Something I really, really struggle with is changing my focus from one thing to the next. I am an obsessive, hyper-intense thinker and producer of human words; corraling my fire-active mind to the side while I try to do calm things is like trying to shove a sabertooth tiger into a kitten carrier. I see the humor here and my need for self-compassion while I grapple with this, but I also worry about how it affects the animals I work with when my human mind won’t shut up in the presence of their greater wisdom and extraordinary ability to always be in the present-moment. I hope these better beasts than myself will yet love me and forgive me while I have the ridiculous role of caring for these Masters of Mind in whose grounded magic we humans are privileged just to be close to. Matter over mind.
For your inspiration.
T and I found this tiny little guy! He’s an adorable, special little creature called a Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla). Location: a patch of woods near our home in Sammamish, WA, July 2018. The Pacific Tree Frog above was surely the guardian of the threshold who greeted us on our way into the woods that evening. It makes me think about how the Japanese word for frog, kaeru, かえる / 蛙 , is a homonym for the word return or come home, かえる / 帰る, and also for transform, かえる / 変える.
We don’t know what creature formerly owned this bone, but it was pretty cool to find.
This beautiful little birdy is a Black Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). He flew into my windshield one sunlit evening this summer. After realizing what it was that made that tiny impact without a second’s notice, I pulled over to get out and go back for the poor cutie. He died on impact. I held his still-warm little body in my hands, and thanked his little spirit for the remarkable opportunity to to hold him, examine his remarkable self up close, and learn from his life. I took him home to let my kitties have a sniff: Mawzawoo had no clue what to do with the tiny corpse, but Aiboorah was adorably desperate to eat it (he got to softly gum the wing for a moment, not believing his good fortune). That’s when we took our little Chickadee body out to the woods, laying him to rest in the hollow of a great Big Leaf Maple tree.
Laying down, reading a book about evil and God,
two insects wrestle on the ground below my eyes
while another carries her dead comrade away.
and the ants– what devotion they show me.
Obscure, so near to them,
an incomprehensible cloud.
poetry and photography by Gentle J. Pine
Last night I wanted to go to sleep and wake up as a happy five-year-old in this house of my grandparents, with both my Grandma and Grandpa alive, healthy and vital, the decay of the future far away or nonexistent; that present that is now the past, eternal again in a child’s unending summer day. And I found myself crying quietly in Grandpa’s study where I sleep when I come to Fresno, California to visit, because he is ten years still gone and Grandma is here in body but is barely and unrecognizably tenuously “alive” in her spirit.
I’m twenty-eight now and, for the great majority of my adult life under the rational light of the sun, I am accepting of and at peace with the situation that has come to be: our time is one of seeing more beloved elderly people slowly and pitifully die than ever before in society, proportionate to the numbers of the young who must witness it. Our grandparents and parents, once all medical cures are exhausted, languish in a half-life awaiting death, this rite of passage of which I have increasing faith in as a great liberation and the ultimate cure itself. People are living longer, but not necessarily better lives past a certain point. It became known to me in the past few years that Grandpa had considered seeking physician-assisted self-euthanasia, had his incurable physical pain become unbearable and death had not taken him in his sleep. The thought of it would have been too hard for me to handle when, at his death, I was eighteen and he was eighty, but now I have more and more serious respect for the natural and ancient dignity in such a choice. I had the freedom to euthanize my beloved cat of thirteen years when her veterinary ailments became unbearable for her, but we are in such stupid denial about the dignity of human beings in valid situations being able to choose the same for themselves. Instead, we force our beloved humans to have their butts wiped by somebody else, a humiliation that should never be forcibly born by a person because those around them are too chicken-shit to accept the reality of death in The World.
Sometimes, it’s the very resiliency of human beings that scares me so much: we can go through any hell and keep living. Other animals are not averse to the peace of death as a natural response to a suddenly severely maladaptive environment. But we humans are terrifying in our ruthless, pertinacious will to keep breathing through any plague, and now I wonder what this insect-like insistence has made of us. We have become titans of battle against everything, against our own brains and against Nature itself, and we have become unloving of Reality, at odds with The World, constantly unaccepting of the limits of the universe. Do I share in this same inclination to be at odds with The World in my childlike longing for a theoretical universe that could have (should have, would have, but only might have) been?
