No coming, no going. No after, no before. I hold you close to me, I release you to be so free.
Because I am in you, and you are in me, because I am in you, and you are in me.
— mindfulness song, author unknown
We had the wonderful pleasure of hosting a family of robins on our family room overhang this month. It began when we saw the mother robin frantically putting together nests in four potential sites, scattering a huge pile of sticks and shiny threads on our patio. She apparently decided against someone’s old birthday balloon because she left it dangling in front of our window. She did finally settle on the “best” location, the one closest to our kitchen window, where we could watch her hatch and raise four baby birds over the course of a few short weeks.
We watched her and her partner endlessly flying off to gather a mouthful of worms and, after cautiously returning to the nest, feeding the babies whose beaks pointed up with open mouths whenever they sensed a parent’s arrival. In what seemed like less than a second, the babies had eaten and mom or dad was off again in search of more worms. I felt tired just watching them, but I was also fascinated by the “family” living next door.
We watched the babies grow until they were visible over the top of the nest, and we knew that they would soon be leaving. One weekend we took a trip to NYC, and when we got home the nest was empty. The clear indication that the birds had moved on was the large pile of bird poop on the patio directly under the nest. A final good-bye from the kids as they exited, I am guessing. I had hoped to see the babies take their first flight, but it wasn’t my luck this time.
In a parallel universe, our youngest child is graduating from high school this month, and my husband and I are looking around at our own “empty nest,” which happens in September when he flies off for gap year skies. After raising our own four babies (and hosting a few exchange students and other young people), I sometimes feel a little anxious about the next phase of this journey and what it holds.
But I am comforted by the Buddhist idea of No coming, no going, no birth, no death. This insight says that nothing comes or goes, nothing is born or dies, everything simply transforms into something else. And we create our own suffering when we get attached to the form of something and expect that form to last. When I get attached to the form of our family as it currently is, I suffer. But when I am able to see beyond the form, to see that the empty nest is a transformation and not an ending, then I don’t need to be sad. I can see our family continuing in so many other places, from France to Florida, and then I smile.
Here is how Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about No coming, no going:
Let us now try to eliminate this sheet of paper (burns the paper). Ash is what you can see. If you have observed, you see that some smoke has come up and that is a continuation of the sheet of paper. Now the sheet of paper has become part of a cloud in the sky. You may meet it again tomorrow in the form of a raindrop on your forehead. But maybe you will not be mindful and you will not know that this is a meeting. You may think that the raindrop is foreign to you, but it may just be the sheet of paper into which you have practiced looking deeply. The way it is now, is it nothing? No, I don’t think the sheet of paper has become nothing. Part of it has become the cloud. You can say, “Goodbye, see you again one day in one form or another.”
It is very difficult to follow the path of a sheet of paper. It is as difficult as to find God. Some heat has penetrated into my body. I almost burned my fingers. It has penetrated into your body, also. It has gone very far. If you had fine equipment you could measure the impact of the heat even from a distant star. Because the impact of a small thing on the whole cosmos can be measured. It has produced some change in my organism, in your organism, and in the cosmos, also. The sheet of paper continues to be there, present.
Ironically and surprisingly, over the last week, our house has become home to three new nests. Two of them are now occupied: the one over the porch fan we believe is a dove’s nest, and the one perched perilously over our front door belongs to another robin. I have begun watching and wondering when the babies will be born, and when I will get to see the full-on mania of bird parenting – which reminds me quite a bit of human parenting, especially the early years. And I actually feel relieved to be watching the mania, rather than participating in it. I am starting to enjoy the new form that our family has become.
We will all be together this month for the graduation, and if I look carefully, I know I will be able to see the ashes of that young family in the six adults gathered around. And I can feel the heat of that family in the friends and extended family who will celebrate with us, and in the wider world, as our babies fly off to their new lives, and our family transforms once again.
Where are we attached to a form, and where can we let go of forms to find more freedom and joy in our lives?
Thank you all for your willingness to walk this path with me.