Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
who knows neither time nor error,
and under whose eye, unforgiving,
the world, un-forgiven,
swings into shadow.
–from Evening Hawk by Robert Penn Warren
Have you ever had one of those pivotal moments in which everything you had previously thought of as true and real, no longer seems so because your whole sense of reality has shifted gear and opened out into a wider dimension? This new perspective is so near and so natural we can’t help wondering how we had never noticed it before. I think most of us have experienced such moments during our lives. When they happen we feel that nothing will or can ever be the same again and truth seems so very near and obvious. But alas, all too often and all too soon we lose the lofty heights of our momentary perspective and sink back into the dream… And the dream is addictive and compelling. We believe in the story of our lives and almost everything that we do or say or think feeds into the sturdy edifice of our story. It is almost as though we cannot help ourselves because the story-line seems so believable.
And sadly, we almost never think to question our story or to investigate the nature and origins of our inmost sense of self. As a result, our attention remains locked onto the drama of our unfolding life and we remain none the wiser right up until the time it is about to end.
Most of us are not even aware that we are fixating on a drama which is neither true nor real and we are accustomed to living almost all of our lives this way. For us, what is nearest and true, as our inmost nature, has become but a distant dream and what is dreamlike and passing is the obsessive focus of our day to day attention.
There is a nocturnal bird that lives in Australia, called a Curlew. It has a tendency, on occasion, to turn up outside windows and reflective surfaces where it appears to be mesmerised by its own image. It is not that it thinks the image is another bird, rather it knows instinctively that the image it is seeing in the glass has something to do with itself. There is an almost fatal attraction which compels the bird towards what it is perceiving. In a similar manner, we human beings are infatuated with our sense of self-identity. We are convinced that we are what we appear to be. We can learn so much from the natural world around us, from the wildlife, from the plants and in fact from every living thing.
Since I was very young I remember hearing stories about birds that would appear just before or around the time of someone’s death. In fact, I personally witnessed such a thing on more than one occasion in my younger years. In New Zealand, where I grew up, these untimely or timely, visitatons were considered, by the Maori, to be an omen. Modern societies have forgotten about omens. Everything has been reduced to the small and narrow focus of what is apparently provable. As though the only reality we can identify with must be scientifically accounted for.
And yet, whenever something rattles our attention and gives us pause for thought, or better still, arrests our thought altogether, we have come face to face with the unknown. In such confounding moments, we have entered the realm of omens of awareness. We cannot understand them with the mind and yet on an almost subliminal level we feel deeply unsettled by them.
Getting back to the interesting case of the Curlew. Some years ago, while I was visiting Kuranda, a small settlement, in the far north of Queensland, I was surprised to see groups of birds occasionally gathered here and there around the town, usually near bushes and leafy parklands. They were most often completely still and immobile so that one might not actually notice them until very near and then be startled by these strange, still and graceful creatures. They certainly made an impression on me.
I asked a friend about them and he told me they were called Bush Stone Curlews and that the Aboriginal people feared their appearance in a locality as harbingers of death. Whether that is actually true or not remains to be seen, however, I was particularly impressed by these birds and the feeling of something other-worldly which I always felt when I saw them or happened upon them on my way. They are said to be primarily a nocturnal bird explaining why thy move so little during the hours of daylight and have an almost dreamlike quality about them. Dream-like as in sleepwalking.
Then, in March of this year, I came across a story of a bird that appeared in a busy Brisbane suburb. One of this particular breed had planted itself very firmly outside an office building and was seen to be gazing at itself in the glass of the shop front for hours on end. In fact, it would come at the crack of dawn with the very first rays of the sun and leave again only at dusk when it became dark. Of course, many people noticed it and the occurrence began to spawn much attention. So much so that a notice soon appeared on the window just above where the bird would stand in isolated and determined vigil gazing at itself in the glass.
“I’m a bush stone curlew,” the sign read.
“I’m fine. I just like to stare at myself in the window.”
Many people were alarmed by its behaviour. The Brisbane City Councillor, Ryan Murphy, humorously named one such bird, Sir Kew Llew, when, on a separate occasion, one appeared outside his office and took up the post of a vigilante for several days on end. He wrote:
“The situation is rapidly spiralling out of control. Despite it being clearly signed, the Curlew ignores all instruction. What’s worse, patrons of the nearby Dominos have gifted it a generous supply of Classic Crust, allowing the bird to maintain its siege indefinitely. I am no stranger to odd constituents. Indeed, one once threw a burning tyre through the very window that now consumes this Curlew. The affection of some constituents burns red hot, but the obsession of this avian interloper is more than a man can bear. RSPCA refuse to pick it up, so I guess Sir Kerr Llew must stay. Like an office volunteer who hangs around a lot, eventually, I will be forced to put it on my staff.”
Australia is blessed with many unique and extraordinary birds but there is something mystical about this one. It has a bone-chilling and piercing cry which can often be heard if they are nesting in the local vicinity. Their call is very haunting when it sounds out in the early, silent hours of a morning. As with so many things in nature, we can find, in their seeming eccentricities, things which are entirely relevant to our own lives. We are so surprised and even quite unnerved by the behaviour of the Curlew. To us it appears extreme and irrational and yet we do not notice that we also behave in a similar fashion. We may not plant ourselves in front of reflective surfaces for days on end gazing at our own images in the glass and yet, are we not mesmerised by our sense of ‘self’ and the seeming reality of our lives and the part we appear to be playing in them? This infatuation can compel us to move through an entire lifetime like a sleepwalker, awake to the dream and yet asleep to what actually is. Like children engrossed in watching the pictures made up of moving dots on a screen, we fail to notice the screen itself.
To be present and yet absent from our presence is a dilemma that ensnares our modern societies. The fatal attraction of a pseudo pleasure which is always somehow just out of our reach is a modern version of an ancient human problem. Smart phones and our digital technologies play into this dilemma very conveniently by creating devices that snatch away our attention and subvert it very efficiently into channels that do not in any way serve our best interests.
At the end of the day, the wise will remember that life is brief. Of what use is it to spend so much of our precious time and attention gazing at a screen? Better by far to waken from our dream and become aware of what it is that makes the whole show appear in the first place! The only truly meaningful thing to do in this world is to understand who and what we really are and yet we find endless ways with which to distract ourselves from this vital investigation. We are fatally attracted to what we perceive and yet fail to notice what it is that perceives.
This points to what is missing in our lives. Many feel that something is in fact missing and yet cannot quite say what it is. The answer is shockingly simple. Our attention is missing. When our attention is distracted we are not aware of the only thing which is actually real and true. Without it we are merely puppets dancing to some frenetic tune from which we finally collapse, exhausted and lost.
Unwittingly, we have become sleep walkers. From the moment of waking until the moment when we sink into sleep, we are the plaything of our perceptions and of the very technologies that promise to free us. The lines between waking and dreaming have been dangerously blurred so that we scarcely notice them at all. Is this not a strange turn around of events? Unintended repercussions are often the result of fundamentally good intentions.
May the omens of awareness come to shake us out of our torpor, out of our dreaming. Infatuated with the images on the so-called screen of life we fail to see that we are swallowed by the abyss of inattention and when our death comes to greet us, as it surely will, we will suddenly wake and wonder how it all has come to pass.
Like the Curlew that has planted itself in front of the glass we are fixated and lost. We are not able to free ourselves from our obsessions. Let us not forget the most precious of all gifts which each of us has right now, in the very palm of our hands. It deserves our unswerving attention now and always…
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