Lessons from a Winter Walk
It was a cold morning, the Berkshire temperature hovering in the low teens. I had decided to take my usual morning winter walk despite the cold, and was striding briskly back from the gate on Kripalu’s East Drive, blowing into my hands to keep them warm. From somewhere on the hill to my right, I heard the familiar rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. I stopped and looked up, but couldn’t find the bird among the pine trees. I kept walking, aiming for the path that led up the hill toward Swami Kripalu’s Meditation Garden.
The pecking sounds grew louder. I walked up the rise and paused again, looking skyward. The sound seemed very close, and I followed the outlines of the nearby tree trunks, sure I’d find the bird, but still had no luck. As I brought my gaze down, movement caught my attention, and there on a tree not 10 feet from where I stood was a pileated woodpecker furiously enlarging a hole in the trunk about four feet above the ground.
Rap, rap, rap. Its big head hammered the strong beak home three times before it paused to toss a splinter out of the hole. Rap, rap. It tossed another wood chip to the ground. I was mesmerized. Pileated woodpeckers are usually shy birds. A little bigger than a crow, they often scoot around the back side of a trunk in order to remain invisible to prying human eyes. This one was so intently thwacking the tree that it seemed not to notice me at all.
Only a half-hour removed from a long meditation session in which I’d sat with the truth of the moment, as best I could, my practice came back to me as I watched the bright red head of the woodpecker pounding away at the tree. All my senses were awake, alive, and focused. I let myself receive the experience fully, the bird’s sleek black body, its claws gripping tree bark, the cold, hard ground beneath my feet, the wind sighing in the pine boughs. I gave the moment over to the Infinite, allowing my particular experience to inform and delight the whole.
With no advance warning and no effort or intent on my part, my view abruptly widened. It was suddenly clear to me that I wasn’t the only sentient being whose experience informed the whole. The woodpecker contributed how it was to pound its beak against the tree, gouge the hole in the trunk, and find bugs to eat with obvious relish. The tree transmitted just what it was like to be bored into by that sharp, hard beak. The bugs gave back to the whole their experience of being uncovered, discovered, and eaten.
My definition of “sentient” shifted to include the frozen ground, which informed the Infinite of what it was like to have wood splinters strewn upon it, roots growing through it, and my two feet standing motionless on its surface. Beneath the soil, bedrock offered its experience of holding up the weight of dirt, and trees, and me. On and on it went, wherever my eyes fell. Bushes, blue sky, clouds, frozen lake, and nearby stream―they all enriched the whole, each piece clearly part of the same matrix.
At no time did I lose the sense of who I was. I was this one, witnessing the woodpecker and sensing the connection between the world of form and the realm of formless receptivity. But while I was this woman, with cold hands and a bird-lover’s fascination with the scene playing out before me, I was also directly experiencing my connection to the whole. Unique and universal, yet part of something infinitely vast and free.
The words “holy moment” popped into my head, and it was that, but it was also remarkably mundane. A pileated woodpecker caught in the act of catching bugs. I took a deep breath. It was time to move on. I was just below the big bell that hangs at the entrance to Swami Kripalu’s Meditation Garden―a bell I rang every morning as part of my walking meditation.
“I’m going up those steps,” I told the bird, out loud, my voice interrupting the morning stillness. “I’m going to walk up the steps, and ring the bell, and then I’m going to keep walking. I’m not a threat. You don’t have to fly.”
The woodpecker never stopped its rat-a-tat-tatting. I took one step, and then another. The bird didn’t look up. I walked to the bell, took hold of the clapper, and clanged it loudly. The bird didn’t budge. “Thank you,” I said, to the woodpecker and the tree, to the bugs, the ground, the bedrock, sky, and blowing wind. Not one of them replied. I walked home through the frozen woods, still hearing the tapping of beak on trunk, still dumbstruck with the wonder of interconnectedness, oneness, part, and whole.
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