A Bird on the Wing

I always took Kafka’s phrase, “A bird went in search of a cage,” as referring to the human tendency to feel anxious with too much freedom and openness (like a child’s panic when he notices that his family has disappeared from view in a large store). I took Kafka’s aphorism to be describing how freedom (the bird) can be so alarming that we fly back into our familiar reality (the cage) in spite of its limitations.

But this morning this image came back to me in a different way, seeming to point to the positive value of our familiar embodiment.

In Buddhism there are four qualities of Being that are considered so fundamental that they are beyond our own individual personalities and beyond anything we can strive to attain. We cannot develop these qualities from something we discover within ourselves or in our environment—as we might make a delicious meal from things we find in our garden and our pantry. They are more like the rain from which we can collect a glass of water, or the air from which we take a breath that nourishes our bodies. Just as water, air, sunlight and earth are present before we are born and are necessary for us to live, the “Four Immeasurable Catalysts of Being” are present whether or not we allow them to animate our body, mind, heart, and spirit.

I first heard of these four immeasurable qualities (love, compassion, joy, and equanimity) in the late 1980’s in a book, “Kindly Bent to Ease us” by the Tibetan Buddhist master, Longchenpa. But one of those four qualities, joy, has always felt different than the other three. Love (“Be kind and loving”), compassion (“Feel compassion for those less fortunate”), and equanimity (“Be balanced so that obsessions, cravings, and prejudices don’t ruin your chance to live in harmony with others”). Those three feel like qualities we can practice in our daily life. But I’ve never known how to practice joy.

Joy has always seemed like a quality that cannot be gained through effort and good intentions. Or, in terms of Kafka’s phrase, “Joy is a bird that has flown the coop and it doesn’t appear to know its way back.”

But perhaps the very idea that I could “get it back” is itself a mistaken strategy, which not only misunderstands the nature of joy but also misunderstands the nature of love, compassion and balance.

Perhaps joy is a bird that is searching for me in my cage, where I am fearfully hanging onto the bars. Perhaps the bird of joy is not seeking a resting place in my cage but is trying to reach me there–because that is where I am to be found.

Perhaps joy—like love, compassion and equanimity—is on the wing and is the essence of life itself; and perhaps the way to invite these four boundless qualities to nest in the branches of my life is to simply appreciate the gift of their presence.

This morning, reading a book (“Joy of Being”) that I recently received, I began to realize that the quality of joy is also something that I can practice. In fact, this book has been written explicitly to empower that practice through exploration of breath, relaxation, and the senses.

And I’ve been discovering something else: that every movement and development in my life; every activity, practice and aspiration; every vision, intention and project are all supporting one another like the poles of a teepee; they are all reflecting one another like facets of a crystal spinning in a sunny window; and they are all harmonizing with each other like voices in a chorus.

For a long time I’ve had some understanding that our lives provide an opportunity to practice what we feel are worthwhile intentions. But I’ve begun to sense that embodiment is not just a passive container for the active presence of vision—like a bottle holding the water of life. I’ve begun to see that it is in this very life—in all its activities, projects and practices—that we can discover the flying bird that does not need my intentions in order to lift its wings and sail into the sky.

We are already flying and the joy of flight is the gift that allows us to stand upon this earth and invite freedom and appreciation to land in the branches of our endeavors, affinities and engagements.

3 comments to “A Bird on the Wing”
  1. Reading this lifted my (bewildered) soul, helped me remember what I so often forget, and forgive myself for my forgetting.

    Thank you.

  2. The metaphor of bird and cage brought to mind a quote that one of the SOS moms shared with us. Although not used is the same way you did in your piece I wanted to share it: “To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage. Our body is like the cage, and the spirit is like the bird…if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist. Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased…”

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