A few years ago I spent a couple of nights in Buzios, a resort town north of Rio de Janeiro. I needed some time “for myself” before surrendering to a visit with my father in southern Brazil. It was my second time in Buzios, a formerly-sleepy beach town made famous by Brigitte Bardot.
My guest house, Pousada Tom Bombadil, was well off the beaten path, hidden in a maze of pot-holed cobblestone roads above Praia Forno. I ate in the center of town, drove back up to the guest house and stepped out of the car. The stars! There were so many more than back home in the suburbs of Richmond. I was far enough from the bright lights of Buzios that I had a clear view of the Milky Way. And there was my old friend Orion right there in the southern sky. I spent awhile analyzing which stars are which (is he standing on his head?), and then found Ursa Major (including the Big Dipper). I followed the two stars that are supposed to point to the North Star and realized that they point over the northern horizon. Makes sense! But then I got confused trying to remember how the Dipper appears at home, and whether or not it’s different. Or should it be different? I couldn’t sort it out. I get easily lost in Astronomy. But then I had a new inspiration: “So what? I’m looking at the Stars!” They teach scientists about the origin of the universe; they are the place where science and poetry and transcendence converge. For me on that night, any further analysis would have felt like a distraction from an awe inspiring experience.
This tradeoff between direct experience and analysis has been with me in various forms throughout my life. Years ago, I was a pretty adept natural historian, a namer of birds, flowers and trees. As I strolled through beautiful woods and fields, I could easily be preoccupied by the taxonomy of the leaves and feathers around me. It could be a deeply satisfying engrossing activity. But increasingly it felt like a distraction from the numinous wonder of simply being there — the total experience — The Woods! Once I spotted a magnificent bird soaring overhead. I got excited by the idea that it might be an eagle (I haven’t seen many). But then I realized, with momentary disappointment, that it was “just” a black vulture. But why let the intellectual awareness of rarity get in the way? Does there need to be a difference between sharing a moment of space-time with a vulture and sharing it with an eagle? If all the other black vultures in the world had been magically eliminated (heaven forbid!), would my experience of this one bird have been any different? Yes it would have, if I had been aware that this was the last vulture alive. In this connection, the film The Hunter is relevant.
I think this argument needs to be allowed to go both ways. On the one hand, we have the Zen awareness that this very space-time moment is all we have; past, present and elsewhere are illusions in the sense that they cannot be experienced directly. This seems to lead us to the call to be entirely present to what is, represented by the stars in the sky, the soaring vulture or even the boring colleague at dinner. On the other hand, we recognize that our body-mind with all its thoughts and feelings (judgments, doubts, fears, anxieties, joy and sadness, aches and pains) is at the very heart of this space-time moment. From that perspective, suppressing our “distracting” thoughts, and forcing ourselves to surrender to the immediacy of the night sky might be a perverse rejection of some compelling pieces of this very moment. Om.