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Esteemed Reader 

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return and back into your Sun subside
The Conference of Birds, Attar


Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

The gaggle of three and four-year-old children with their parents dispersed from the fire circle and picked their way over rocks and logs into the woods. Our nature teacher had suggested we find a “sit-spot” where we would go and be aware. The sense-task of the day was to use our “deer ears” and listen to the sounds of the world. But first was to find our spot.

“Here it is,” Asher said, without hesitation. I followed him to a small group of stones under a couple of maple trees. I was reminded of the scene in The Teachings of Don Juan in which aspiring shaman Carlos is told to find his beneficial spot on a porch (there is also the added pressure of a destructive spot that could be lethal if inhabited). Carlos searches all night trying to “see” the spot. But Asher had no doubt. This was his spot.

We sat down, and put our hands behind our ears, which amplified the sounds.

“What do you hear?” I asked after a while.

“I hear my knowledge, Dad.”

“What does it sound like?”

“It sounds like wind and trees. And birds…I have a lot of knowledge, Dad.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Thirteen gallons.”

Returning to the circle, there was an atmosphere of stillness in the group of adults and kids. I, for one, was seeing with fresh eyes. Trees, earth, faces, looked clean. In the newfound silence, alas, an association, with William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

After Wild Earth camp ended (www.redfoxfriends.com), Asher chose a sit-spot in our yard. Some days we sit together, connecting in succession to our senses—deer-ears, owl-eyes, raccoon-fingers (touch), dog-nose, and snake-tongue. And sometimes, when he is feeling overwrought, he departs from the family vortex and goes to his sit-spot, returning after some minutes, refreshed.

What is the gunk that muddies perception? As I walked through the woods by myself yesterday, I asked this question. As is often the case with such inquiries, the answer was immediately available. I noticed my mind moving from one worrisome and unnecessary occupation to the next: rehashing things I had said or done, or things others had said or done to me; worries about my and my family’s fortunes; plans for the future, but small ones; and benign associations that are like the mind idling, burning fuel to no purpose. These all showed up against the backdrop of trying to hear the sound of my shoes on the path. After a few moments of really hearing that sound, and sensing my feet inside the shoes, I noticed my body start to relax, and my back straighten. I noticed my gaze lift from the path a few feet in front of me, to the horizon. Suddenly I could see where I was going!

What I learned at parent-tot summer camp has spilled over. I have taken to finding a sit-spot on the fly, when I notice that my mind is racing, and I’m seeing the world through “narrow chinks.” But inevitably, spending a few breaths on each sense returns a connection to myself that, in distraction, I forgot was possible. It is like taking a sip of a cool, refreshing drink.

In The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century Sufi epic poem, a group of hundreds of birds set out on a journey to find their true king—the simorgh. After many difficulties and travails, crossing a desert and seven mountains, only 30 birds remain. Most have given up or died on the journey. When they reach the ramparts of the bird-king’s castle, and the gates open, they find—themselves. Indeed, simorgh literally means “30 birds.” What they had been looking for, they already were. But they needed to suffer and strive to realize this was always already the case.

As Asher understood, the knowledge that comes from seeing-hearing-touching-tasting-smelling is not informational. It sparkles with energy (really—light, sound, chemicals, and friction are all forms of energy); energy that we can ingest through our senses. It wakes us up and arouses the appetite for more wakefulness. The hardest thing is to bear to be awake.

  • Jason Stern reflects upon his son's experience learning how to explore his senses in nature.

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