Downtime Meditation is going to be a series of daily posts reflecting on the beauty, harmony and mystery of Nature, and the things I miss travelling to the natural world due to the 21-day lockdown imposed by the coronavirus situation.
Day 1 of 21-day Lockdown
The natural world is older than any of us, older than anything we can see, except perhaps the distant stars, which are past even in the present. Yet nothing in Nature really ages; there’s no such thing as a jaded sight in it. The sun sets differently each day even when seen from the same place. And the sky becomes a wreath of a different palette each evening to its departure. Everything in Nature is new every moment – built from the past, but never moored in it, and so Nature is truly ageless.
Day 2 of 21-day Lockdown
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,” said the great Shakespeare.
In the context of the natural world, I feel tempted, with apologies to the Bard, to adapt it to:
“All the world’s a station,
And all animals merely travellers.”
For nowhere is the transitory nature of life more apparent than with big cats in the wild.
Blessed or burdened as we are with greater longevity than them, it’s fascinating to see over the course of several years the same areas haunted by different cats, and sometimes even as you’re just getting used to the idea of a particular male or female being the lord of a neck of woods, the baton change paws.
And with one of the highest infant-mortality rates of the feline world, these cheetah cubs will “have their exits and entrances,” as Nature’s devices to remind us that nothing remains forever, but forever remains in every moment.
Day 3 of 21-day Lockdown
‘Form with function’ is a phrase humans have coined in the context of design perhaps no more than in the last 200 years, so it’s almost amusing how Nature has been doing it since its own birth, if at all such a single point of birth exists.
Take this lynx spider (Oxyopes sp.) for instance. Sitting on the pistil of a flower, it spends considerable time waiting to pounce on prey visiting the flower for nectar. There are spiders that make tunnels, ones that make elaborate webs, and ones that mimic ants. And these are just spiders we’re talking about.
Every possible thing conceivable has already been conceived by Nature. I mean, there are platypuses and Tasmanian devils, kakapos and shoebills, and frogfish and seahorses. Every possible niche that could be occupied has been occupied. In Darwinistically evolving and competing to feed, survive and reproduce, each serves as a tile on the infinitely intricate mosaic of life. And everything works so splendidly, even though everything is so seemingly inordinately dependent on everything else!
But most of all, “everything is put together so intelligently,” like Swami Dayananda Saraswati has said in his outstanding ‘Isvara in One’s Life’. Little wonder that when Indian mystics, drawing from the Vedas and their own experience, have declared that “god is nothing but consciousness, and consciousness is nothing but a tremendous intelligence,” it’s in no temple, church or mosque, but in watching the spellbinding cornucopia of Nature that it has struck me as so stunningly veritable. And that’s also why many a giraffe with its long neck has caught me smiling at it as though I’ve just seen some breaking news on a truth that has been staring me in my face all my life.
Day 4 of 21-day Lockdown
It is clear that if the planet were bereft of humans, the natural world would thrive. Because other than producing a lot of carbon dioxide, which is after all of some use to trees (not with any benevolent intent, of course, but as a consequence of our inventive hedonism), I’m hard-pressed to think of any positive contribution our extremely intelligent and compassionate species has made to it. But then, how does one contribute to that which is the very reason for one’s existence anyway? The idea seems fraught with absurdity.
It isn’t hard to see, therefore, that one group of beings that are diametrically opposite to us is the plant kingdom. Kingdom is perhaps a misnomer; they have nothing kingly about them. They’re at the bottom of the food chain. And if the circle of life has a beginning, it’s in their drawing energy from the sun to make their own food, rooted in one spot and consuming in the process nothing more than air, water — and some filth, which they promptly turn into flowers, like @sadhguru always beautifully points out.
Very easily are they eaten by even the tamest of herbivores, trampled by the dumbest of men, or else taken by the least violent of storms. And yet when some of them survive and grow into trees, they become the embodiment of giving. To the weary they give shade, to the hungry they give food, to anyone who wishes to breathe (which, but superfluous to say, is everybody before expiry) they give oxygen. Without them there would be no prey, and without prey, no predators. The whole structure of existence as we know it would crumble. And yet there’s nothing quixotic about them. No wonder even Gautama sat beneath one to become the Buddha. And yet, enlightenment though it may facilitate, I’m afraid even a tree cannot give us the ability to be like it.
All we can do is bow.
