This time of year in the lush, verdant Pacific Northwest, the salmon can be found spawning in many of the rivers. This morning we went for a walk in the forest and paused for a moment to witness this force of nature - something I honestly haven't taken the time to truly be with before.
While the male & female fish flipping & splashing about, laying & fertilizing eggs alongside the corpses & fish parts of their fellow salmon... they are also slowly rotting alive. The aroma is putrid. Their fins are visibly turning to mush. Their scales are falling off. They are decaying while they are mating - while they are creating life, they are on their way to death.
One fish in particular I saw laying motionless on its side on the edge of the river, nearly out of the water - a mash-potato off-white color, its shimmery scales were nearly all gone so I couldn't identify if it was male or female - and it was still breathing. Its gills and mouth were still opening and closing... it was still alive.
We watched another fish, after he had flipped & splashed about quite a lot upstream, suddenly release into the current and float down river, until he found himself near the bank of the river and rolled onto his side - the time for his death was imminent.
I always look to nature when I feel confusion about the human condition, or about our existence in general. Nature keeps it much simpler than we do. For instance, with what I just shared, how did that viscerally or mentally effect you? Did you cringe, or want to not read it? Did you want to save the suffering fish? Did you come up with some story about how it should be or what's wrong or what's right or how to change something for the better? Did it make you want to be vegetarian? Or do you feel numb to it all?
Our society is by-and-large wholly removed from death and the indisputable, intrinsic aspect of this cycle within our existence.
We have censored TV and media to not show this very real aspect of nature, of our existence. We have clothed and makeup-ed corpses to appear alive, on their deathbed. We have removed the decaying odor. We have removed sights of animal slaughter from the purchase of our grocery meats. We don't live in nature to regularly see the very real aspects of death, like I witnessed with the spawning salmon. It's simply something we might visit on occasion.
In India, and other cultures, the process of dying and death is woven into the daily lives of the living. Particularly the financially poorest of the world, or those who live closest in nature, do not/cannot shield themselves from death and decay. They live alongside it.
Perhaps it's easier in cultures who have belief systems that death doesn't equate to the end of existence. Or for those who live so deeply & intimately with nature they innately understand bodily death is just a form of rebirth.
I believe our society has inadvertently done us a disservice by removing this experience from our regular lives.
Without the ability to contemplate death in a very real way, it remains a mere concept to us humans. Something that seems primarily to exist in our minds. It remains something we shun, attempt to avoid, ignore, fear...
Because we do not face death, or live alongside death, we then inevitably create stories about what death and decay might be like. We create stories and pass them on to future generations. We inherited stories from our parents.
And we do not live our lives fully. We allow our fear, our grief, our suffering to take hold, run amok in our minds and merely exist in an anti-living way. Not dead... yet not fully alive.
We often exist more or less within the constructs of our stories - not in reality.
Going back to the salmon spawning for a moment... (as I said, I always defer to nature when I lack clarity), that mushy, soft, decaying fish that was still breathing on the side of the riverbed - my initial reaction was a piercing sensation in my heart and thinking something like, "Oh my god... it's got to be suffering so much!"
I imagine my reaction is not dissimilar to what many other people might feel/think... but then I took a moment to realize where I am, to realize what I am witnessing, and to see the whole picture.
Perhaps it is suffering... I actually don't know. And I'm not sure anyone could truly know, unless one was a fish in that experience.
But perhaps also, even if it were in some kind of pain, and prolonged suffering due to its slow decay... it likely doesn't have a story going on in its fish-head about its suffering, pain, decay and death (again I don't know for sure because I'm not a fish!).
I took this opportunity to really look at how I, and humanity at large, make very natural processes much worse by the stories we believe are true.
Almost every way we suffer as humans is made exponentially worse by the stories we tell ourselves, that we tell others, that we perpetuate as 'truth', and that we believe as 'reality'.
"Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless." -the Dalai Lama
It is a hard thing for the human who has a highly developed mind to step out of it, even for a moment. (Why I LOVE Embodiment so much! Because it facilitates this.)
One way I've found into this with a bit more ease, is with the sense of, "I don't know" - that will rock many peoples' pride & ego, it used to rock mine too, but it is an incredibly powerful doorway to reality.
When we can contemplate from a space of "I don't know", we are in a space of openness, receptivity, curiosity & wonder.
When we embrace "I don't know", we can release long-held beliefs and stories, even if only for a moment, and in that release, we have space to allow truth and reality to come into awareness.
Going back to the salmon spawning example... I realized that I don't know what that fish is experiencing (or perhaps thinking!). All that I know is what I can measurably see, and perhaps look up some science on what they might be experiencing - but even that is limited as it's through the limited human capacity of our ability to measure at our current level of understanding.
I can also know my reaction to what I witness.
And, if I'm really paying attention, I can know that my reaction does not equate to what this fish's experience is.
That is all.
My heart genuinely desires to alleviate pain and suffering from all living things, yet my desire doesn't change that it is true and it is a part of reality. My desire to alleviate suffering in the world does not mean there won't be suffering.
But one thing I am certain of - because I have had my own lived experience of this - is that we can reduce our own suffering by removing stories and mental programming that is not true. And one way we can do this through the doorway of "I don't know".
I don't know what that fish is feeling, thinking or experiencing as it takes its final breaths and decays and rots alive.
I don't know what it's like to be so intrinsically driven by nature to swim miles upstream, already dying myself, to create new life, alongside the already dead bodies of my fellow species.
What I witness here is something bigger... something whole. And within this wholistic view, I see that even with that fish (who may or may not be suffering while it dies), it has lived a full life. It has lived its purpose. It probably hasn't believe a bunch of bullsh*t stories about its purpose & life that inadvertently created extra suffering.
It is intimately a part of the whole cycle in which it doesn't question its role or direction. It simply, beautifully & tragically, exists. And then the cycle goes again, and again, and again...
The human mind is complex, creative, conniving and cunning. As are human relationships.
Release your stories. Embrace "I don't know".
When in doubt, look to nature - she is simple & true.
If you would like more support in embracing "I don't know" and releasing false stories, contact me. I love this work and am honored to support you.