I was a child of the 1990s. I’ve long had a quietly uncanny feeling that something happened in the ’90s, and it was the end of the world. It was the end– or maybe the world spun off into different directions, dimensions, and this who I am in one of them is not who I am in another. And yet I do not feel divided within myself: through all my depression and the shit I went through as a kid with an insanely emotionally abusive mom with Borderline Personality Disorder, I have had the great luck of always feeling continuously whole within myself. Imaginatively, this uncanny sense of differing possible realities is more that I was pulled into one possible universe where things were not as whole all was meant to be, and something was off, only because, in contrast, I also glimpsed that deep Beauty of the Original World peeking through into this one. As a child, I saw this through the lens of my family. And who I am here have always been a little exorcist, who descended only deeply enough in time and in worlds within worlds to confront something, finish something, set something right. And any day now I will find my way back home to where I am supposed to be, waking up, relieved, from a dream.
Back in this world, I have lately been enjoying the lighter quality of trying not to feel so much all the time, for once in my life: my nature is to be so deeply feeling that it is frequently maladaptive to my environment, and I am weak and as yet unskilled in spinning this sensitivity into strands of gold. And now it suddenly and forbiddingly occurs to me that this ability to turn away from the tender heart is the necessary –and terrifyingly natural– shadow underlying my hominid ability to uncanny adaptation. How comfortable we are pressed to become among prolonged sickness and wrongful decay in our dogged search between a rock and a hard place for survival: the loss of tender feeling for that shimmering Original World, peeking through the slats of our weighted days, becomes an unbearable heartache for those with too much to carry. So much of an aging human life is full with the totalistic and unbending trial of coming to accept the absolute finality of death and loss, when still our persistent hearts in their deepest chambers yearn for life eternal. Among all of this, we must find a way to be happy– on pain of death. No wonder that those who find a path of absolute acceptable of reality while somehow keeping a tender heart are rightly called the saints of our species. And so I wonder if the Christians really have it right about something: humanity’s omnipresent longing for a semblance of eternal life, evident in all cultures, makes me wonder if there’s really something to it, in the way that hunger is an indicator that food exists somewhere.
But I am here now, born into this land of the vast old Earth, where my species is restless and beautiful and full of ancient and unknowable strangeness. Drifting into sleep last night I heard the night birds of this warm valley cooing their evening song from their perches and nests, calling steadily to their mates in their peaceful language, comforting their young in their downy breasts. I know their names, some of them, and the names and intimate formations of the trees that they love, that I love with a tender heart, that are bequeathed to me in an unending ancestry of natural lives in exchange. It was the Descent of Man, a going-down which Darwin spoke of, into the World to be among it completely, in totality. And in this moment of my brief human heart in the glorious life of the dark Earth I want nothing more than to be among the sounds of the night-songs forever, here in The World, so deeply is their avian comfort entwined with the blanketing world of the dusk, the old bones of the mother-sound of my animal life.
Last night I woke up at 3:30am with a feeling pulling me to go sit outside for a little while. I call this a sit-spot, coming from my time as a student at Wilderness Awareness School where this tradition of sitting, quietly, in the natural world is practiced. It is near-constantly rainy in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, but last night the sky was perfectly clear, and I could see every star not obscured by the city lights, and the air was a cool but pleasant temperature.
I sat on our gravel driveway where we never park our cars, the place where, for three years, I have neglected to make a fire though I have lived here with my partner who owns the land and would happily allow me to do so. Why have I not made a fire? This is an important question to me: being near a real fire has been a sacred practice in my life. I still loathe fake gas fires with a deep repulsion unknown to most of my modern peers. Fires must be made by friction, or by a simple lighter with a hand-assembled tinder bundle at most. We all need to have our ritual ways.