Day 5 of 21-day Lockdown
The all-pervasiveness of aesthetics in natural landscape never fails to astound me. I don’t remember ever looking at a hill range, a lake, a meadow or a creek and thinking ‘That’s ugly and needs better aesthetics.’ A peak, no matter of what shape, looks majestic. Clouds of any pattern remain a gaze-worthy marvel. A river, regardless of what course it takes, is ever enchanting. Even a volcano, in all its fury, is never an eyesore. Nature is always beautiful, and by human parameters, only by different degrees. This is really curious, because the human sense of aesthetics is based on order and symmetry, to neither of which Nature cares to conform. It’s true that forests have their own sense of order, but it’s not the homogenous framework that we engineer in our architecture. Nature is neither chaotic nor pigeonholed; it’s a wonderful fluidity that stands on the bedrock of purposeless expressionism. Perhaps it’s that authenticity, that subtlety and lack of pomp which make Nature remain so attractive and fresh in an inexplicable and inscrutable way, and despite being a design that’s essentially millions of years old, is at once both as exhilarating as a thing of novelty as well as soothing as an object of comforting familiarity.
Day 6 of 21-day Lockdown
My absorption in wildlife began with birds – those affable aves, with some outliers, which excel at the two very tangentially disparate disciplines of music and athletics, and with their sanguine ubiquitousness, make their talents most conspicuous. One would be apt to contend that all animals are athletic to varying degrees, but only the blinkered would deny that none has mastered the miracle of flight the way birds have. ‘It’s hardly a miracle,’ I hear the scientifically-minded reader protest. After all, flight is all about having a very light and strong body – hollow bones and all – and a particular shape to a certain body-part called the wing. Beyond that, physics takes over – with varying wind speed creating lift, and so on. But really, isn’t it a miracle that birds, empowered by this phenomenon called flight, can cross the Arabian Sea and the Himalaya? Isn’t it a miracle that they can sleep, feed and attend to their sanitary needs mid-flight as easily as an Airbus passenger? And what’s more, there isn’t a part of the planet they’ve left unmastered. As if the air weren’t enough, many can dive underwater to find their fill, and many others roam the terrestrial realms, from the blazing tropics of Africa and Asia to the icy world of Antarctica. They can reach ludicrous speeds while diving vertically, dizzying heights while soaring on thermals, zoom in on their prey with telescopic vision, hover mid-air stiller than a drone, track their prey by ‘feeling’ their heat with their face, find their exact mate after being away for months, fly backwards, wing noiselessly, build shelters, change colours, and cross continents twice a year without a gran turismo, flying in the face of international boundaries and calling to question the very idea of a localized home.
Wise men have said there are two ways of looking at existence – either perceive everything as a miracle or nothing as a miracle. When I think of birds, I’m inclined to fly the former way.
Day 7 of 21-day Lockdown
We may not think so consciously, but there is in the psychological constitution of nearly every man the calamitously erroneous idea that Nature exists for man’s disposal. Few animals remind us more starkly that it isn’t than tigers do, particularly in the context of the pursuit of them for pleasure. The pursuer could be anybody, even its own maker, but a tiger will show only if and when it wants to. Forget pandemics; the tiger is the biggest leveler I’ve ever known.
Tigers have captivated me for a little over 15 years now, but no other animal, including man, has taught me more about Nature, men and the nature of men as tigers have. A lot I know about human psychology is down to either Dostoevsky or tigers. In their pursuit, I’ve had to tackle ethical dilemmas, witness greed, confront competition (much of it unhealthy) and digest duplicity. But I’ve also seen one glimpse of them pump the life back to a zombie, take prejudice out of people’s minds, and bring smiles to the most stolid souls. One thing’s certain: tigers make us care. And I think the reason is more than just that they’re large, beautiful and the notion that they’re dangerous.
I proffer that in tigers Nature has reached a certain existential acme like the intellectual zenith it has achieved with man, and we recognise that instantly. There are faster animals, among its own cousins, from the Acinonyx genus, larger predators, like the polar bear, cuddlier critters, like the giant panda, but perhaps no other mammal combines all these qualities in such copious measure, even among cats. Tigers have the majesty of lions, the speed (gram for gram) of cheetahs, and the stealth of leopards.
And even on sight, a tiger will remain in the shadows of your understanding, where it will forever lurk, once seen. But you cannot hold on to it. It’s just like a fistful of water. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s named in Latin on a river, that other great force of Nature that has shaped humans without existing for us.