A person who longs to awaken, contemplating what the sweetness of freedom might be like, may suppose that it would mean living at a remove from ordinary experience. That matters of the body, and perhaps even of the heart, would largely be concerns of the past, when the ego was running the show. This may not be a consciously-held belief about what being awake is like, but it may be there just the same.
Nothing could be further from the truth. At least, in my own experience. The body is deliciously alive, the heart altogether engaged — as is the mind (when it’s needed), blessedly unburdened of ego-maintenance. It’s a grand way to occupy a human life. Just because a person no longer identifies with the body — its appearance, health, age — does not mean physicality can’t be enjoyed! In fact, once identification has ceased, the door opens to delight not available before, back when the body had egoic significance.
What being awake is like: the body deliciously alive, the heart and mind altogether engaged.
This deeply felt “embodiment” occurs, yes, along with attunement to the larger reality. In an ongoing way — whatever momentary embodied experience may be under way — the vast “something bigger” is felt to be shimmering in the background of awareness. Sometimes it’s front and center.
My hope is that by sharing a few vivid particulars from recent life, I might enable the earnest seeker to cultivate a more real sense of “what it’s like” (or can be).
* * *
The northern goshawk is a ferocious creature — above all, a female during nesting season. Keeping to deep woods, the reclusive hawk is seldom seen. Local birding friends of mine have never clapped eyes on one.
It was a spring morning several years ago. Briskly moving along a familiar woods trail, I heard an unfamiliar piercing call. I stopped, moved my eyes toward its source: there she was, impressive talons curled around a branch high above my head, fifty or sixty feet from where I stood riveted. A hawk, it appeared, although one I did not recognize. Those glowering eyes were boring holes into me. I held altogether still, eyes fixed to her, memorizing her features so I could Google, back in the house, to learn what kind of hawk this was.
Had I understood the situation — what she was, why she was not merely curious about me — I would never have taken the risk of holding still. I’d have made quick feet to extricate myself from her territory, which was defined (I was soon to learn) by the presence of a recently-built nest cradling eggs from her body.
Long after, it would dawn on me that the goshawk and I had something elemental in common: for having given rise to young of my own, I know well the animal ferocity of a mother, when detecting threat to offspring.
* * *
Endowed with its fine mind, a human being is equipped for learning. This is equally true of a person accustomed to not living in the head. Here I am, busily making mental note of the bird’s identifying features, when the much more significant learning is about to occur.
At the alarming sight of the goshawk dropping from its branch, heading with great speed toward intruder-me, my body feels the surge of adrenaline. The intelligent mammal’s animal nature has now taken completely over, the mind silenced. The urgent priority is to put sufficient distance between my vulnerable body and the winged maternal fury bearing down on me.
The mind is abruptly still. But the body! Oh, it is the very opposite of the stillness that was its state only seconds before. For what’s clearly under way is bodily threat (distinct from egoic “threat”). The shrieking headed for my hustling body grows louder by the heartbeat, reducing by the millisecond the distance separating my back side from that open beak.
A thing about embodiment (awake or otherwise) is this: if the fleshly self is mortally compromised, the accompanying human expressions of aliveness (delight, awe, cherishing) likewise cease to be. In a moment like the one I’m in, physical well-being is primary. Heart and mind activity is muted, all bodily resources rushed to the fore, courtesy of adrenaline.
I’m desperate to get the hell out of there, and quick. A remnant of background mental wisdom does fleetingly register: my sneakers mustn’t move so fast as to cause me to stumble. The fleeing human animal is “re-minded,” via one of its handy faculties, that tripping would enable the hellbent creature to seize the flesh-housed body now lying in the dirt, making me ever so sorry I overdid it.
Something in me has made my scurrying shoes take it down just a notch, however much my body insists that slowing my feet is ill-advised in the extreme. For with each rushing step, the shriek grows louder.
* * *
As the internet will later portray in ghastly detail (my mercifully intact body in the computer chair), the goshawk’s piercing claws and razor-sharp beak are fabulously designed to cause the clueless mammal to lament it ever presumed onto the bird’s turf. I’ll discover multiple harrowing accounts of a northern goshawk making a shredded mess of a human back and scalp, when someone has been ignorant enough (or foolhardy) to enter its territory.
I’ll develop gigantic respect — and awe — for this creature endowed with beak and claws powerful enough to make mincemeat of even a protective helmet. The head gear had been donned by an experienced birder who “knew better” than to intrude into a nesting goshawk’s territory. He was to carry lifelong scars attesting to the mistaken confidence in the hard plastic enfolding his hapless noggin. I doubt he’ll rely on that useless thing again, I mutter into the safety of my living room.
As for me, I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not likely to forget what I learned that day. Another blessing of the excellent mind.
On future woods walks, I’ll muse on the idea of putting a prominent sign at the turn up that trail. What it will say is “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” (Dante posted that at the gate to hell.) Not that other humans typically walk those trails. The sign would be for me.
As if I could ever forget.
* * *
For the next few springs, I went nowhere near that trail. I did miss that portion of my cherished daily odyssey among the trees — taking in the fragrant air, the sounds and colors. The distinctive features of each stretch of those woods are as dearly familiar as my very body. There are few places where I feel more alive than in that world where I’m just one of a rich variety of creatures. For the woods are their realm. I am a privileged guest there (if sometimes an unwelcome one).
Eventually, after a few Aprils, I decided to venture ever so tentatively up the first rise of that trail, pausing at the turn toward the stretch where the mother bird once held court. Among the many things I’d learned about the female northern goshawk was that while she may re-use a nest over multiple springs, it isn’t necessarily the case.
That first time back, my feet grew still every few tentative steps, ears and eyes acutely attuned. Detecting nothing, I crept ever more cautiously toward where we met that day, stopping frequently to listen and look. At last I drew near the memorable spot, casting my eyes toward the branch where she was when we first saw one another. Nothing. I glanced in the opposite direction to the tree where I theorized the nest may have been. (I’d learned about the sort of tree a nesting goshawk prefers.) Seeing nothing, I proceeded slowly forward, always ready to retrace my steps.
No sign anywhere.
* * *
I have not seen her since. Perhaps she opted for a more remote part of the woods, distant from any trail, with its potential for nuisance interlopers.
As I write this, it is spring again: nesting season. As always, I will take care there to listen, to scan. When I come to that place, I will hold still. Not just from caution, but — well, to grant myself space to go back there, to the moment I met her.
For I miss the goshawk! How could I not? Such magnificence. How could I feel anything but great fortune to have encountered such a creature, harrowing as it surely was?
Such ferocious maternal devotion. She and I are kindred, you see.
* * *
Until that life-altering day, I had not named any of the trails (nor has anyone else, so far as I know). But since that spring day, that place has been the Goshawk Trail.
All my life I’ve loved poetry. Sometimes when I’m moving among the trees, long-beloved lines will remind me of themselves. Not long after the goshawk encounter, a famous line of Robert Frost’s visited me:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
The speaker in the poem refers, of course, to the landowner. I had long supposed the forest surrounding my cabin to belong to my landlord, who kindly allows me to walk on his property. Now I know whose woods they really are.
I shared with the good man the news of the splendid creature who’d taken up residence in “his” woods. He was duly respectful, having long known himself to be only incidentally the entitled one.
Nobody owns the wild.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]