When I woke up this morning, the stomach ache from eating three spoon-fulls of delicious bee pollen at 3:30am before going outside was still gnawing at me, but I slept really well. I usually sleep like a rock, regardless of almost anything, and I count this a lucky blessing. But upon waking, I got word that there will be an elder fire tonight, where the older folks of the community come together to share minds with the younger ones at a place we call home, and I should go to this. Tomorrow I will hear stories around a fire with new friends, too. Maybe the fire is coming back to me, but it is a calming fire, now, not the fervent, uncontrollable feeling of my youth.
The stars were beautiful last night. I noticed that the Big Dipper was positioned differently than how I am used to seeing it. That is to be expected, but it matters to notice these things with our own eyes.
What I thinking most about last night was my own ability to logic my way out of depression, which I’ve had a perpetual case of to varying severities since adolescence. While sitting remarkably peacefully under the stars (“remarkably”, because I have often felt self-conscious, monkey-minded and unworthy while sit-spotting) then subsequently breathing myself into a restful sleep back in bed despite my foolish overconsumption of bee pollen causing a tummy ache, I was continuing to consider the wisdom that I truly do have the ability to change my mindset at any moment. I am on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, and I do think they work to a possibly life-saving degree. But good scientific medication is only half the effort (don’t talk to me about woo woo “naturopath” medicine, please), where the other half of thriving is the far harder effort of changing one’s own mind.
But is it effort, exactly, with such strenuousness? Or is it simply being, that delivers us into the peace of “no-thought“? I’m thinking back to Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful book, Writing Down the Bones, where she refers to the power of writing in the right mindset that she learned through her Buddhist study with Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Zen Buddhism is infamously easy and difficult all-in-one, and I’m no practicing expert, but the sense I got from the teachings in these books were what I like to call “matter over mind“. (Isn’t that fun? I thought of that. Probably someone else has, too, just like eyes evolved in the animal kingdom separately in various complex species.)
And here I am, on this clear morning, with a clearer mind, finally writing and thinking fluidly with the lighter breath I was looking for. Here is how I can describe this “matter over mind”.
The human mind, and all it produces, are phantoms. The brain is its own constant enemy, or friend, depending on its untamed impulses. I think that this is the image of the untamed horse and rider that Tibetan Buddhists talk about: the mind is the horse, the person is the rider. The human brain is crazy. Even typically healthy brains with no signs of depression or any worse mental illness are just crazy deep down in there. But what a light-hearted relief, what soothing valve for mental pressure it is to acknowledge this. It’s crazy being human!
Speaking from my own depressed brain in its gravest dips into pain, this human brain produces longings and memories and fear and intense feelings that serve no purpose but to cause anguish, now. This is progress from my former way of valuing these emotional depths as something spiritual I wanted to protect, even if they pained me greatly. Now, I don’t want to pin my spirituality on these emotional weights, even if they do produce some great art and passionate spiritual feeling. I’d now rather be calm and utterly mature, like an unshakable old Sequoia tree, unbothered by and calmly accepting of the insanity of life. Big change in perspective.
The minds of other animals do not appear to be nearly as harried by this human craziness. Animals must be completely grounded in the reality of the physical world around them. Matter over mind. The world of what is profoundly real, this physical world exterior of the brain’s torturous phantoms, is the anchor of sanity, to a very serious point. Those who are clinically insane are diagnosed as such precisely because they have lost contact with blessed physical reality. And physical reality is blessed, because it is the foundation of everything and so is infinitely valuable though sometimes sadly disregarded and overlooked for its goodness. The constant ground of matter –the literal ground of the world holding us securely in gravity, covered by a blanket of sky– shall always exist independent of the brain’s self-cycling drama.
Matter over mind. Constantly looking inward is the source of a lot of suffering. Looking outward, instead, brings relief. The mind will always be crazy inside, but when anchored in the physical matter of the world, it is calm.
The brain does not change its neural pathways by wishing, or by praying, but by doing. The will to change one’s actions doesn’t even come from the inner mind, but instead comes from a grounded awareness in the reality of the real exterior world. Matter over mind.
