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  • Patrick

Lessons in Zen From A Squirrel

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

On Saturday morning, I looked out my window and saw a squirrel scampering up the tree just outside. It had in its mouth what looked like a green tennis ball, which gave me pause. I later learned the "tennis ball" was actually a black walnut. The green walnut hull it was holding in its mouth was huge, much larger than the squirrel's head, but its teeth were clamped tight on it and it was securely held. The squirrel stopped and sat on a branch right in my line of sight, dropped the green ball into its claws and then went to work on it with its sharp squirrel teeth. Its claws spun the nut around and around and I watched as bits of green hull were sprayed everywhere. Faster and faster the shrinking nut spun around in its claws, and faster and faster its teeth went. It was like watching a speeded-up film.

I watched fascinated as the squirrel displayed such tremendous determination, focus, and hard work to get to the delicious nut deep inside the hard covering. Nothing was going to get in its way or distract it from getting what it wanted. Until it happened to spot me. The squirrel immediately stopped its machine-like gnawing, looked at me for a second or two, then put what was left of the nut back between its teeth and bounded off away from the eyes of the annoying human.

As I watched the squirrel gnawing furiously away, I thought how marvelous it would be if we could bring that same energy, focus, and determination to our practice, if we could drill down through the hard covering we have built up over ourselves and our lives that keeps us from what we really want, from what is quietly waiting for us at the heart of things. We don't need sharp teeth in our practice, but we do need sharp concentration. I've always liked the Zen advice that Master Dogen gave his monks in his Zazengi, a guide to the practice that he wrote for them: "Mindful of the passing of time, engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire." Now that is single-minded intensity!

And of course, as always, we have our regular online sit to look forward to. Bring your own matches!

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