I believe in Intelligent Life. Not extraterrestrial, I’m talking right here on Earth. And, though there are plenty of intellectually well-endowed humans, this goes way beyond our species.
Buddhists dedicate meditation practice to “All Sentient Beings.” I always wondered who, or what, to include in that category, perched on my meditation cushion. Family members, friends and students came to mind. And even those I didn’t know: faraway people who, like all of us, just want to get a clue about how to navigate in this crazy world.
“Sentient” means to be capable of perceiving. But aren’t there different ways of sensing, of being perceptive? I wondered. Were we talking only embodied beings, or should I include those gone over to the spirit world? And what about animals? I knew my terrier would vanquish me in any contest involving the senses (and, of course, he can outwit me too).
But it wasn’t until I scrambled up the river embankment, with said terrier, one morning, that I realized there were other conscious beings on the planet. When I looked up, panting to catch my breath, I saw a giant gnarled elm tree, and after that everything changed. The only way to describe it is that I realized the tree was sentient. I felt “taken in” by the towering trunk with branches as big as most mature elms. I knew then that trees would have to go on my list. Not only did this centenarian tree have an air of wisdom, he had a name: Albert. Which came to me as I stood there, communing with him.
Albert had seen me pass by dozens of times, on similar mornings. Some days a rain shower rustled his leaves and made the moss on his trunk glow neon green. I was usually late for teaching my first yoga class of the day, after lingering on the footbridge, where I’d let the current whisk away concerns about personal finances, climate change and global conflict. Albert had been an inert form in the landscape, until the day I learned that it was worth slowing down to get to know this venerable tree.
The thing is, the intelligence of a nature spirit, like Albert’s, is beyond words. No verbal communication transpires. The only sound is of my breath, now calmer and slower. Without any words exchanged, all my worries, hopes and desires are exposed, like the roots of the tree I balance on. There, I am met by a beneficent presence.
If you’ve ever sat, with your heart heavy, petting a dog, and felt better you know what I mean. If you’ve gazed into the eyes of an elder, left speechless after a stroke, and felt reassured you know what I mean. Or, perhaps, you’ve kept a vigil at the bedside of a relative about to pass over, and felt it: One Being with another Being.
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