I focus here not on the “action” of social political agitation, which I am mortally tired of. I mean the action of physical movement and awareness: breathing, walking, focus on the movement of a leaf on a tree, the presence of an animal.
What should be made of the inner sanctum of the mind? It is this place of refuge from the harsher parts of the exterior world that I have cultivated for so long, guarding its impulses even in the anguish it causes. I am not alone in having wanted to retreat from the glaring, unnatural clatter of urban life. Coming to terms with the atonal disharmony of our current times is also an act of kindness to ourselves, forgiveness for the environmental stress we feel, in that we should not expect ourselves to be perfectly at peace all the time. We are fervently trying to adapt to a changing landscape. But this effort at adaptation puts us in good company with all our plant and animal relatives of evolution, who themselves have survived all environments, peaceful and hostile, to get us here. We can feel less alone when we realize that, by our experience of environmental disharmony and subsequent behavioral adaptation to adjust to or even influence our environment, we are participating in the long and beautiful life of evolution itself. This mental inner sanctum of refuge from harsh environmental exteriors should then be a temporary refuge, and not an addictive escape from reality. This is a critical distinction. There is too much attempting to escape reality, now, at the cost of losing that shimmering image of beauty which we seek in our escape, for only The World itself truly offers this relief. The effort of the wise is to find this shining world open its way to us, even among the grit of inquietude. In every city there are the laws of physics, still: the pull of gravity never leaves us, and the air is present, and even animals and plants are to be found slowly and surely repopulating their habitats. Most significantly, should I give in to the temptation to view the creatures of nature as in a war against the structures of human design? I should not, for then I would see myself as an enemy to my anchoring world of matter, when I am no less a native animal here than the nearest little creature who scuttles or flies. Nothing can truly be ever outside of nature. That is, by definition, impossible. Nature is the sum total of all that is real. Ultimately, all our human designs are within this force as much as any other assembly of atoms. Matter over mind. The inner sanctum of the human mind needs constant fortifying by the solidity of the great exterior world of matter, which is the very definition of solidity itself. Then, we carry the world of matter within us, and it is a constant source of peace.
I am convinced now that this is how animal minds endure the hardships of their own lives. They cannot afford to be distracted by fantasies. Their lives and entire mental wellbeing depend on their constantly being centered in the physical world itself, and in the wild they show no trace of boredom. It is possible that the “domestication” of modern humans contributes greatly to the mental suffering of our time. If this is so, and the environment is unlikely to spontaneously change for us, then it is all the more important that we creatively adapt to and influence our environment not by escaping from it, but by going into it in sensory awareness.
This sensory awareness practice is what I was being taught at Anake Outdoor School at Wilderness Awareness School. I was not ready to understand it until now. But, like all great and complicated human communities that impart wisdom, they taught this wisdom alongside what felt like a contradictory practice. In my words, I’d call it too much navel-gazing, too much self-examining of so many emotions. It’s possible it only felt like too much to me, because I had done it already for so long and to a pointless, depressive degree, whereas such self-examination is new and useful to others.
From the beginning, animals accept this Dark Mother that is present in the beauty and violence of natural life. This Dark Mother is an archetypal rendering of the simultaneously nurturing and brutal aspects of Great Nature, as Shinto beautifully and simply names it. Nature is the mother who gives birth in one breath, then impersonally strangles the helpless infant in the next (countless babies in have died in childbirth from umbilical cords wrapped around their necks). Great Nature brings us abundant food and the right amount of sun and rain, then is unrestrained in famine. She allows a creature to escape from certain agony by the fortune of its genes for swiftness or camouflage, while another is crushed by an amoral falling tree. Evil exists, but it is a construct only of human social life, and is natural only insofar as the human brain with its demons is natural, though we have every justification to expect our humanity to behave morally. Evil is not a component of all the rest of Nature. This does not mean it is less of a serious thing: we use the word “evil” to rightly describe extreme and unjustified suffering, such as torture or rape, caused upon one social, sentient being by another. The amorality of scientifically-revealed “Great Nature” is, then, all the more a relief to the human brain which tires in these maturing centuries of distinguishing the phantom agents of evil and good beyond the human sphere, once attributed to gods. A tsunami is devastating, but it can never be called “evil”.
