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Drawing at the Zoo

The koan: "Who's a pretty bird?"

Long ago, when I was raising young kids, I took a class. The class was just for me, a whole morning every week, drawing. It was called Zoo Drawing and it involved going to the zoo and, well, drawing.

Drawing animals at the zoo is unusual and challenging. For one thing, the animals rarely ever hold still. What you draw has to be rendered quickly, or filed away in memory, things like where the of the grey crowned crane's beak goes in relation to its eye. It's a little like drawing people on the subway, but not really, because the people on the subway aren't aware of you drawing them. The most unexpected thing was the relationship that happened when the animals started to notice me looking at them.

Most people at the zoo move quickly from animal to animal. They often do this funny thing: To their children, or even if they lack children, they make an observation about how they think the animals are related to each other. "There's the Mommy and the Daddy and the baby" is mostly how it goes, even if all three animals are mature elephants of the same sex and unrelated genetically. It's satisfying, somehow, to know what you're seeing. And then they walk away to the next exhibit.
Mommy, Daddy, baby

But when I was drawing, I quickly found that I didn't know what I was seeing at all, at least not right away. I saw an elephant and I quickly drew an elephant but it didn't look like an elephant because the trunk isn't what I thought it was, where I thought it was. These were animals I'd seen many times, but I really hadn't looked. So, because I wanted my drawing to capture something particular about the animal I saw, I had to open my mind and find out what was there. And the more I looked without interpreting or fitting things into my old ideas, the more I just opened myself to what I was in front of me, the better the drawing looked. I could let my hand draw what my eyes saw without being filtered through my concepts of how it ought to look. Each revision to a drawing was exciting, each error was a chance to see something I had missed.

pretty bird
The second thing that happened, which followed the first, was that when I looked closely, in that way, the animal I was looking at sometimes noticed that I was still there, still watching. The teacher of the class made an observation: When you are looking at a bird, and you say, "What a pretty bird!" out loud, the bird really likes it. The bird might show you its wings and plumage, stretching and showing off. Even a vulture will do this. But you have to say "pretty bird" with admiration, you have to mean it.

Even animals I imagined would be completely indifferent to or unaware of the presence of a human, like a tiny poison dart frog on the other side of a thick glass window, would after awhile start to turn and observe me in return. The animals in the zoo were used to the people who came and went quickly, but someone who stayed was different. Perhaps my gaze was pleasant to them, I can imagine it was because their gaze was pleasant to me. It's nice to be seen. We were connected then, not separate as I had imagined.

This is like meditation. In meditation what I'm watching isn't only outside myself, it's also inside me. I'm watching the animals of my mind, and each one is unique and most of them shy and all thrive on my attention. If I stay long enough, and I'm patient, they come out of their thickets, step into a clearing. Sometimes when I'm meditating I try saying "pretty bird!" to myself and then I start to appreciate all of me, my plumage of all different colors, my iridescence. My chest swells, my wings spread, and I begin to fill the space I occupy.

I can appreciate all of the animals of my mind, and in doing so both the observer and the one observed begin to change. This is worth doing.

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