One of my favorite spiritual stories is Two Birds In A Tree which I first read in a book by Swami Vivekenanda. Vivekenanda was the first Hindu saint to bring India’s ancient spiritual wisdom and Yoga practices to the West at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He had a major influence on many of India’s modern spiritual leaders including Gandhi, Nehru, Aurobindo and Tagore. He shares a message of Oneness and universality in a way that is profound and accessible. Here is the story of “Two Birds In A Tree“:
“Upon the same tree there are two birds, one on the top, the other below. The one on the top is calm, silent, and majestic, immersed in his own glory; the one on the lower branches, eating sweet and bitter fruits by turns, hopping from branch to branch, is becoming happy and miserable by turns. After a time, the lower birds eats an exceptionally bitter fruit, and feeling miserable, he looks up and sees the other bird, that wondrous one of golden plumage who eats neither sweet nor bitter fruit, who is neither happy nor miserable, but calm and centered in the Spirit. The lower bird longs for this condition, but soon forgets it, and again begins to eat the fruit, which makes him once again feel miserable, and he again looks up, and he tries to get nearer to the upper bird. Once more he forgets, and after a time he looks up again, and so on he goes again and again, until he comes very near to the beautiful bird and sees the reflection of light from its plumage playing around his own body. He feels a change, and as he comes nearer, he seems to melt away, and everything about him melts away until as last he understands this wonderful change. The lower bird was, as it were, only the shadow, the reflection of the higher; he himself was in essence the upper bird all the time. This eating of the fruits, sweet and bitter, this lower little bird, weeping and happy by turns, was merely a vain dream: all along the real bird was there above, calm, and silent, glorious and majestic, beyond grief, beyond sorrow. The upper bird is God, the Lord of this universe; and the lower bird is the human soul, eating the sweet and bitter fruits of this world.
Now and then comes a heavy blow to the soul. For a time, he stops eating and goes toward the unknown God, and a flood of light comes. Yet again the senses drag him down, and begins to as before eat the sweet and bitter fruits of the world. Again, a hard blow comes. Again, his heart becomes open to the divine light; thus gradually he approaches God, and as he gets nearer and nearer, he finds his old self melting away. When he has come near enough, he realizes that he is no other than God, and he exclaims, “He who is the One Life of this universe, as present in the atom as in the suns and moons – He is the basis of my own life, the Soul of my soul and I Am That.
This is what Jnana Yoga (The Yoga of Knowledge/Wisdom) teaches. It teaches us that we are divine. It shows to all humanity the real unity of being, that each one of us is a manifestation on earth of the Lord God Himself. All of us, from the lowest worm to the highest being – all are manifestations of the same God.”
The story really embodies the concept of the shadow, which is a core component in transformation. (We will explore the concept of shadow more fully in future posts.) It also describes the journey of life, of reaching for the light and falling back down, rising up again and again. Many traditions speak of this concept of coming back to our infinite nature, which is that light bird at the top of the tree. It is something that is always there, always a part of us, but often when we get mired down by the experiences of life, we lose sight of our inner essence. The Sufis speak of polishing the mirror or stone until it is clear, shining and reflecting our truest essence – our self. The Buddhists speak of the mind being like a sky and clearing of the clouds or obscurations so that we can return to our true Buddha nature, which can be seen as clear sky.
It is an ongoing process. One of the main lessons I have learned along the way is that the journey of life itself is the path. Being willing to accept what is and to continue to grow and to reach for the top of the tree, is a lifelong journey. In many traditions, life on earth is seen as a school or a place of learning; we come here to awaken and to know our true essence even in the midst of maya or illusion. We forget who we are and where we came from, but as we journey, we begin to remember. And, then we forget again. And, then we remember, just as that lower birds does in the story.
Will we ever reach the top of the tree? We know some incredible beings such as Buddha or Jesus have found a way to hold and embody that light. In focusing on living the big picture in daily life, it is helpful to remember that the journey is the path. We cannot know where it will lead or when we might awaken, but we can keep working on becoming more aware, authentic and an embodiment of that light, which is our true nature. And when I say working, sometimes, for myself this ends up meaning efforting. However, it is important as we do both our inner work and our outer work to allow. Life unfolds in it’s own beautiful ways and all the opportunities we need are right before us.
By allowing and staying present in the moment we are able to access the gifts that are already before us. If something is arising in our life, we know we have work to do with that experience, feeling, person, etc., or it would not be there, it would not be showing up. Remembering this and embracing the experiences of this very moment with love, compassion, and acceptance are how we move up that tree, one branch at a time. And, even when we fall back down, we can pause and seek the light within, which is our true essence.
I hope you will take some time to reflect on this story and the journey of life as it is unfolding for you today.