I’ve lived in Texas for most of my life and though it is in south and part of the Bible belt, it still isn’t the deep south. Texas doesn’t have an excess of old establishment buildings or the incredible variety of trees and lush green stuff growing everywhere. There’s a feel to the air in Tennessee that isn’t like Texas. I’m visiting Nashville this week for the start of my yoga therapy program and I’m delighted with all sorts of things I’m finding like moss and huge magnolias and sycamores with that amazing peeling bark. Even the snails seem special here. I was happy enough to spend time soaking it all in and then I saw the fireflies. Delight doesn’t begin to express the feeling I get when I see fireflies.
The first night here, I spotted the flicker of a firefly and the dinner conversation with my friend came to a complete stop. We walked across the Panera parking lot and stared through the chain link fence at what had been a plain grassy field thirty minutes before. The fireflies that were out were so beautiful that as I watched them I actually felt an ache in my chest. We stood there, hanging on the fence for a while making “oooh” sounds when we’d see one that was really close or “aaaah” when there was a little cluster of them that seemed to light up all at once. We eventually walked back to campus together and though our conversation resumed it wasn’t very fluid because as more and more fireflies started to glow I got so excited that every minute or so I’d see a particularly lovely firefly display and my words would be as stunned into stillness as the rest of me. When we reached our dorms, we said goodnight. I stayed out to sit on the sidewalk with the intention of really taking in the firefly experience. I positioned myself under this huuuuge magnolia tree, hoping it would block some of the light that polluted the lawn, and I watched.
The thing is, at first, it wasn’t good. I found myself grasping for a close up look at one of these little creatures. The yama, aparigraha means non-grasping and it includes things like this…wanting to take in more, to grab and hold onto something. Not being satisfied with what I did have in front of me, I’d turn my attention and strain to see one up close, By the time I got there, it would be over and the bug was invisible to me. I’d look for the next one, and the next one missing those too, frustrated that they wouldn’t stay on just a little longer. This approach wasn’t working. Eventually I got still, relaxed and just sat. I let my eyes have a soft, wide and stable focus across the lawn in front of me, reminded of the principles of sthira and sukha, ‘stability and ease’. I tried to cultivate it in my eyes and my attention. It took a few minutes to settle here but when I did, I could sense a rhythm to the lights and movement– almost a dance in the evening display.
The fireflies remind me of the tiny floating embers that sometimes happen at the periphery of a campfire. Sometimes, the heat of the fire carries glowing ash up towards the sky just a moment before it goes out. There’s a different feeling when I imagine a campfire and I think it’s because I’m staring at the flames and not anxious to catch the action of the embers. I can take in the experience of the occasional floating embers, the way they move, the color when they start, the color as they cool and the grey ash that moves away when it’s finished. I’m not grasping. With fireflies, there’s no fire at the center to stare at and there was something frenetic in my experience. I wanted the peace that comes from seeing the floating embers.
The next day, in class, we learned about parīkṣa, which means to be able to see all around. When I heard this, that thought about the campfire was so meaningful again. What would change if there were a campfire at the center of the firefly display? Something still and settled that allowed me to see without grasping or looking for a particular experience. What if I could keep this idea of parīkśa in mind and then have the ability to make all kinds of observations because I could find myself at the center of something, centered in myself. Would that provide more perceptivity and more clarity about the object of my focus? Parīkśa is perception in a fuller sense. Perception of more than just one bug, but the ability to see “all around,” in many dimensions. How one bug moves, how several move, how they move as a group and the feeling that comes in the presence of this very special creature. Parīkṣa isn’t grasping, but it does seem to mean careful, attentive and open observation. No agenda, no wanting, but noticing from the center of myself.
Even I could flip some divine switch so the Nashville fireflies would just glow on and on, I’d actually know much less about them. It’s only in putting myself in the center and seeing all around that I can begin to observe their natural rhythm, that I start to see what these magical creatures are, how they move, what the relationship is one to the other, one to the group, to the time of day, to the other things growing in nature, to how I feel when I’m with them. Parīkśa is such a useful perspective. And I’m just at the beginning of understanding what it means.