"are birds getting louder?"
on mindfulness, neuroscience and stupidity.
In May 2020, a couple months into the COVID stay at home order, people keep asking Google “are birds getting louder?”.
No. Birds weren’t getting louder. I’m pretty sure birds were exactly as loud as they've always been. We were just so busy creating noise pollution, that we didn’t notice. But when we stopped all that for a while, and finally heard the chirping, like idiots, we googled: are birds getting louder.
Last month I had the pleasure of being on a retreat with meditation teacher Rolf Gates, where he mentioned the work of neuroscientist Judson Brewer around the two basic networks in the brain.
The Narrative Network is the one we default to and has its uses (in the narrative network our brain can plan and strategize), but about 50% of the time, our brain is occupied with the self; thoughts of self, events in the past, and anxieties or fantasies about the future. Rolf said the ruminations of the narrative mind rarely result in serenity.
This checks out. Because when I worry if society is going to collapse and maybe I really should be trying that horrible KETO diet and is so-and-so mad at me and is this cough COVID and why did I say that irretrievably stupid thing to my friend last week and what if I die alone and maybe I should be saving more money… When all of this swirls through my brain on an endless loop, it doesn’t do one thing to ensure I am safe and loved.
It gives me nothing.
But it does take something away.
Perseverating on moments in my life that are already over, and worrying about moments in my life that haven't happened yet just makes me miss every good thing in my life that is happening now.
Which brings us to the Direct-Experiential Network. When this part of the brain is active, ruminations cease and we become engulfed in what is happening in the present moment. Rolf Gates recalled a moment when he realized that mindfulness (activating the Direct-Experiential Network by dropping into the present moment and thus interrupting his “constantly constructing the story of self” monkey mind) can be as simple for him as listening for birds.
The birds are singing whether we notice it or not. Hearing them is a pleasure we can ignore or indulge in. But it is difficult to tune in and pay attention if I am also wondering why someone isn’t returning my text and that it’s probably because they just don’t love me anymore after I said that irretrievably stupid thing last week.
This all reminded me again of Matthew 6 when Jesus says,
“Do not worry about your life, ….Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
When Jesus spoke about the cost of worry I do not think it was a coincidence that he said look at the birds and consider the flowers. And I think it’s more than him saying “look, literally birds are better at trusting God than you are”.
I think maybe Jesus gets that the beautiful things that surround us are meant to be enjoyed today – and they are the exact same things I totally miss out on when I am busy worrying about tomorrow. I guarantee that if I am in my head about something, the last thing I will notice is if a bird happens to be singing around me – and the second to the last thing I will notice are probably the flowers.
So I like to think that Jesus’ thing about not worrying and then inviting us to consider birds and notice lilies ….is both permission to let go, and an invitation to joy and even pleasure.
An abundance of direct-experiences are available to us through our senses and while I’m an admittedly terrible meditator, I also happen to be desperate for some relief from self-obsession, so I am trying to realize when I am “in my head” and to then drop into my body and feel for what in this moment there is for me to hear - to see - to touch.
This too, is itself, a prayer.
Random, extra thoughts that didn’t quite make it into this piece: this practice is similar to the 5-4-3-2-1 practice for dealing with anxiety - noticing 5 things you can see, 4 you can physically feel, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell and one you can taste; how pernicious is it, given how beautifully we are designed, that for many of us, the church taught that you cannot trust your feelings, that pleasures are to be avoided; we really are mal-adapted for lives of such comfort and convenience - we are really made to live in community and move our bodies through nature all day without, I imagine, tons of “down time”. I wonder if neurosis is a result of our brains no longer being occupied with foraging for food all day and making sure a wooly mammoth doesn’t sneak up on us. Now they are just sort of free to feel bad about ourselves because we eat too many Funions and didn’t get enough “likes” on our last Instagram selfie.
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