Downtime Meditation: Days 8-14

This is part 2 of Downtime Meditation, an ongoing 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. See part 1 here.

Day 8 of 21-day Lockdown

Torrent frog and fly, Tamil Nadu, 2018

The desire to live and pass on the code of life in defiance of all odds is arguably the most basic instinct hard-coded in every living thing. From an invisible virus to an inescapable elephant, every organism wants to endure and proliferate. But it is in watching frogs that the zest for life really hit me hard, as is evident from these excerpts of a letter I wrote to my wife, Sourabha Rao, in 2018, about a different frog from the one featured here:

“Amboli is a singular cove of treasures. Here, grandeur resides on an atomic scale, accessibly but not obviously in broad daylight, and in small details.

“Even when it isn’t raining, there’s so much moisture in the air that at most times there’s an impenetrable fog.

“The water flows in some streams as a torrent and elsewhere as the sweetest drip of honey clinging to the gossamer fronds. Then the rain comes doubling back for the umpteenth time, like an approaching train of dew stones. And often does the wind take a forceful flight with the rain, and you fear it may carry you yonder somewhere deeper into this bewildering bosom of the unknowable – so strong is its advance.
“It is in this forest of conditions that I bid you imagine, Sourabha, a minuscule frog, not much larger than a cluster of raindrops a few granules of dust the wind would’ve happily abducted if it weren’t for the constant burial leveled by the rain.

“Sourabha, it doesn’t weigh much on the terrestrial plane, but it’s too heavy to be shaken off your mind, as it lords over its centimetre of the planet as though the celestial body is merely an outgrowth of its abdomen!

“With a sac almost as big as the rest of its thumbnail-sized body, it croaks away into the inky night, cutting through rain and wind and obstacles of all kind. There is much nebulousness outside but no mist in its mind. It seems to know that still air plays not a flute. Life is in the flowing and in Amboli it flows like there’s no other way.”

Day 9 of 21-day Lockdown

Maasai Mara in 60 seconds: a montage of a wildlife Mecca

Nature has deep pockets brimming with a natural kind of wealth. And that wealth is the wonder and magic of a place left as it evolved on its own, without being rearranged to suit human whim.

There is always copious pleasure to be derived from a casual stroll through any such part of Earth. Yet there are some spaces that, charged by the extraordinary concentration of this wonder and magic, make a special connect with the sockets of the heart. So much, that the raptures felt during your physical presence in them linger intensely even when you’re far away, and don’t decamp until you return to that space.

One such place for me, and for many, is the Mara. This is a woefully inadequate-but-heartfelt minute-long tribute to it. I dedicate this video to Jonathan Scott. Jonathan’s role in the unforgettable Big Cat Diary and the accompanying books he authored, along with his other masterpiece, Mara-Serengeti: A Photographer’s Paradise, were what crystallized the venerable Mara in my mind as this mesmerizing Mecca when I was a teenager. I didn’t imagine it’d be even better when I experienced it for myself, but what did I know, it was. And it has only been better with every second I’ve spent there.

Day 10 of 21-day Lockdown

Wildebeests in Ndutu, Tanzania, 2019

Of all states of being, the one to which Nature is the harshest is perhaps infancy. At least dotage has the comfort of hopelessness, the luxury of resignation, the despair of experience. Life has had a chance to play out. But rank nonage is such a liability, that most animals don’t even have one, and when they pop out of the womb, must almost literally hit the ground running. The wildebeest calf certainly does, and within minutes of seeing daylight for the first ever time, gallops about as though it’s only woken up from a long sleep. In virtually less time than a human baby ends its birth-suit bawl, a wildebeest calf must be prepared to outrun a predator, even performing miracles such as walking on water, to avoid a ‘blink-and-you-miss’ life, post which resurrection is only guaranteed in the form of grass! How the calf understands this instinctively, and embarks to deploy its inchoate legs with such immediacy, remains, as most things in Nature, beyond our understanding.

Day 11 of 21-day Lockdown

Sunrise over a forest, Karnataka, 2019

Plurality is one of the hallmarks of Nature, and I’ve always found that a neat way of observing this is to sit gazing into a forested valley at a time when this plurality is the most evident – morning. Better still if this is a solitary anti poaching camp on a prominent hill in a tiger reserve. For that is when a multimedia drama unfolds over several hours starting from the false dawn to about what is breakfast time for humans, a drama that’s deeply dear to me.

