I’m house sitting for a dear friend this week. She lives at the very edge of the Vega, or the wet, green pastureland of the Taos valley. I like being here. This house feels like a sanctuary and I always feel good in these four walls. In the early morning, I wake up feeling rested for the first time in a while and look out the window of the bedroom where I’m sleeping to roiling grey clouds running over the mountain and across the valley. I get up, send a message to a friend who replies back that she is on her way out for a hike and that I should come. I feed the cat, feed the dog, throw a few things in the car and get out the door.
There is something so delicious about starting a day with a walk. Our minds may not be functioning fully at this time of day but our bodies know just what to do, move.
After almost two weeks of temperatures in the 90’s the cool, cloudy morning is a respite and feels tender and sweet. The trail, where a few weeks ago plants were drooping and wilting, now feels like a tropical wonderland. The three of us girls move up the trail with a pack of dogs and touch flowers with our fingertips as we pass them. The smaller aspens along the trail’s edge lean in, decorated with perfect beads of moisture, jewel-like in the early morning. Our arms and legs are damp and sweaty from movement and from the water coming off the plants around us. The dogs play in the stream and chase each other up hillsides.
Hiking is one of the best ways I know to create equilibrium with all the parts of my life. And I have been struggling and grumpy this week, lacking perspective and stuffed into the shell of my discomfort. But, one of the principle ideas, for me, of taking on an attitude of beginner’s mind is that I might try to willingly suspend some of my judgments of myself, others and situations that arise. And the lessons I’ve learned this week have been perfect ones.
There are multiple opportunities every single day to let go and see things for what they are. Today, it is the internal battle for the existence of good and evil that confounds me.
When I return home, I find a small prairie dog dead on the hallway rug. It is soaked and its fur is bent over from the tongue marks of the cat that lives here. As I turn it over, I notice that he has removed a circular section from its back and all the internal organs are exposed, already crawling with maggots. This means it is probably one he killed some time ago and has cleaned up and brought back into the house. I feel my stomach turn in disgust and next I feel myself incredibly angry. The cat didn’t eat this animal, merely killed it for sport or out of instinct and left it there. They say these things are a gift but it makes me lose my appetite.
Yesterday, it was a songbird. I was in the bathtub and heard something screaming out in pain. Startled, I quickly hopped up and wrapped a towel around me to move in the direction of the cries. What I found was a yellow-breasted, hand-sized bird. Its back feathers a soft grey and brown, a finch I suppose. The cat, seeing me, quickly lost interest and just left the bird there, its chest thumping out a few last breaths. I got a towel, picked it up in my hands and took it outside. I figured it could at least have the dignity of dying under the bright sky. I set it inside the sagebrush and watched the perfect circular prism of its eye, stop opening and closing.
I cried a little. I can’t seem to bear this kind of destruction, which seems so small and trivial. I mean, I eat meat and it’s not like I “do no harm” as a human being either. There are a lot of things about my very existence that cause destruction to other forms of life on this planet. And yet, I blame this cat for the sufferings of the world, for its unfairness. I curse him and call him names even though he has already left the house to keep hunting something else.
I cling to these notions of good and evil. I want them. I want a place to put the suffering. In conversation with girlfriends, I let slip that I didn’t initially like another friend of ours because of the way I perceived her as being insincere and cold. I can feel the harm it does as it exits my lips. I don’t know why I do this. Now that I know this person, I can see that she is wonderful. None of my judgments seem to really be about the people I am casting judgment on.
And worst of all, I judge myself for my imperfections. I somehow believe that I should be able to make all my loved ones secure and that I should be more successful or happy in ways that I am not. Suzuki Roshi, in a talk published in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, refers to what Buddhists call “Transiency” reminding us that, “We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence” and “perfection in imperfection.” He says it is foolish to assume or act on behalf of the expectation that there is anything other than what is already happening in the middle of this perfect, imperfect world we already live in. And reading his book, I am reminded that it is also foolish to try to escape. Liberation can only be found by breathing it all in and becoming it.
So, this week I am forced to some really uncomfortable questions. What would it mean if I didn’t perceive people, places and things as threats to my safety and serenity? Can I sit with the dying songbird and not want it to be anything other than it is? Can I be grateful for this murderous cat, who is just being himself, for the opportunity to see the insides of a prairie dog? Any little boy in the world would relish in that chance, to see the inner workings of a dead thing, as if someone was holding up a decoder ring to its life. How do I reconcile all of my desires in this world without the device of good and evil to give them life?
In a world where we are so disconnected from life and death, I suppose my first reaction should be gratitude. Something as simple as a housecat has taken it upon himself to not let me be ignorant of the truth of existence—an existence that is fraught with transiency, brutality and surrender. And beauty. Let me not ever forget that. It is just so beautiful here in this perfect, imperfect world.