So fellow travelers, a few weeks ago I embarked on a road trip, a pilgrimage of sorts to an historic site I’ve wanted to visit for many years. As an added bonus I happened to obtain advance sale tickets to a special event at the New York Botanical Garden, so the timing of the trip was built around that fortuitous find.
Sneak preview of adventures to come
As the time for departure approached I found myself feeling a kind of heaviness about the trip which I am unaccustomed to. It took a few long quiet meditations by our little fish pond to realize I had started to imbue the trip with monumental expectations. Like those heavy ornate frames one sees around famous paintings in museums, gilded mantles which almost overpower the masterpieces they contain, I was framing the trip with the aura of my 60th solar return which would arrive at the end of the journey. As I noted on the eve of my birthday, I rarely made much of my advancing age before, yet approaching this milestone felt different. I questioned every aspect of this trip as if it had to provide some kind of deep insights worthy of this life marker.
“What if you just head out and let the adventure happen? Be open to the experience as it unfolds, like you do when you’re hiking or birding.” In other words, I told myself, stop over thinking everything.
So I packed, charged my camera battery, stocked up on water and snacks, filled the gas tank and headed out early enough to, hopefully, beat New York City’s rush hour traffic at the other end of the first leg.
Then as I drove up the ramp onto the highway which runs through Syracuse, a tiny little bird flew across the road directly in front of my car.
I slowed down and swerved a bit to the right but with traffic so close behind me there was nothing more I could do. I felt a dull thud and, even worse, in my side view mirror saw a tiny feathered ball tumbling towards the edge of the road.
It was heartbreaking.
I gasped, tears blurred my vision. I pounded my steering wheel.
NO! NO! NO!
As I merged into the traffic traveling at highway speed, my mind spun in a thousand directions.
Did the bird suffer? I hoped it had died instantly but I thought I saw it trying to hop around after it landed. Oh God. This was a very bad start. How could I possibly drive over 700 miles after this? I need to turn around.
Turn around and do what? Go look for the bird?
Even if I found it how would I get to it?
If I managed to get to it, what would I do? Hold it while it died as traffic raced by?
Then what? I can’t take it with me; I would drive home to bury it.
After that do I stay home or leave again on this obviously doomed expedition?
Because I have caused an innocent creature suffering.
NO! NO! NO!
Why hadn’t I left five minutes earlier or later so this didn’t happen.
Or would it have happened no matter what?
Ok the exit to loop back is coming up. Got to make a decision.
Except this tractor trailer is making the decision for me since it won’t let me off in time.
I kept driving, tears rolling down my cheeks. I knew this was an unavoidable incident but that did not make my heart feel any better. If this was a harbinger of the experiences this trip had to offer I was not sure I was willing to continue. I could not get the thought of the little bird’s suffering out of my head. Slowly as I drove on, letting thoughts flow with the tears, a ripple of responses began to echo in my consciousness.
Suffering is inevitable, it is part of life.
But suffering, like all aspects of life, is not permanent.
Suffering, ours or that of another, is a call for compassion.
Compassion recognizes there is no line between the suffering of others and ourselves.
The bird’s suffering is mine too.
The pattern follows a line of thinking based in Buddhist teachings intended to shift the habitual focus our minds have developed over centuries of negative thinking. Even after many years of practice I still have to remind myself to apply what I have learned but what matters is the moment of awareness, the call to become mindful of what I am experiencing so I can work through the process.
All this mental drama may seem melodramatic in relation to a not uncommon death of a small bird. That is certainly the kind of judgment such thinking would have evoked if I voiced such thoughts as a child. I am the master of my own perceptions now; the lives of even the tiniest of creatures have value. It is a belief of great importance to me, one I have tried to pass on to my own daughters, a tenant I am soul-bound to respect.
Gradually my perspective shifted from remorse and self-directed anger to acceptance and sadness. I could not change the death of this little bird by being angry with myself for my part in its final moments of suffering. I could continue to berate myself and let the pall of death infuse the remainder of my journey or I could choose to find reflections of suffering calling for my attention, look mindfully at the sources of this suffering, and then seek ways to offer kindness and compassion to others and myself as a way to honor the bird’s spirit.
I pictured the bird in the moments before it dove down from the shrubs, imagining it’s spirit soaring high even as the tiny body tumbled across the road from the impact of my car. I ran this image over and over until my tears stopped. As I drove on, a red tailed hawk swooped up from a roadside tree, circled a few times over my car soaring higher into brightening skies. A moment of zen I gladly accepted as a sign I was on course and headed where I needed to be. to be continued
Walk gently on the path my friends and may adventure find you ready.
Photo note: the bird pictured is a very distant cell phone shot taken last spring, obviously not from the recent roadside encounter described.