Elk As Teacher

By Carl Golden
February 1996

Once upon a snow-covered mount in the front range of the Rockies (just outside of Boulder, Colorado), I followed the tracks of an Elk buck for half a day; then, lost them in the thickets of a wide ravine. I scoured the area for half an hour, peering into bush clumps and listening for any unusual “twiggy” snaps. Nothing. I knew he was close because his tracks were very fresh, perhaps 15 minutes, but, without further sign, the buck might as well have been on Mars.

I decided to head home along the creek bed of the ravine. Walking one hundred yards (or so), I noticed a tree stump move out of the corner of my eye. I stopped to look more closely. It took me a full minute to see the stump for what it was--the head and racks of an immense Elk peering at me over an abandoned fence of fieldstones. Slowly, I moved up the hill to a position just 10 feet to the right of the buck. I was amazed that I was able to get so close to the animal without spooking him, and I was surprised to discover that he was sitting on his haunches with his legs tucked under. His head rose so high above the fence that I had assumed he was standing. I found a place to sit, as well.

It was quiet, and the air was still. I could hear him breathing. I tried to match the rhythm of his breaths -- long draws followed by short, intense exhalations. His chest would slowly rise with the sound of a fiery furnace, then it would collapse while clouds of steam poured out his nostrils. It was like watching a mountain breathe. I meditated upon our breathing, as if I was back in the Zen-do.

In this communion, there was no separation of man and beast. I did not feel his better; in truth, I did not feel his equal. I felt to be in the presence of greatness itself--a Buddha. He was the master and I was the neophyte--a young buck sitting at the hooves of a wise, great, and hoary elder. Nothing escaped his attention.

Sitting on that mountain, I meditated upon the buck and clearly saw the beauty and magnificence of what is wildness. Contrary to the popular notion, it is not chaotic and mindless; in fact, it is the penultimate expression of order and mindfulness in exquisite harmony with itself and its environs. Wildness is a divine order. God was no less present in this splendid Elk than in Jesus the Christ, Buddha, Krishna, or any other holy man or woman. Every part of this Elk attended to its environs -- nothing taken for granted. I was reminded of the Northwest Coast Indian totem poles, where the animals carved into the poles are painted with eyes on their paws, wings and torsos, signifying the pervasive quality of awareness -- radical attention.

This quality of attention is not found in modern society in general, nor is it found in most "civilized” cultures, both eastern and western. I suspect the reasons for the lack of radical attention in modern civilizations are many-social, economic, and political stress, meaningless employment, urbanization, etceteras. In short, those many things that contrive to distract us from the Now. The root of it all, though, is the denial or avoidance of suffering.

At the time of this extraordinary encounter with the Elk, my life had become miserably clouded by a recent break of a marital engagement that had occurred months prior to my sojourn into the mountains. My fiancee’s departure from my life was like the loss of my brother, Chris, in death years before. I had been absorbed in pain, not knowing day from night. I knew that I needed to move on, but I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t see.

As I meditated upon that wintry mountain, I considered my extraordinary companion’s life -- the yearly cycles of feast and famine, the uncertainty of daily existence, the need to attend to everything. It struck me that the threat of death and pain was ever present for this Elk, and he knew it. Death and pain rooted him in attention to life, rather than becoming reasons to seek distractions from life. Living so had conferred greatness upon his presence. Whereas, I reflected, the "death" of a relationship and the concomitant pain I had experienced had become reasons for distraction -- I had lost months of vital living to distracted self-absorption in the avoidance of suffering. The practical importance of this insight struck me like a thunderbolt. In that moment, I embraced my pain and found the clarity and courage to start living again.

Without ritual or circumstance -- as if on que -- my teacher stood, turned and slowly walked away. The grace of his departure surprised me as much as seeing a tree stump move. I had expected the effort of raising his immense torso and head to be somewhat awkward, but it was no more awkward than raising one’s arm.

I was (and remain) in awe of this teacher, to whom I am the ignorant beast in comparison. I had drained my cup to drink his tea, and once I had drunk deeply, he left.

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