Zen Lessons from a Vulture

A vulture perched on the roof of my house this morning, its black wings folded against a luminous blue April sky. My first thought was, “Oh, this is a bad omen – someone is going to die!” because that’s the kind of person I was taught to be – cautious. A look-before-you-leap kind of person.  An “assume the worst until I have time to understand a thing and can come around to a more rational and optimistic way of thinking” kind of person.

This sort of caution comes in handy sometimes, like when my kid climbs the bathroom walls trying to get himself a broken arm, or runs with sticks (oh yes, I have said “Yer gonna put yer eye out!” many, many times).

As I thought about the theme of my life these days, I realized that the vulture on my roof symbolizes something else, something far more wondrous. If you’ve ever watched one soaring hundreds of feet above on a warm Texas day you know that vultures can be breathtakingly graceful. They spiral in the updrafts, catching the hot wind as it rises from the green hilltops and grassy prairies.

The vulture’s grace comes from the effortlessness with which it surrenders to the currents, fearlessly gliding higher and higher. Once it reaches the top of a hot air column, a vulture can coast for miles without so much as a wing flap until it finds another air-elevator to ride.

I am inspired to reflect on why it is so hard sometimes to let go of my need for safety and control. Why is it so terrifying to take a risk, to be vulnerable, to tempt the judgment of others…to leap into the air and soar?

The answer is that deep down some tiny part of me is afraid that if I do, someone (me, or my ego, perhaps) might die.

As a carrion eater, the vulture embodies both death and life.  The bird transforms the physicality of death into energy: the energy to catch a rising column of air, then let go and fly.

Vultures teach us that doing what we fear — releasing control and letting the currents carry us — is actually the easier way.  They also show us that although we may feel as ugly as a bald-headed buzzard sometimes, when we soar, we are beautiful.


Leap Before You Look, by W. H. Auden

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
Bu to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

This entry was posted in Essays, Poems and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zen Lessons from a Vulture

  1. Bejewell says:

    As someone who’s had all the control taken out of her hands recently, and is now struggling to take it back, can I just say… Amen?

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