Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Coyote Teacher

I live in San Diego. I know, I’m lucky that way.

Yesterday as I was doing yoga on the back deck, my dog began to bark. The breeze through the Eucalyptus trees and the coos of mourning doves were instantly replaced by the most jarring alarm calls my dog knows how to make. My breath quickened and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

I guess I’ll meditate later.

I peered over the back fence into the field of chaparral that slopes down to the lake in the distance. There he was, six feet from the gate – the biggest, healthiest coyote I’ve ever seen.

Coyotes are a part of life around here, as they are in many places. In the dawn’s early light they’re often seen trotting home after a night of foraging. We’re regularly awakened by their yipping, mewling, howling, and barking as they convene their mysterious meetings in these fields beneath the stars.

But this was different.

He was alone, walking slowly, deliberately through the mid-morning light. His coat was thick. He looked strong and at ease with the world. Something opened inside of me – a wordless knowing, a content-free awareness. Being beyond all categories was showing itself in the simplicity of this moment.

His slow-walk recalled the walking meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher who used to lead his students meditatively along the dirt paths around the monastery, aligning each step with a breath, moving silently, deliberately, lovingly through the garden. This was holy like that.

Then he stopped and stood in the shade of a tree, turning away from me. I stood too. We stayed like that for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I don’t know. Time skittered off its rails.

I felt his presence, his absolute aliveness, his unadorned being-ness, without a whiff of artifice or pretense – how unlike him we are, caught up in the never-ending pageant of trying to make a good impression and checking our look in the mirror. His naturalness started me. His shocking authenticity slapped me across the face.

What would it be like to be free from the never-ending plans, desires, and so-called needs that torment us? What would it be like to show up without apology, without explanation, without excuse? What would it be like to live always in harmony with current conditions, without the burden of endlessly wishing things were different than the way they are? What would it be like to be free of endless speculations, ornate plans, egoic ambitions, and the need to be special?

These were the questions my visitor elicited in me.

Then he turned and ambled off.

Great teachers don’t tell you what to think. They help you ask better questions. My coyote teacher inspired a whole series of bracing, transformative queries. Of course I want to stop short of anthropomorphizing that wild animal, and imposing all kinds of stories and qualities on him that are purely the fruit of my own fervid imagination. But this fact remains: coyotes have been living in these hills for 400,000 years. Our civilization is a blip on that time-line – here and gone. Yet in the timeless eternity of this now moment, when we meet one another in authenticity, we all enter the heaven that has no name; a condition of consciousness the great religions can only point to. This is the holiness ever-present that we miss solely by paying attention to the wrong things.

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]