The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

On death done well.

I reflect on my dad, as always, as we approach the anniversary of his death.  How is it seven years have passed already?  I had to look it up. It seems impossible, but time is relentless. It moves us away from things and blurs them in our memory. I have the sense of him often in my life, but I have made it a ritual to actively remember my dad at this time. Each year I deliberately and determinedly relight this metaphorical candle in my mind, to keep his memory alive in the expanding experience of my life.

As another family friend finds himself in the same place, I reflect on how well my dad died and the value his dying time gave to his life, and to all of ours as well.

My dad had a good death, in the end, when the struggle and fear had run its course and acceptance had sunk in.  Sometimes I think he lived more presently in those last few months than ever before. In this sense, cancer gave my dad a gift. Given time to die, he had time to come to terms with the battles of self-doubt that had left ravaged scars across his mind since he was a young, abandoned child.

I have many wonderful memories of my dad from his dying time. Making light of things at a family dinner, crooning into a corona bottle-turned-microphone, and turning our teary dread into laughter and smiles. He threw himself an “I’m dying” party and looked on with utter surprise at how the lounge room overflowed with people. Free from the ego focus of achievement and concerns with what others thought of him, he was able to see how connected he was into his community. With an end date clearly on the horizon, he had time to know with utter clarity that he was loved – wholly and completely, exactly as he was.  

We – his children and his wife – never left him alone in those weeks and months.  Not even in hospitals or the hospice, not even overnight.  Not while he slept, and most certainly not while he was awake.  We juggled schedules and long-haul flights and stood vigil with him as his body slowly decayed. He was surrounded, always, by his family – the thing he valued most in life. In private we wept – oh, how I cried in the dark on that kitchen floor – while he had long overdue conversations with his brother, his friends, his family. How he would have loved the funeral – with every seat filled, his sons and those he considered the same, weeping while they carried his casket. With so much to reflect on, so much people wanted to say, he almost missed his own cremation. The irony of that would have made him rumble with laughter. He was late for everything.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. I know that the bits of matter that made up the pattern of consciousness that was my dad have been re-absorbed into the universe, perhaps already recycled into other lifeforms. But I move my arms through the air, through the universe itself and know that everything that made him is still here, somewhere, scattered through the fabric of existence. And it is a comforting feeling, a connecting feeling to know that we are all part of this same fabric, regardless of our origins, our rituals or our stories. We are connected through time and space to everything that is, or was, or will be.

All of us, everything from newts to mountains, from dolphins to dinosaurs, from the leaves on the trees and the sand on the beach will one day find ourselves, again, in the belly of a star.  But before then we have this gift of consciousness with which to love, to think, to question, to laugh, to hug, to cry, to explore, to be kind, to learn, to grow, to appreciate, to create.  Just this moment, a minuscule millisecond of the universe’s heartbeat, in which to live with awareness.  May we all live more, and fear less.

On doing, rather than being…

6AC368C3-A67B-4729-A13B-98D5C4EDAEAC.jpegThe thing I am not very good at is sitting.  Being still.  Waiting, contemplating. I tend to jump right onto things, without thinking too much about why. I am restless, I suppose.  I rearrange the furniture a lot.

I believe I am a person who likes an action plan. I like to know where I am going, when I will get there and how many steps are involved. Which is ironic really,  since I feel like much of my life has proceeded without alsuch rigour.  As such I seem to spend a lot of time meandering around in  circles, looking for the door to the next level.

I have spent all my life wondering what to be when I grow up, and now, in the firm grip of middle age, when one should surely feel accomplished and grown up and settled, I am more confused than ever. How can I feel so old on one hand (gravity is not my friend), and so lacking in authority and gravitas on the other?  I do not feel grown up at all, but the face in the mirror says different.  

This feeling of inadequacy, of limited expertise, is a narrow view restricted to new things of course,  not the vast expertise gathered  in a career I never really intended and never have felt particularly zingy about.  In continually seeking something fresh to be, I feel like I have spent all my life hovering around the starter blocks, endlessly dabbling.

As I gear up for my first exam in over two decades tomorrow, two things occur to me 

  1.  I should really be running through my notes rather than pontificating on the meaning of life, and
  2. Maybe I don’t know where I am going, or why I’ve take up a degree in brain science at this point (except that it is fascinating stuff), but what I have come to realize is that it’s not about being something. It is not about some potential endgame.  It’s just the thrill of doing.

I really should know this about myself by now and be more accepting of the way I engage with the world. I enjoy doing new things, experiencing things, expanding my mind and engaging as fully as I can in the possibilities of this one precious conscious life I am lucky enough to have.  And the very nature of seeking new, means one very seldom gets to be an expert in them.   Maybe if I took time out to think about it, one day it might sink in!