Today is a beautiful, rare sunny day in a Seattle winter. I want to get out and enjoy it, but with humor I am realizing that I won’t enjoy it if I follow my typical pattern of anxious thinking by worry about not enjoying it enough. That’s a non-helpful thought pattern of seeing this bright day as something I need to “measure up” to. Instead, there is no pressure of measuring up to this day by showing it how much I appreciate it by going snowshoeing for fifteen miles and wiping myself out. If I merely go out into it and don’t even think about being “happy” or “sad”, then the calm of a deeper happiness comes.
What this comes back to, in my original point about calming the crazy human brain through sensory awareness, is the value of not extending moral judgments further than they need to be applied. I am prone to feeling unreasonable guilt, even for such ridiculously common reasons as being depressed in itself. You can see how this becomes a depressive cycle. That is an overuse of the human need to name “good” and “evil” actions. It is easy for depressed brains to turn this thinking on themselves, and fall into a cycle of feeling a lack of worth or ability to be “good” again. But when we see that this depression is only the result of a brain being a brain, merely in need of getting outside of itself and into amoral Nature, relief is found. A brain is not committing a wrong just by being depressed, but it is doing a right action by putting matter over mind.
Featured image: “High Desert” © 2017 Gentle J. Pine. Watercolor on paper.
Journal Entry from 7/24/2016
My cats are relatives of lions! –of large and small wildcats, they are relatives to them all. My cats are “guardian spirits” to me, my “familiars”, with their bright yellow-green jewel eyes and same stripedy patterns of their wild cousins. It is a blessing and a delight they have come to settle in with us human domestics, to purr at our feet, begging kibbles and bonking our faces with their adorable ways. A story goes that cats became domesticated so that humankind would have the pleasure of snuggling the tiger. Actually, the truth is probably nearer to the opposite: humans became domesticated so that cats could have the pleasure of sitting on us!
Baby Mawzawoo, at three months old, is Mr. Independent Bug Hunter who pounces and tumbles over the small woolen toy I made for him, practicing for prowling in the wilderness like a big tough kitty. He will not go into the wilderness, but he brings the vitality of his wildness home to us. His brother, Aiboorah, is my big goofy cuddle-baby-lion who doesn’t lose an opportunity to sit in my lap or on my back as I stretch out on the floor. His way of “hunting” is to be a lazy paw-swatter on his pack, like an over-confident comic male lion. I love these little cats more than I can put into words, so much it makes my heart hurt in that extraordinary way. House cats are hilariously wild and yet merely big kittens for life.
We humans used to know the names of all beasts and plants and called them our friends. Wandering out of Africa into deep green and dark northern forests we met our Neanderthal cousins, sharing their likeness. The world was endless then, when all hominids hunted their food and gathered from the plants. The world itself was sanctuary and home. I get the sense that, finally, I may be lucky to be living at a time when this way of loving The World as our permanent home is returning to us.
Little Kitten, descendant of great beasts, bless us with your wilderness condensed into your small body, the wilderness you carry within your snuggly, tiny self, little stripes and spots of the tiger, heart of the lion. Your energy is boundless and full of vitality in every muscle, paws eager to seek out the path of the jungle. Little Cat, remind us that we too are like you, The World within us, and that we have not “fallen” so far from your happiness. Give us persistence to find our way home in The World.
Little kitties, is this why you came to snuggle us in the Neolithic days? You could not have known the changes coming for our species, that we would come to love you so dearly. It is the Lifeworld we want, and this you greatly bring to us, The World that you live in, that you carry within yourself, pounces and bright eyes alert and at the ready to purrs. It is this vitality we long to be reborn to. We have loved you and called you friend, miniature Tiger, tiny Lion, herald of happiness. May happy landscapes await us where the night is more joyful, the dawn more delighting, and lively animal forms are pouncing unceasing in lovableness along the paths of our lives.
This is what they look like.