Meeting the Wild World with a Benevolent Heart
It is September. I am sitting at my computer working on a book called The Well-Tempered Heart, writing sentences like, "There is no refuge more secure than one's own benevolent heart." I am simultaneously thinking murderous thoughts about the redheaded woodpeckers that are diligently drilling holes into the wood siding of my house. I see them, and I hear them: rat-tat-ta-tat! Rat-tat-ta-tat! They are Acorn Woodpeckers. In the fall they hide acorns with larval worms inside them. They come back for the acorns in the spring when the worms are large enough to be fed to the woodpeckers’ babies. The woodpeckers are supposed to only do this maneuver on the south side of the house, and we have the usual net in place there to dissuade them. But this year they are all over the house. They've made dozens of big holes.
I called the bird store in Santa Rosa. "What should I do?"
"Nothing much you can do. They're supposed to stay on the south."
I called Tom, the man who built this house twenty years ago. "What can we do?"
"I'll come by at the end of the week," he said, "and plug the holes. Otherwise the rains will get in and ruin your inside walls."
Another woodpecker swoops down into view and lands on the house. "Aha," I think. "You'll soon see: I have foiled your plot."
Then I see that instead of resuming drilling, he is carefully inserting an acorn into the wall. I see that he is having some trouble angling the acorn exactly so that it fits through the hole, and I find myself thinking, "Careful! Don't drop it." The acorn disappears into the wall. Then I think, "Oh, dear! Tom is coming to plug up the holes and when the woodpecker comes back the food won't be available and then the woodpecker babies..."
I have the momentary thought that I might just need to move.
Here's the lesson: It is true that there is no more secure refuge, and no greater happiness, than that of a benevolent heart. And it is also true that it’s hard to keep the benevolence going when one's own well-being is threatened. I want my house to remain intact. I want the woodpeckers to thrive. I want to not think murderous thoughts, but they are still one "rat-tat-ta-tat" away.
I tell a friend of mine, also a psychologist, about the woodpeckers. I say, "Maybe feeling furious about the woodpeckers is just a local, convenient substitute for all the other things that frighten me. I'm frightened about the mess the world is in. I'm frightened about the political situation. I'm worried about my grandchildren's future. Sometimes I feel hopeless about making a difference."
He says, "I don't think the woodpeckers are instead of. I think they are in addition to. Your limbic system is letting you know you are threatened and it can't tell the difference between woodpeckers and war."
I am psychologically validated. I am laughing a little about the whole scene. And I am still ("rat-tat-ta-tat!") mad. I have an inner conversation, looking for liberating spiritual wisdom.
"Indeed. The structural integrity of my house is also passing."
"You are suffering because you are struggling with what you cannot change."
"This is not helpful news. If I could 'let it be,' I would."
"You and your house and the woodpeckers are all part of the miraculous web of being, all in constant interconnected, interdependent change, all unfolding with marvelous, lawful karmic precision."
"I know that. Knowing is not helping."
The house is quiet. For this moment the woodpeckers have stopped. I look out at the hole where the newly stored acorn is. I remember my moment of concern lest the acorn drop, and feel relief at reconnecting with my own kind heart. "That was amazing," I think, "the way that bird knew how to jockey that acorn into position so it could fit. I wonder whether woodpeckers just know that in their DNA or whether they watch each other and learn."
I feel the experience of wondering, always pleasant to me, spreading out and soothing my mind. How does that bird figure it out? How does she know it's September? How did Mozart compose music when he was five years old? How come, with a world full of interesting people, we fall in love with some people and not with others?
I needed for it to be quiet for a moment. I needed to remember that my heart really means well and that I feel better when I think with my heart and not my nervous system.
My husband tells me he's just phoned Home Depot and there is a siding that looks like wood but isn't real that we could cover the house with if things get worse. I don't know what we'll do. But whatever it is, I won't do it with anger. The woodpeckers are just doing their thing. And it is amazing.
Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her most recent book is Pay Attention, For Goodness' Sake: Practicing the Perfections of the Heart, The Buddhist Practice of Kindness.