…
It seems to me that I’ve been cursed with a mind that is more chaotic than most, and I’ve spent considerable time trying to learn how to settle its galloping, rampaging gait. The work is slow and often tedious, and I tend to feel that I’m not getting anywhere, but the wonders of Creation in my yard beckon me outside each day to see them and to touch them.
Yes, I sit for an hour each morning on a meditation pillow, but it is my back yard, my Creation Guru, if you will, that teaches me best about the brilliance and beauty of what is true in the here and now.
Yesterday, Nature brought me an unexpected breakthrough that has made all this meditative focus worth every frustrating—often boring—moment.
In a surprising and unexpected bout of sunlight and relative warmth in the mid-afternoon, I ran outside so that I could take some time to be “slow.” I’m sure you can appreciate the dichotomy there.
Of course, I dashed up to the bee yard, where my three surviving hives have been poking their noses out on warmer afternoons to take a potty run (bees won’t defecate in the hive unless they are very, very sick), or fly over and feed at the large pile of honeycomb I’ve set out for them.
The moment I got within hearing distance of the hives, my heart started to sing in gratitude along with the gentle, reviving sound of their hum. Bee sounds settle my mind and—from what I’ve read—have a deeply soothing, restorative effect on the human nervous system.
I pulled over a plastic chair, wiped away a puddle of last night’s rain, and sat down so my nose was level with the honey pile, about a foot away.
Before my grateful eyes, the bees floated and sang and worked. The rest of then world fell away as I slowed and deepened my breathing. So close to them, my eyes let me trick myself into believing I was one with them.
The sent of honey and beeswax filled the afternoon air, and a chill sun shone through the bees translucent, amber bellies.
In one gentle moment that flowed effortlessly into the next present moment, this is what I saw: A hungry bee pushed her head deep into a honey-filled hexagon, balancing herself on one rear leg. As she propped herself there, I saw her slim abdomen begin to expand like a tiny water balloon as she siphoned the honey through her straw-like tongue.
She spent long, endless seconds drinking up the sweetness. When she finished, she took time cleaning off her sticky antennae with her front legs, then stroked the honey off her body and flew off past my face.
At a broken piece of pollen-filled comb, I watched a trio of bees work together to pull away chunks of beeswax so they could get to the fermented pollen or “bee bread” above them. I had always wondered if bees gathered old pollen from the combs.
Pollen is baby food for the bees, and there is very little flower pollen about this early in the year. By attending to the moment and taking my time about it, I’d gotten my answer: This is where the bees were filling their pollen baskets!
I watched as the bees gathered the pollen just as they would on a flower, pulling it toward them with their front legs, scraping it from their heads and antennae, and pushing it to their pollen baskets to carry home.
On the side of my log hive where the honeycomb platters rested, I watched a large, colorful jumping spider roam tentatively across the wood. I recognized her from last autumn, where I had seen her scurry into a crack beneath the hive, carrying a dead bee.
Her colors were distinctive. I remembered that orange and white arrangement of dots on her back, and her lovely cobalt blue fangs. A bee drew near her and she moved slowly forward, testing the waters, so to speak. The bee saw her ran toward her, and Miss Spider backpedaled quickly and raised up on her hind legs, waving her arms in front of her. “Stop! Wait!” she hollered in spider-ese.
The bee heard and hurried away. Seeing that encounter, I learned that this spider was only strong enough to take the weak and sick bees. I allowed myself a moment of wonder at the incredible community of creatures that make up a healthy hive. It is not just the bees themselves, but hundreds of other creatures, from yeasts to springtails to spiders that benefit—and benefit from—the bee colony.
Last summer, I had watched while tiny native bees no bigger than a mid-sized ant built nests in the pin-sized worm holes dotting the entire log. Two mason bees had found some worm holes large enough for their nests, and worked alongside the tiny native bees making their own mud-packed nests.
My natural restlessness caused me to start shifting around in my chair, but I slowed my breathing again and told myself, “Sit still. There is time for this.”
Curious bees came to rest on my hands and eyeglass rims. When I cocked my eyebrow to see one, my eyes caught a glimpse of a brownish bump on the log face I had never noticed before. Looking more closely, I was suddenly excited to see that the bump was actually an ootheca—the hard egg sac of a praying mantis!
I had been thrilled to discover a mantis policing our yard last summer, the first I’d ever found in any yard I’d ever owned. For an insect, they have a surprisingly majestic presence. And its not just their size. Apparently, a mantis had decided our yard was regal enough a palace to bear her young! I’ve read that mantids are especially susceptible to yard poisons and if you want to attract them, go organic. It worked!
I caught sight of movement a bit lower on the log face and in a small crack in the wood, a pillbug had made a bed. She was pulling all of her many legs into the dark split in the wood, trying to be inconspicuous. Her tiny feet were dotted with bright white socks. I never realized pillbugs have socks.
It was when I finally stood up, slowly straightening my creaky knees, that it happened.
My eyes fell upon a crack in the stone ledge beneath my feet where a small bittercress was piercing the gray gravel in a brilliant blast of spring green. All of a sudden, I cracked, too. I cracked wide open and tumbled into a hidden landscape where for one precious instant, everything around me was blazing green and shimmering. My heart seemed to split apart trying to gather it all in, and I gasped to myself, “Everything, everything is so…vast.”
Then it was gone as quickly as it had come. My heart smoothed itself, like a bee pushing pollen into her basket. The green toned itself down a notch. But my pulse was charging. I had gone somewhere else.
No, not elsewhere. Deeper. I had gone deeper. Like the bittercress in the stone wall, I had cracked something. Or my ego had cracked. Something stone-hard in me had buckled for an instant and a blazing new vision had poured into the split seam of my Self.
I stood gathering my breath, watching my feet where they stood in stunted winter grass, wondering if such a moment would ever happen again. And then not caring whether it did or not, because it had happened once and the trace of its wonder remained.
I wondered if that is how the rest of manifest Creation—the animals and plants and stones and all of it—see this world every day: Ablaze.
Walking slowly back to the house in a holy silence, the words of that most beloved poet-Buddhist Leonard Cohen followed me: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in…”