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Buddha with birdPhoto: Buddha with bird, CC*BY Ekke

The Practice of Birding

A Conversation between Alumna Georgia Harper & Trustee John Cobb

"Sitting on Hawk Mountain, three hours would go by and I had no idea. Some of birding is left brain, like hunting, focusing, and calculating, and part is being there now, the total 'ah ha', the joy of being in and being a part of nature in a deeper way."—Rose Farmer, January 19, 2009

Georgia Harper (MA, Contemplative Education, '12) explains contemplative birding in detail in Birding with Buddha, available at the iBookstore. The book is accompanied by a course, both part of her Naropa master's project. Here, Georgia sought out John Cobb, the former president of Naropa and longtime birder, to have the first (of many) conversations about birding.

Georgia: I watched birds for many years before recognizing birding as a contemplative practice. My experience at Naropa in the MA in Contemplative Education program (2011–13) helped me define and deepen the practice, and place it in the context of other contemplative practices. I learned that birding enabled a direct perception of interconnectedness. It demands full presence, an openness to whatever happens, and a suspension of judgment. Yet, it richly rewards those qualities.

Mother owl
Great Gray Owl and a Great Gray Owl fledgling (at left).
Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota, June 2013.
Photos: John Cobb
John: Yes, I agree. I started birding when I was 12—long before it was "fashionable"—and over the years, it moved from being an eccentric hobby, to an antidote for stress, and then to, when I got sick, a core practice of health, a practice for life. Taking a walk—anywhere in the world—on a sidewalk, in a jungle—became the practice of an unfiltered engagement with the world. Now, I am always looking. And, of course, when I am caught by mental distractions and thus "miss the bird" it becomes a poignant lesson in "closed-mindedness," and vividly demonstrates how thoughts inhibit perceptions.


Georgia: I wanted to share just that kind of perspective on the practice. I learned quickly, however, that my birding friends might recognize and understand it, but for most of them, "getting" the bird, identifying it by name, remained tantamount. As it turns out, they taught me more than I taught them: starting with a well-established meditation practice, Birding with Buddha is a joyous revelation! But for those who don't meditate regularly, it's likely to remain a puzzling mystery.

John: Ah, what's in a name! I call this the problem of identification; or, as practitioners might say, labeling. If I come upon a Western Tanager and, having seen this gorgeous bird a hundred times before, my mind says "Western Tanager" and immediately the eyes neglect it. I have short-changed myself in a profound way. Similar to not really relating to an old friend, or walking by a Rembrandt because you have seen it before!

The poet Gary Snyder described this beautifully:

"To see a wren in a bush, call it 'wren' and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing. To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel 'wren'—that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world."1

owletNot only, does it open one's senses, birding evokes simultaneously a sharpening of the senses. Being open and inquisitive has to work together in synchronicity with our discriminating awareness. Thus, we notice a sound, a movement, a shape, a bird, then a chickadee, and then are able to tell the species, Mountain Chickadee or Black-capped Chickadee, apart. Or, more subtle are the North American sparrows, which most people would say, if they notice one, was just a little brown bird. When one really sees and hears them, each species is, at a heightened level of awareness, very, even dramatically, different. There is awe in the details!

Georgia: That was Rose Farmer's observation—all our mental capacities work in synchrony, and that's what we love about birding. I've taught my course, Birding with Buddha, twice at the Austin Zen Center and will be teaching it again later this fall. At first, I was tentative in suggesting that observing birds could open a door to the ineffable, but my Zen Center friends fully understood this possibility, and readily immersed themselves in their direct perceptions.

John: I have birding friends who haven't meditated and may never describe taking a bird walk in the language of meditation. Yet, how they describe the spotting, the seeing of a bird is surprising and revelatory to me. Our longing for a genuine connection to a natural world transcends language and cannot be overstated. I was on a boat off North Carolina the other day looking for seabirds with a group of twenty-year-olds on a Saturday who were waxing ecstatic over every shearwater, every petrel. They didn't seem to miss beer and football at all!

Georgia: Yes, I see that in my friends as well. Total fascination. And two former students from my spring AZC course expressed an interest in developing strategies to identify birds while maintaining mindfulness and awareness. We've been out together several times now and are planning regular contemplative outings.

John: Like any practice, it is richer if I explicitly recognize why I am doing it. The intention is clear, and I learn more from each experience. If you go out to find one bird for your life list, you may "fixate" and miss so much delight along the way. You may get home and say, "well that was an 'unsuccessful' walk!" Instead, taking a bird walk can become not merely physical exercise, an escape or a hunting expedition, but a celebration of the six senses and one's interconnectedness with the world.

1 Snyder, Gary. "Language Goes Two Ways" in A Place in Space: New and Selected Prose. Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 1995.