What "Bird-Noticing" Can Teach Us About Mindfulness

BL00 - What bird-noticing can teach us about mindfulness

By Rob Osborn, guest contributor 

Would you like to have fewer regrets? When you do the autopsy on the action, the critical word you’ve said, or the less-than-polite email you fired off, are you ever uncertain how you behaved differently from your values or intention? How did you get away from the plan to love others to not seeming to love others?

How do we end up doing what we don’t want to do? Even saints struggle with this. A towering figure in the Christian faith, the apostle Paul, rambled about it for an entire chapter in Romans, saying, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He finally chalked it up to his nature.

Of course, the long-range goal is to simply not do these things, but between where we are now and that eventual goal is at least a few seasons of work. So, between now and then, wouldn’t it be nice to be out in front of regrettable things we do? To sense, at the first clue, the mood or attitude that becomes the soil, out of which regrettable actions arise.

Watch your thoughts. They become words.

Watch your words. They become actions.

Watch your actions. They become habits.

Watch your habits. They become character.

Watch your character. It becomes your destiny.

- Unknown

If we get to the origin of our regrettable actions, they all start with thoughts. So one way to get out in front of our regrets before they become regrets is mindfulness meditation. It’s simply defined as awareness of what’s happening in the present moment without judgment. Meditating is simple to explain but less simple to do.


To see how it might work, the world of “bird noticing” makes for an excellent illustration. I borrowed the idea of bird noticing from Jenny Odell, who prefers it to “bird-watching.” She explains,

"I’ve always found it funny that it’s called bird-watching, because half if not more of bird-watching is actually bird-listening. (I personally think they should just rename it “bird-noticing.”)"

This week I was hand-feeding a group of wintering birds. These familiar, tough birds who stay through Northeastern winters visiting feeders can sometimes bravely venture near humans, especially if these durable little birds have decided that said humans aren’t a threat.

From my outstretched hand, the nearby gathering of birds created a reliable symphony of bird calls. In winter, birds limit their communication to a small sampling of clicks and chirps, usually free of the more familiar bird song of spring and summer.

On this warmer day, the sparse sounds included the nuthatch’s call; it’s like an imitation of the Three Stooges’ “nyuk nyuk nyuk.” Also, on repeat, the Chickadee’s namesake call: “chickadee, dee, dee, dee.” It was punctuated by a distant blue jay’s imitation of a hawk’s call—a move they do to chase other birds away from their food stash.

All the sounds created what Jon Young in What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World calls a baseline of sound.—the background ambiance for birds in a particular place at a given time of day. Many people are “ear blind” to this and might not notice a chorus of bird songs, but we all have our interests.

During my little feeding session, a nearby observer started to sing. The Dark-eyed Juncos had been foraging through fall’s leftover leaves on the ground. These tiny slate-colored cuties weren’t brave enough to try perching on my hand, but one had flown to an upper hemlock limb and started its song. As if to say we won’t eat, but we sing in support.

Bird song is usually triggered by the longer, warming spring days, so this sudden addition jumped to my ear. The Junco’s metallic trill sounds like a cell phone ring, so it was immediately noticeable. The gathered eaters were like a group of session musicians lightly tuning their instruments, and suddenly they were interrupted by a trumpet.

Recently a similar thing happened on an unseasonably warm winter day when an Eastern Bluebird started singing out of nowhere into the stillness of the late morning. Because I was familiar with what Young calls the baseline, adding the bluebird song leaped into my attention. It let me know someone else was there or the atmosphere we shared had changed enough that a different response was needed.

Birds as tattletales.

In nature, birds are reliable witnesses to all that is happening. Highly attuned to predators and every atmospheric change, birds are like a newswire announcing everything happening. New things or things that are unchanging can be read through their sounds. So much so that Young makes the point that

“The prey species listen to the birds. The predator species also listen to the birds.”

They’re the news service of the woods.

In their playlist of sounds, birds have alarm calls that signal to one another that a predator, a threat, or a potential one is nearing. The loudest alarm call is total silence. This means a threat is imminent. So, in a way, even bird silence can speak volumes.

How this might work

What if we took the awareness of a baseline and noticed changes, and mapped the same awareness onto our emotional and mental landscape? Meaning we’d know our baseline and any departures from the baseline. We can be aware of the conditions for actions we eventually regret through attentiveness.

We could become aware if we are ruminating, anxious, or dreading something the moment any of it shows up. Are we angry, blissful, tired, or envious? Are we suddenly competing in a conversation in a way we’ll later wish we hadn’t?

Working to disambiguate our familiar feelings (or baseline) would allow us to notice our habits of mind and any changes on a granular level. In addition, it would give us a warning for reactions that are outside our values.

Bad Marketing

Mindful meditation is often seen as a calm, serene cloud floating self-love. Magazine covers show someone with a beatific expression in a gorgeous loft apartment decorated floor to ceiling in hushed tones with stuff from Pottery Barn. This unfortunate marketing around mindfulness leads one to expect it’s some avoidance of reality. Some activity to achieve a blissed-out state.

In his book, Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante G corrects this by saying.

"Mindfulness is running straight into reality… (it is) done with the specific intention of facing reality, to experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find."

Mindfulness is not avoidance but going into the truth of our experience. Doing so while knowing mental and emotional states come and go — none last forever. Meditation helps remind us everything is impermanent. Our life is indeed a vapor. Not just short, but not very solid at all.

Thoughts as Birds

Thoughts come to us quite like birds. Our emotional atmosphere creates the occasion for their appearance. They present themselves and just as quickly vanish. Noticing them can lead to our freedom from the reactive actions they inspire. More than controlling them, we see them as potential messengers of deeper things in play. Either in ourselves or in the place we find ourselves.

Mindfulness gives us an early warning system as our spiritual practices shape our nature. This gift of awareness throws light on that nature Paul wrote about. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:

"Mindfulness helps us recognize the habits transmitted by our ancestors and parents or learned during our childhood. Often, just recognizing these habits will make them lose their hold on you."

It’s not all negative.

Opening to what’s here allows for both good and bad to be known by us. We can rush through our days and miss the beauty just as much as the regret. We might see if the present moment is free from threats when we become more mindful. The moment we’re in allows for both singing and alarm. Over time this awareness virtually assures we’ll see the arrival of something new, different, or praiseworthy. Present in our experience and seeing what’s truly here before we’re owned by it.


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