After seventeen years of life spent underground, the Brood X cicada nymphs have begun their ascent toward the heavens. First they climb up whatever tree trunk, stalk, or wall they might encounter. Then they crack out of their suddenly very confining shells. And then, once their wings have sufficiently dried, they fly up into the tree canopy to either sing their song of love or be sung to, as the case may be. In another month or so, with their mating duties presumably complete, they’ll pass into the great beyond – leaving behind the eggs that will start the process all over again nestled within grooves made in the tree branches. In the meantime, though, there will be singing. Oh, my, there will be singing!
I’ve been fascinated by cicadas ever since I was a child. So many times I’ve been mesmerized by their song. The pulsing drone of their collective “voice” gradually builds to a scratching crescendo, then to be taken up by a chorus from another cluster of trees some distance away. And so the song proceeds, long into the warm summer nights. What fascinates me most, though, from my adult perspective, is their transformation. Can you imagine what it would be like to spend your life almost entirely underground, only to live your final few weeks up in the tree tops, in the sun and the rain, singing as the sun fades with so many others just like you – kin that you barely knew even existed all the other days of your life? What a transformation that must be!
Transformation, from the human perspective, is often thought to be the result of spiritual practice. Perhaps we’re transformed from a state of suffering to one of liberation, from attachment to a small-minded notion of our self to the realization of transcendent possibility, or from a state of being lost to one of being saved. On the other hand, we Soto Zen practitioners eschew (or attempt to, anyway) all conceptualization regarding transformation for the sake of merely practicing for the sake of practice. After all, thoughts of transformation are all too often tainted with desire and even greed – for attainment or status, to be something other than what we are, etc. But becoming free of all thoughts of attainment requires quite a transformation in and of itself! How do we maintain a spiritual practice even as we maintain that we’re not really doing anything? That there is, in fact, nothing to be gained? It’s something of a koan, isn’t it?
Notwithstanding what we Soto Zen folks might think, transformation is usually thought of as an expansion of consciousness, or movement to a higher level of awareness, if you will. We can see such transformation in our own lives in many ways. Surely we’ve noticed that our childish ways of thinking have become much more mature. Perhaps even into adulthood we’re moving from a more tribal way of looking at self and other to a more expansive view of all humankind. Maybe we’ve become less self-centered and more inclined to think of ourselves as part of, or inextricably woven into, a web of all living and non-living things. We might have stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of the various roles we play in life and begun to see ourselves more deeply connected to something thought of as divine. Perhaps we’ve begun feeling in our heart truths of greater depth than those most often spoken of on a daily basis. While such transformation may proceed in fits and starts it is largely a one-way process. It’s difficult to duck back into our shell after glimpsing a more expansive world outside. What a type of death that would be!
I watched a cicada nymph climb slowly up a tree trunk out in our front yard. Oh, I would have a chance to watch its transformation! Not knowing how long the process would take, I checked on it periodically. Its exoskeleton cracked open. It began to bulge out of the confines of its “skin.” But then it stopped. Somehow it lacked the strength to totally break free of its former being, but neither could it return. And so it died.
We can’t simply choose to stay in one place. The cicada nymph, whether from a sense of contentment or one of great fear, can’t choose to remain underground. Neither can we humans refrain from the process of transformation, despite how much we might like our consciousness (our self) to remain as it’s always been. To stay in one place is a type of death in and of itself. At the same time, though, attempting to transform our consciousness through some force of will seems a bit like furiously yanking at our bootstraps trying to pull ourselves up into the air.
So perhaps the answer to the koan spoken of above is simply to be with what is in every moment of our life. If we must live seventeen years of our life underground, then let us embrace our time in the earth – without regret, and without longing for a day when we might sing to the heavens. And as we crawl up into the light, let us neither denigrate our earthly roots nor our kin that still remain there. And if we should happen to lose our strength at some point along the way, let us simply be with the strength that we have – either in rest, or in our transition toward death. And as we open up our wings, let’s not be prideful of attainment. For opening our wings is simply that which is. And as we sing with all that exists, let’s lose all conceit regarding the separateness of our voice or our attainment of its quality. In doing so all notions of transformation will become moot.
Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank