Somewhere nearby, we think, it is hiding — or not hiding, perhaps, but hidden from us. We are deep in the mountains of Baja, Mexico, looking for the elusive Green-Tailed Towhee. It is not a rare bird and many persons living in the Southwestern United States have seen this beautiful bird, sometimes in their own backyards. But its presence in Baja, Mexico has been less well-studied, and my friend and colleague, Howard Towner, a gifted and sensitive biologist who has for many years been observing this bird in different habitats in the US, wants to better understand the extent of its movements in the mountains of Baja, Mexico. This is why he has invited me along on a research trip to help him look for the Towhee and to see if he can learn more about its life in this place. It is how we have found ourselves on this day, high up in the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, moving through a beautiful mixed conifer forest filled with white fir, Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, and sugar pine trees, look- ing, listening, and waiting.
We have been looking for several days now, but so far, nothing, and our time here is drawing to a close. It is frustrating to think that we have come this far, expended this much time and energy, and might come away empty-handed. At least, that is how I am feeling. I notice that Howard seems to be taking all this in stride. He is enjoying him- self. Yes, he wants to find the Towhee. He knows that doing so will help him fill out important details in his long-term mapping project and gain a better understanding of its nesting and migration habits. But he is also aware that very little, if anything, about this search is under his control, and that if the bird is to appear, it will do so on its own terms. What is being asked of us in this moment is patient attention; a willingness to slow down, listen, and look; a willingness to let go of our expectations, to accept the possibility that our efforts may not bear any fruit — or at least not in the way we have been hoping that they will.
What is being asked of us in this moment is patient attention; a willingness to slow down, listen, and look; a willingness to let go of our expectations, to accept the possibility that our efforts may not bear any fruit — or at least not in the way we have been hoping that they will.
The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909–1943) once noted: “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them, but by waiting for them.” This idea comes back to me in this moment with new force and meaning. I smile to think of my own impatience, my relative incapacity to wait for much of anything. I wonder what this is about. Why do I put so much stock in my ability to seek and find what I am looking for? And why do I so often imag- ine I can control the terms of the search itself? Why is it so difficult for me to wait for things to unfold, to reveal themselves? I am chagrined to admit that, even after long practice, I do not find it easy to answer these questions.
The idea that what we most deeply desire must ultimately reveal itself to us is not easy to accept. It suggests a relinquishment of control that most of us, if we are being honest, find difficult to practice. There is too much risk, too much vulnerability. Yet the willingness to relinquish control and open ourselves to the mysterious unknown is at the heart of every great spiritual tradition. In the Gospel tradition, it is described as becoming again like a child, or being born anew: learning to see with fresh eyes.
What we most deeply desire must ultimately reveal itself to us.
But how does this happen? How do we learn to let go of our habitual way of seeing things — so often clouded by fear and anxiety or divided attention — and open ourselves to the new thing that is emerging within and around us? Much of it depends on our willingness to take the necessary time for paying attention, for listening deeply, for feeling things, and for learning to let go of the idea that everything must have a purpose, meaning, or utility. It is about allowing ourselves to become decentered, lost.
There is an old New Yorker cartoon I have carried around with me for many years now that has become for me a kind of talisman. Two monks sit side by side, meditating. The younger monk has (apparently) just asked the older monk a question. The older monk responds: “Nothing happens next. This is it.” I remember laughing so hard when I first encountered this image. I still find it funny, but also a little wince- inducing. “What happens next?” The young monk’s question has often been my own, and his frustration and bewilderment at the response from his teacher—“This is it”— is also familiar to me.
For a long time now, especially in the context of my attempts to practice contemplative prayer, I have understood, at least in theory, the necessity of sitting still, entering silence, listening, and waiting. And I have understood, yes, that “nothing happens next”; that sitting and listening and waiting is everything; that God is present to us in this fecund, open space, perhaps more than we can ever know; and that what I seek most deeply will, somehow, be made known to me in this emptiness and silence, if I can only pause and listen. But I also know that my impatience, and my desire to make something of the experience, to “get somewhere,” often subverts my capacity to listen, to apprehend what is being revealed within and around me. Sometimes I worry that I am simply wasting my time.
…What I seek most deeply will, somehow, be made known to me in this emptiness and silence, if I can only pause and listen.
Sitting here in the forest with my friend Howard, waiting (and yes, hoping!) for the elusive Green-Tailed Towhee to show itself, but also feeling increasingly less certain about whether it will do so, I find myself rethinking these questions and also rethinking the assumptions underlying them. We have indeed “wasted” a lot of time on this trip: the long drive down from Los Angeles to the border; the slow crossing into Mexicali and then down to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez; and finally, many more hours of driving from the gulf up and into the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. By now, we have spent three days here, walking, looking, listening, comparing notes, hoping for a sighting of the Green-Tailed Towhee—so far, with nothing to show for our efforts.
