Several summers ago, when Kip and I had just gotten home from vacation, I went into our second floor office that evening, flipped on the overhead light and startled something that fluttered outside our window. I went over to look and there, lying on the window ledge, was a bird’s nest with two small eggs.
I didn’t know what kind of birds they might be, since the adult that had been sitting on the nest had been startled away when I turned on the light, so the next morning I tiptoed into the room to find out who was roosting there. I was amazed to see a mourning dove sitting on the nest, peering in the window.
Mourning doves have been significant to me for years. Their cooing always has a way of bringing me into the present, timeless moment, and because no matter where in the country I was living they were always around, I had come to appreciate their constant companionship.
Delighted that this particular pair had chosen our window ledge to nest, over the course of the following weeks I kept an eye on them as the male and female took turns sitting on the nest. Because they were easily startled, I kept the blinds mostly closed, though I left enough of an opening to be able to look down into the nest.
My desk was just on the other side of the glass and in spite of my best efforts to be quiet when I came into the room, I could tell that they heard me and that my presence unsettled them. So I took to singing a chant (Ubi Caritas — Where love is, God is) each time I entered the room and it seemed to soothe them.They would relax, blink, and eventually close their eyes.
Come early September, on my birthday in fact, the eggs hatched and there, lying in the bowl of the nest, were two scrawny baby birds.
Over the next several days I watched their bobbing beaks hungrily taking the food their parents brought them. But over time, while one of them was thriving, the other was growing weaker and weaker, becoming less and less able to assert itself at feeding time.
It was painful to watch the parents giving more and more of the food to the stronger sibling and ignoring the weaker one, and even more painful when the smaller bird finally died.
The other bird, though, continued to grow and thrive and about a week later began to prepare itself to fly. Clutching onto a small lip on the window frame with its feet, it lifted its body and beat its wings over and over again.
Come late September, on my mother’s birthday in fact, the young fledgling flew away, leaving the nest for good.
That experience has many layers of meaning for me. For one thing, it reminds me of the Cherokee legend that went viral more than a decade ago. The legend tells of a grandfather teaching his grandson that a battle is raging inside each of us between two wolves. One wolf is angry, fearful and jealous, the other wolf is peaceful, loving and kind.
After thinking over what his grandfather had told him, the young boy asks, “But grandfather, which wolf wins?”
His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
Neuroscience: Which Brain Will You Feed?
I’ve lately gotten interested in neuroscience and I’m particularly intrigued at how our power of attention actually changes the neural circuitry of our brains. We have the capacity, depending on how we focus our attention, to wire our brains to be peaceful and loving, or fearful and angry.
Recently I read a terrific book, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor, a neuroscientist, recounts her experience of suffering and recovering from a devastating stroke in her 30’s. I was first turned onto Taylor’s work from a fabulous TED Talk she gave about her experience.
During her stroke, Taylor’s left hemisphere, the part of the brain capable of language, analytical thought, mathematics and judgment, essentially went off-line. Experiencing life from the vantage point of her right hemisphere, which perceives its oneness with the entire universe, Taylor realized that she wasn’t the judgmental, ambitious, autonomous personality her left hemisphere had constructed. That part of herself was gone, and yet her essence remained.
But the part of her story that really blew my mind, so to speak, was that as she worked hard over the course of 8 years to recover the full use of her brain she made a conscious choice about which circuitry in her left brain she wanted to reactivate. She knew that much of her “emotional baggage” from earlier in her life was no longer necessary, and that being judgmental and critical about herself or others simply didn’t feel good in her body. So she chose not to reactivate that circuitry; she chose not to feed it with her attention.
Her story has inspired me to become more aware of how I use my attention and which thoughts (brain circuitry) I choose to feed. It’s an astonishing thing, really, that we can choose which aspects of ourselves will thrive and fly, and which aspects will wither away for lack of attention.