This morning I opened the garage/studio door early in the morning to give baby seedlings light. (My garage serves many purposes – perhaps another story for another time.) I left the garage door open while I went back indoors for a couple of hours. When I had reason to go back out to the garage, I found a hummingbird flying around near the ceiling. The hummingbirds have been flying into my garage lately, looking around. They usually fly right back out.
When hummingbirds are frightened or confused, their escape route is up. If trapped in a garage, up doesn’t get them out. Sure enough, as I stood and watched, the hummingbird made its way all around the ceiling of the garage, stopped to rest on a shelf, then took off to try the same loop again.
So I went and got the red glass feeder that hangs near the front door. Standing under the hummingbird’s resting spot on a shelf, I held the feeder about six feet off the ground.
It only took a few seconds for the little bird to see the feeder. She flew right down and began to drink. As she hovered with her beak in the feeder, I slowly lowered both the bird and feeder until they were about three feet off the floor so that when the bird was through drinking (and panicking), she would see that big garage door escape route easily.
And she did. She flew right out the door and across the desert.
At one point while I was lowering the feeder, the hummingbird stopped drinking, perched on the feeder and looked around. She looked a little bit ruffled, and was breathing hard and shaking just a little bit.
Fear is such a strong blinder. One whole wall of the garage is open to the wilds, yet this bird couldn’t see it. I’ve watched a hummingbird fly frantically around under the peaked roof of a picnic pavilion for more than forty-five minutes, only eventually escaping by perching on a long stick someone held up high. When the bird rested on the branch, the branch was lowered to the ground. That bird had four open directions to choose from, but it couldn’t see any of them.
Hummingbirds are wired to go up to escape, and apparently they’ll go up until they collapse or die.
I think that we do similar things. When we look for an escape from a situation or event or issue in our lives, we look where we’re wired to look. Whether we’re wired through socialization, through conscious learned behavior, or just through the quirks of our personalities, I think that we sometimes miss an obvious route because we can’t even see it. I know I’ve stood in one place beating my head against a wall more than once.
Robert Monroe, an engineer and businessman who traveled extensively out of body (Journeys Out of the Body, Far Journeys, Ultimate Journey) tells a story of leaving his body, having some adventures traveling fast and far, eventually coming up against a wall. (I probably don’t have the details right, but the idea is accurate.) While investigating the wall, he began to feel his body calling him back.
Monroefelt absolutely certain that the way back to his body was in the direction of the wall. Home, his body, lay beyond the wall. So he tried to get over the wall, under the wall, around it this way or that way. He tried to go through it. He wasn’t able to do any of those things. He was stuck. He called for help, increasingly desperate. He screamed for help, sobbing. No one came to help him.
Eventually, exhausted, he collapsed against the wall. He was still feeling desperate and frightened, but he decided to apply some logic in spite of his fear. He thought, “If I can’t get around it or through it, I’ll have to turn back. I’ll have to go away from the wall.”
The way home for Monroe was available all along – he was just focused on a different direction.
When I hit a wall in trying to solve something that I consider a problem, or when I’m trying to understand the best course of action, or what something in my life means, I’ve found that it’s sometimes useful to notice how I’m thinking about it, then ask myself questions.
I’ll give an example of what I mean, though this example will be based on someone else’s story (details changed enough that it’s just a story).
A woman wakes in the night to find her grandmother and grandfather standing near her. They tell her it is “time for her to go.” She thinks they mean she is going to die and must go with them. She’s frightened – panicked. She refuses to go with them, and argues with them about it for a long time. Finally the grandfather agrees, telling her they’ll return later.
The person who told me the (a vaguely similar) story wanted to know what this experience meant. She was (we’ll pretend) fixated on the fear that they would come back to take her away.
I couldn’t tell her what the experience meant (or didn’t look – I wouldn’t have told her even if I’d been able to see it). Instead I asked her questions. I asked first whether she felt the story turned out well – she had talked them out of taking her, right? What are the implications in that – free will respected, or she has more power than they do, or orders are negotiable, or something else?
Then I asked her whether she really knew that they meant that she would die, or was that an assumption on her part? I suggested that the point of their coming might not have been to actually take her away, but to incite her to argue for staying – to get her to notice that she wanted to be in the physical world. Perhaps within that was a chance to notice what about death frightened her, or what about life was of such beautiful value that she would fight to stay, or some other message that I wasn’t seeing but that she might.
I said that maybe in thinking about these questions, she would find some other questions or notice other things that I hadn’t thought of, and through that process she might find the meaning of the experience on her own.
If she asked someone else what the meaning was, if I told her the meaning of the experience for instance, then she would have two questions: What is the meaning of my experience? And: Can I trust this person’s interpretation?
I didn’t want to pick her up and shove her out the garage door. I thought it would be more valuable to her if I only tried to nudge her in another direction, letting her notice a new view on her own. Maybe she would notice a crack in the wall and prefer to go out that way instead of out the garage door. Maybe it was of value for her to go out the lower right corner of the garage door instead of the center I would have shoved her through.
She was, like the hummingbird, perfectly capable of flying out the door on her own. She just needed a little help getting herself off the ceiling. Sometimes we all need that.
I can’t always find the right questions to ask myself, the questions that will open up a new way to think about an experience, event or issue. Most of the time, though, if I stop panicking and just sit down, take a breath and empty my mind in spite of the fear, sooner or later I’ll either notice that gaping garage door or something or someone will nudge me toward it.
Sometimes all it takes is a little different perspective.