Each species of bird, or group of birds, occupies a different, and often multiple, slots at this primetime hour. The really early-birds take the mantle of announcing that the long, dark night is about to break, and often then there’s a pause. Then the regular-shift birds resume the programme soon enough. Slowly black turns to grey, and soon, grey turns to the tenderest blue, topped by a precious blossom. Amid all this the cats start to move as reported by the strident calls of a chital herd. Then the sun props himself above the horizon, and the first patch of a nearby tree is alchemised by its light. Then the mist starts to lift and as the sun soars higher, shafts of sunlight pierce the canopies as though the Welkin were dropping ladders to Earth to descend with the view of distributing its benediction. And what benediction it is indeed! All the drugged languor of the night is erased in a moment, each breath feels like a year gained, the eyes dilate in the pleasure of freshness, and the very pores of the skin throb to the collectiveness of forms that’s existence. And then the sun climbs ever higher and shadows form. Everything settles to a healthy rhythm. You sigh and smile. The drama’s over and the day has barely just begun.

Day 12 of 21-day Lockdown

Lions, Mara Triangle, Maasai Mara, 2018

The consistency of Nature may make it seem orthodox, inflexible, trite, rooted in convention. But in reality it’s anything but. Take lions, for instance, who differ from their fellow Pantherans, and most other cats, in at least three fascinating ways:

Firstly, they’re pretty much the only truly social cats we know of (all or most cats are social to varying degrees, but none as much as lions). At some point they reckoned they couldn’t afford to remain the introverted recluses most of their cousins were, so they changed their behavior and started cooperating – so much that they even nurse cubs from any female in the pride.

Next, lions are the only cats I know of that exhibit striking sexual dimorphism other than just size, with males exhibiting stunning manes (on which I hope to do a more elaborate story some day). However lions thought of this, in the absence of any obvious inspiration in the feline world (other than the long cheek hair sometimes seen in tigers), beats me completely. Whether at any point they came across lion-tailed macaques, and exchanged patents on tail and mane, I do not know. But what a masterstroke!

And thirdly, they are the only large cats I can think of (apart from mountain lions, which are obviously named after lions and therefore don’t count) that sport completely plain livery, losing their factory-spec rosettes very quickly.

Beings of the wild are masters of adaptation, and at any time that something doesn’t make sense, it isn’t adhered to dogmatically just for the sake of legacy. And it is this ability to change, ironically, that gives Nature its extraordinary stability.

Day 13 of 21-day Lockdown

Silence is generally perceived as a singular entity, but being in Nature has taught me there might yet be a lot we have to learn about it. It is clear enough to most of us that there is a difference between outer silence and the inner. But even in seemingly so straightforward a dimension as external silence, I have reason to deduce that there are nuances. Just as the great Albert Einstein showed us that time isn’t absolute, a scientist may well someday demonstrate that there are different types of silence.

Even at the height of this lockdown, the silence in my hometown isn’t the same as the one I’ve experienced in Mysuru. And the silence there isn’t quite the same as the one I’ve felt at Moyar Gorge or the Dhikala chaur.

There are some silences that are like smokescreens, hiding us from ourselves by putting us to sleep. There are some that are like darkness, rendering our thoughts in contrast to them dazzlingly bright, so that we’re lost in thinking. There are some that are like mirrors; they show us to ourselves, just the way we appear. But there is yet another kind of silence, and that’s the one I’ve felt in the Himalaya, and only there.

The silence there is like air; just as the air outside pervades the inside when we breathe, the silence here fills the inner dimension so that there appears no difference between what’s within and what’s without, and you forget yourself altogether. The attention is neither outward nor inward, but only at the silence. I suspect in the Himalaya, what the yogis refer to as the unity of existence manifests in the form of silence. It is as though the rarefied air aids that blessed mountain to remove that final veil, no matter how gossamer, off the ears. And such is its greatness that it doesn’t even impose upon the visitor to listen carefully. Just being there is enough to see that silence isn’t merely the absence of sound, but a wormhole-like entity that can get us through to just being.

Day 14 of 21-day Lockdown

Wildebeests at Mara River, 2018

The absence in Nature of that very human desire to be exceptional is most fascinating. Except under some circumstances, mostly for procreation, the beings of the wild don’t seem to care much about carefully engineering their personality to shine in others’ perception. Take wildebeests for instance. They’re often derided as stupid and ugly, and for allegedly having been assembled by their creator with the discarded parts of his masterful creations. And yet, I think they’re far more spiritual than the average human.

Firstly, they don’t seem to care much about their looks, otherwise they wouldn’t have stuck to it for such a rather long period of time. Secondly, they don’t appear to be unduly concerned about standing out from the crowd either. In fact they prefer blending in for safety from predators, which actually makes them smart. And thirdly, they don’t seem to suffer from any sort of existential crisis, although their only mandate in life appears to be to crop grass along a large oval route round the year, dodging precipitous leaps, submersed jaws and overland stalkers in the process.

It is this unburdened approach to life, with a natural attitude of complete acceptance, that Osho said makes animals appear so graceful and in complete harmony with their surroundings. And it is in fostering no desire to be anything other than ordinary that Nature is so acutely anything but that.

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