Still, I gradually begin to sense that this way of thinking about things is so short-sighted, so narrow and unimaginative — and yes, ungenerous. At every moment of this journey, we have been immersed in the beautiful, wild world. We have been experiencing what Shierry Weber Nicholsen describes as “a breathing in of the world, in which we help the individual things appear to us in their loveliness by mingling them with our hearts.” Sighting the burrowing owls along the highway just north of the border, bottlenose dolphins and osprey off the coast near San Felipe, and now, moving through these luminous mountains, amidst coyotes, ringtail cats, woodpeckers, and golden eagles, I feel a deepening awareness of “all this life going on about my life, or living a life about all this life going on.”3 It takes time to cultivate such aware- ness, a willingness to spend time freely, profligately; or, as Suzuki Roshi (1904–1971) put it, to “waste time conscientiously.”
This fundamental insight is widely shared among monks and mystics throughout the Christian spiritual tradition, who recognize the fundamental simplicity of prayer and who also struggle against the inclination to think of prayer as an activity governed by the ideology of means and ends. A story from the early desert tradition illustrates this. “Abba Sisoes [one day] said to a brother, ‘How are you getting on?’ and he replied: ‘I am wasting my time, Abba.’ The elder said, ‘If I happen to waste a day, I am grateful for it.’”
Our willingness to wait and watch — not to run from one thing to the next — has borne its own unexpected fruit.
It is not easy to say what particular anxiety underlay the brother’s concern. Often, such words arose from a sense of despondency at the seeming impossibility of freeing oneself from certain obsessive thoughts or patterns of behavior, or from continuously falling prey to feelings of listlessness, sadness, or anger — a deep sense of alienation from oneself and everything in one’s life. In any case, Abba Sisoes takes the question in a different direction. Seen in the context of the monks’ consistent expression of hope that they might learn to live with amerimnia or “freedom from care,” Sisoes’ response reflects a different way of thinking about time, rooted in a recognition of the need to resist the tyranny of chronos and instead embrace the rich openness of Kairos, or what the Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec (1293–1381) called “an eternal now.”
So much depends on our capacity and willingness to give this work the time it deserves. “If we really want prayer,” Thomas Merton (1915–1968) noted, “We’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen. And as soon as we listen to what’s going on, things will begin to take shape by themselves. But for this we have to experience time in a new way.” We will have to learn, as the Russian mystic Theophane the Recluse (1815–1894) counseled: “Not to run from one thing to the next . . . but to give each one time to settle in the heart.” Certainly this applies to prayer, but it also serves as an important reminder of the need to take time to listen for all that is being revealed to us in every moment of our lives.
Something rich, vibrant, and powerful has been revealed to us that can never be reduced to any particular outcome, including the hoped-for outcome that brought us here in the first place.
These ideas come back to me with new force here in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. We have given ourselves, heart and soul, to the work of trying to find a single, elusive bird— looking, listening, paying attention— and have come away empty-handed, except, of course, for the gift of the time we have spent entering deeply into this place and becoming knitted into its intricate beauty. Our willingness to wait and watch — not to run from one thing to the next — has borne its own unexpected fruit. Something rich, vibrant, and powerful has been revealed to us that can never be reduced to any particular outcome, including the hoped-for outcome that brought us here in the first place. I feel so grateful to have wasted these days here in this place.
It is time to go. We pack up the van and sit for a few minutes, looking out into the woods, so beautiful and wild and still. But, alas, no Towhee. There is a twinge of disappointment, certainly. Who could say when we might return? Howard looks at me and shrugs: What are you going to do?
What happens next is, I admit, a little difficult to believe, but it happened. At the very moment we are preparing to leave, Howard spots a movement in a nearby tree. He shoots me a look — This might be it!—grabs his binoculars, spins around in his seat, and gazes intently in the direction of the tree, but the bird has disappeared. Then, we hear it: the distinctive whistles and trills of the Green-Tailed Towhee, that beautiful song, rising and falling, rising and falling, over and over again. We sit for a long time, listening. We are in no hurry to leave.
Finally, smiling and laughing, we turn for home.
Established in 2013, ONEING is the biannual journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Renowned for its diverse and deep exploration of mysticism and culture, ONEING is grounded in Richard Rohr’s teachings and wisdom lineage. Each issue features a themed collection of thoughtfully curated essays and critical perspectives from spiritual teachers, activists, modern mystics, and prophets of all religions.