Most people know about the parrots in San Francisco. Not everyobdy knows how they sound. When I was offering a version of Roaming Zen for Airbnb before the pandemic, taking mostly out-of-towners around some lesser-known hills and staircases in the middle of the city, we would almost invariably hear parrots flying overhead when we were going down the Vulcan Street steps; they were congregating around the row of eucalyptus trees alongside Corona Heights. Once I told people that it was parrots they were hearing, they would usually get pretty excited.

The other morning I was just starting a corporate meditation session, without being completely sure what I was going to say, when I heard parrots passing by. It offered me the chance to talk about how early Buddhism isolated each element of the process – using the five aggregates, or skandhas: there is the existence of both myself and the parrots in that moment; there is the sound; I hear the sound; I classify the sound as pleasant or unpleasant; I recognise the sound as a parrot; I picture the parrot; and then I tell the story of how I think the parrots are commuting, since I often hear them around 8:30 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon. From the initial sound, we can pick apart each stage of the process to notice how I end up with my story.

In meditation, with our ears and eyes open – at least the way I was trained the eyes are open, but the ears are open regardless of whether we want them to be (and if we were dogs, our noses would be more keenly open as well) – we take in what is happening around us. The day before this session, when I was at City Hall officiating a wedding, as we arrived on the gorgeous fourth floor balcony, I had the couple close their eyes to all the visual splendour for a moment, and just map the scene with their ears: a kind of hushed murmur of activity some way below us, with a gentle echoing from the huge dome above us. I would often offer the same practice on the yoga deck at Wilbur, with the creek running at the bottom of the hillside, and more or less volume of human activity around the valley.

The next step, I proposed in the session, after training ourselves to notice this journey from sound to story, is to do the same with people. I often talk about how meditation helps me to be present with people I think of as difficult, and that is largely possible when we understand the stages of the process that makes me think of them as difficult, and instead of getting stuck there, rewinding to the point where there is just a person in front of us, and we listen to that person in that moment without going through the filter of “I don’t like.” And we can do that with our own self-judgements as well, interrupting the unconscious flow from mistake to self-berating. Or we can just notice the parrots as they fly by.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

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