Paying Attention: Learning from the Ducks

[This continues the meditations from December 9, 10, and 12, 2014, reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.]

What can I learn from ducks?

It is now Thursday, on this several day sojourn in the wilderness, what I now call my Soul Quest. It will become a momentous day for me, but here I am going to focus on just one piece of the gift of paying attention.

The sun rises, I pray to the four directions as Tomas, our shaman, has taught us, and I seek a spot to sit. It is not easy; the rocks are hard and still cold in the early morning. I feel a little wobbly, having had no food since Tuesday evening.

2014-09-10 17.44.31But the day is bright and my tree friends are looking grand. As does the lake. Oh, right, the lake. I am committed to going in to its frigid waters later in the day, naked as a newborn babe (and with probably as much sense, I say to myself).

But for now, I sit and look around. I seek to clear my mind and just experience the stillness that underlies the wind and the sun and the birds flying and squirrels busily moving about. After a while, I walk to the lake, not yet ready to take the plunge but wanting a preparatory look, and to dip my hand in and filter some water for drinking.

As I approach the lake, I see ducks, five of them, swimming slowly and sometimes just sitting in the water. I find a perch and watch them for what feels a long time. I am enthralled by the pattern of their group dynamics. Four of the ducks congregate, one stays apart. At first, I think that the separate one is being shunned by the group. But then I note something else; they are connected, and he is the leader. He moves a little and they move a little. I mean a little, it is subtle but clear. In my mind, I begin to call him LD (Lead Duck).

Then one of the four moves out, a little away from the group and LD.  After that ones stays put a little while, LD begins to move ahead in the same direction the other one was moving, and they all follow LD. It is an interesting dance of leader and follower, what I interpret as their being two leaders, one who is clearly part of the group–like a lieutenant or Vice-Lead Duck–and whose consent is required for Lead Duck to move out, followed by the others. This causes me to want to reflect on this in terms of being a leader.

The day is warming fast. I remove some clothing, and find a rock on which to sit and make notes in my journal.

mallard duckWhat I notice in this movement of the ducks is that they cannot be led unless they are willing to follow. It is a lesson I still need to learn. I am always moving to somewhere or something, but not always very concerned about whether anyone is actually following. I just expect people to follow. I certainly have not been very conscious of gathering people before attempting to lead them.

As I write in my journal, I note that not a lot of people are following my lead in People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. We are not building a substantial network. I wonder if perhaps it is because I don’t know how to gather them together and help us move together. I think of my ten-year pastorate, and realize that may have been true there as well.

Watching these ducks reminds me that leadership, like much of life in communities and families, is a dance. It takes partners, because it is not a solo.

I conclude that LD is a very wise duck indeed. Whether I can learn what he and the others teach is another question. But they have shown me wisdom today. As I have been told, wilderness can teach us much. I am grateful to be here.

Paying Attention: When Trees Speak

The mid-September days at 10,000 feet at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite were warm–although as the sun slid away in the late afternoon the temperature soon dipped way down.

From late morning until later afternoon, it was warm enough to wear light clothing, and even go naked. Given what my body had told me on Tuesday (see December 10), I spent some of Wednesday afternoon sitting naked on various rocks. I knew I had to expose my whole self to the sun, to the earth and creatures and trees and rocks around me. I knew I needed to do that to be able to wade into the lake on Thursday.

So Wednesday is a day to become better acquainted with my surroundings, to sit and watch and listen. Perhaps I will connect more with my soul, even become more appreciative of myself.

As I sit, I begin to see the trees. I sit for awhile, not very conscious, just gazing mindlessly at various trees. I notice how multi-shaped they are, how misshJu, Aug to midSept 2014 incl R & C wedding, HR Pride, Quest 068apen many are. I notice what will become my soul tree (see December 9).

I begin to speak, calling the trees my siblings, thanking them for being here, for surviving long enough to bless me. I have an “aha moment,” when I realize that the trees are doing what trees do. They grow, even in granite and weather extremes.

Then I notice that all are growing, whether they are “properly” shaped or not. They don’t have to have perfect bodies to be trees, and to grow. I realize that I could learn from this truth. I don’t have to have a perfect body (as defined by someone else, or society, or me) to be me, to live and thrive.

As I take this in, I say “Thank you” to the trees, my teachers. I tell them I am glad to be with them.

Then, a voice, well, not exactly a voice in the human sense, but a voice nonetheless, says, “We have missed you.” It is so clear, and simple. We have missed you.

I cry a little, and then I sob, great big gulping sobs, so aware of how long it has been since I really paid attention to trees and how grateful I am to be here, now, with Ju, Aug to midSept 2014 incl R & C wedding, HR Pride, Quest 069these beautiful trees. Every tree is simply stunningly beautiful. I want to touch each one, and bow and say thank you.

And I see that I am beautiful–maybe not stunning, not quite sure I can say that about myself, at least yet–but certainly beautiful, handsome.

So I cry some more, and stand up and walk around, just being glad to be revealed to these siblings. And I hug my soul tree. It is a careful embrace, given my bare skin and his (I have decided he is male) needles, but a brotherly, tender embrace nonetheless.

It is beginning to cool, and it is time to put some clothes on. But I know I am now ready to wade in the water tomorrow.

I am home with my pinus albicaulis family, and all their neighbors and friends. I am safe. I have been missed, and I have missed them. We are together and I am loved, and I love, too.

Next, the lake, and who knows what else!

Paying Attention: When Our Bodies Speak

Paying attention is not always easy, or pleasant. Sometimes, you see or hear or learn stuff you’re not sure you wanted to deal with. On the other hand, if we stay stuck in where we are we will never get to where we can be, or where God wants us to be.

That is one reason I went on the Vision Quest. I knew I needed to be more open to the nudges I kept feeling, and the sense that I was not fulfilling what some might call my “destiny.”

Cathedral_Peak_and_Lake_in_YosemiteI have written about the amazing trees I encountered at Lower Cathedral Lake, and especially the one I call my Soul Tree. But there is more to share about our encounters. First, some background is needed.

I went up the mountain as one in a group of seven, led by an amazing shaman, Dr. Tom Pinkson. We spent all of Monday getting to Yosemite by car from Marin and up 10,000 feet, arriving at that height after dark so we had to stop for the night. Putting up your tent in the dark is not fun!

But I made it (with a lot of help from more experienced hikers), and the next day (Tuesday) we headed up another 1,000 feet and then back down 1,000 feet to get to our base camp site. We set up our tents, and we each picked out a site around the lake where we would camp alone, fasting, for two days, starting the following day (Wednesday). Then we relaxed.

I started writing in my journal, of course. So much to record, and there had been no time since we left Marin the morning before.

lower-cathedral-lakeAs I sat on a rock, writing, I heard a splash. I looked up to see one of our number wading into the lake. He was naked, which of course is the way to do this if you can’t afford to deal with wet clothes! Besides, some say your body stays warmer naked than covered (but I am not advocating this, or even claiming it is true).

He is a good looking man, and I noticed his backside appreciatively.

But what came over me so fast was body shame, my own. I was shocked, thinking I had dealt with this a lot in therapy over many years. But here it was. I knew it was one thing I would have to deal with on the Quest.

And I knew at least one thing I had to do: go into the lake, without clothes.

This is where my siblings the trees come in. I am so grateful to them and as I relate more of the story, I think you will understand better, if you don’t already, about what Gerald May calls the “wisdom of wilderness.”

But I am going to stop here to ruminate about this experience and prepare to share more another day.