St Kevin and the Blackbird

A Celtic Reflection on the Zen Practice of Just Sitting

There is a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney based on the legend of St Kevin and the Blackbird: the blackbird laid its eggs in the saint’s outstretched hand as he prayed.

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird,
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked.

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity; now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his
hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird,
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Fortunately in Zen we have a posture of meditation which is a little easier on the joints and muscles than what St Kevin endured, although in a tough sesshin we get a sense of what he experienced. However apart from the posture, this wonderful poem expresses all that is in the spirit of shikantaza, (just sitting) as we understand it in Zen practice.

There is a Zen dialogue between two old Chinese teachers about just sitting which resonates with the legend of St. Kevin.

One teacher said to the other. “What are you doing?”The other teacher replied “I am not doing anything.” “If you are doing nothing at all you are just sitting idly.” “If I was just sitting idly, I would be doing something.” the other teacher replied. After a pause first old teacher said “You are saying that you are not doing anything at all. What is it that you are not doing? The other teacher replied “Even the 10,000 sages don’t know.”

Just like St Kevin in prayer, when we are just sitting we aren’t doing anything, holy or profound. We don’t really know what we are doing, we are just allowing all of life to be as it is. In some ways this may be seen as an idealised way of how to practice. Generally, most of us have a commentary going at the same time reflecting on how well or not we are just sitting. Yet there are moments when we do forget what we are doing in the act of doing it.

It happens not when we are planning it but often in moments of genuine suffering in our lives when someone close to us dies, or in the joy of a child being born. It happens when we really give up trying to get somewhere and see clearly the pointlessness of trying to achieve some kind of self improvement outside of this moment as we are right now.
Just sitting seems like the simplest thing in the world to do and in one sense it is but how many of us can labour without seeking reward? Or not daydream about our next project or ruminate on our shortcomings?

The more mindfulness becomes a part of mainstream culture through the promotion and practice of various mindfulness based therapies, the more I find a need to differentiate it from the religious context from which it has been extracted.

To just sit is to just be yourself entirely, without trying to be any different to what you are moment by moment. It is not trying to achieve a result of any kind whatsoever. It usually takes a long time of daily sitting, and many retreats over a life time, for the expectations of results to drop away.

When we place mindfulness within a scientific framework of cause and effect as we do in therapy we are by its very nature looking for results and measurement of results. Is it relieving me of my depression or stress? How well is it working? Would something else work better? When we practice in this secular way, just sitting becomes a technique, rather than a way of life.
What occurs when we practice just sitting for long enough and begin to drop our expectations of progress, is that we gradually start to move beyond personal gain and loss. As we just sit, the realisation gradually dawns that allowing myself to be just the way I am includes allowing others to be just the way they are, and for all of life to be just the way it is right now – including when it doesn’t meet my requirements.

Acceptance and kindness begins with oneself and brings about self healing but unless it extends itself to others our life is limited and pinched. We may learn to manage our depression or stress more successfully but the source of our depression or stress, the separation of ourselves from life, still gnaws away underneath seeking resolution. It is important to listen carefully to this deeper dissatisfaction – to welcome it like a loving message from an old friend who has our best interests at heart.

In the legend St Kevin gave himself over entirely to supporting life in the form of the blackbird and her chicks rather than trying to save himself – this is the point of the poem. Yet in supporting the blackbirds he saves himself from his own self-preoccupations and becomes “alone and mirrored in love’s deep river.” The river of God whose name he has forgotten.
In the same spirit it would behove us to forget about Zen, Dharma, Buddha and Enlightenment!

What is the blackbird that needs supporting in my life and your life right now?

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