The sparrow and the baby lions


A few years ago, I took the three-year-old daughter of our neighbours to the zoo for a few hours. It was a sunny autumn day, just a gentle breeze, and we were both looking forward to the afternoon. As soon as we’d gone through the gate, little Emily became enthralled by a scrawny sparrow hopping about on the path, and clapped her hands in delight.

‘No, Emily,’ I told her, ‘don’t worry about the sparrow. Look at the baby lions over there!’

As soon as I said it I knew I was wrong. Why shouldn’t Emily be just as interested in the sparrow as in the recently-born baby lions? Admittedly we hadn’t just paid a lot of money to look at sparrows, which we could have seen for free on the other side of the fence. And I was certainly keen to see the baby lions, and both Emily and I loved watching them tumble about at play a few minutes later. But in this case, Emily was my teacher – to be interested in whatever we came across, regardless of whether it was common or rare.

There is a lot we can learn from young children – from their capacity to be open and interested, from their absorption in whatever they’re engaged with at the moment, from the way they can smile and laugh at the slightest provocation. We don’t want to be childish, but in our efforts to be mature and responsible we can risk losing a sense of child-like wonder and openness. There is a saying,

‘Mindfulness is never boring,’

and I’ve found this to be true. On meditation retreats, all you might do for hours on end is watch your breath, perhaps listen to the sounds around you. You’d imagine this would get excruciatingly tedious after the first ten minutes or so, but for me it never is. I might feel sleepy at times, or distracted, but not bored. Just being open, and present, is enough.

Our life can sometimes feel like a trip to the zoo, where we have in mind an extensive list of the animals we ‘have’ to see, and we stride through the zoo with great determination ticking them off one by one, making sure we don’t linger too long at any exhibit because this might throw out the precious schedule; and in the meantime a little child by our side notices the sparrows, other children, ice cream (!), an interesting rock on the ground, lions, a big tree, and giraffes. It is often our pre-conceived ideas which can prevent us from enjoying what is right here, especially if we’ve paid a lot of money. The adult in us knows it’s worth searching out the baby lions, because how many times in our lives are we likely to see lion cubs at play? We are good at planning, prioritising, completing a task rather than getting side-tracked every two seconds – all wonderful skills to have. And yet we can too easily lose our sense of child-like wonder. One of the core-attributes of mindfulness is beginner’s mind – the ability to see the familiar with fresh and interested eyes.

Weekly practice idea:

Try bringing a sense of ‘beginner’s mind’ to a routine experience this week. How would a child perceive it? How would you, if the experience were novel rather than familiar? What difference do you notice when you take this new approach to a common experience?

Anja Tanhane