This is one of those quotes that can feel nonsensical at first; as though it means nothing at all. The truth is, it’s a story about the incompatible brain states of happiness and comparison. These sorts of clever sayings can provide a great deal of learning but they are so ubiquitous they are now seen more as declarations than learning tools.
In this case we must ask the question, what transpires? A caged bird sings, other birds gather and the caged bird ends up experiencing longing. Again we ask, why does the caged bird sing? Because it has a song in its heart. It is its nature. And why do the other birds gather? They are attracted by the song. So then why does the singing bird end up feeling tortured?
We as humans outside the cage know the bird’s original nature was outside and in a flock, but if the bird has lived in the cage for so long that it is now that bird’s known and comfortable home then it has no desires for great flights of distance or a sharing of life with a large flock of other birds. It knows its owners and its feeding schedule and how to entertain itself where it is. And yet it does not entirely lose its nature, the bird still sings.
When the other birds show up the bird can now recognise his own bars. It can now see a limitation that did not live as a possibility within the bird’s mind before birds existed outside the bars. Now the bird can compare its formerly happy existence to another existence it knows little about other than it includes more birds. That desire for the fresh and new is where the sensation of longing is formed. Previous to that the bird was happy because it had no desires and the same is true for all of us.
There is no point in chasing happiness. It is not somewhere else, it is not doing something else and it is not someone else. Happiness is a way of seeing things. You do it all the time but it’s such a clear-headed state that you don’t actually note what you’re doing. If you did you’d see that when you feel great you aren’t using your thoughts to create a you that is separate from something or someone desired, you’re just being-doing. You are a human being in motion. Suffering is when we forgo that to wish instead.
Go inside. Use these quotes to shape your meditations. What are your desires? What is your flock? Were you in a boring but decent marriage until you met someone else? Did you see someone’s renovation and want one of your own? Or how about if your friends roll around in their new car? It is the comparison that creates the desire which leads to the suffering. It’s why the Buddha said, “There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.”
Think back to when one of your cages was built and ask how and why that happened. What’s been brought to your attention that wasn’t a problem before you knew about it but now it is? Can you see that your life hadn’t changed only your idea of it had? Can you see that the difference in your ideas was that you suddenly felt separate from happiness? Suddenly you felt your happiness was created by something outside of yourself. Study that source of suffering closely and I guarantee you will have begun a very useful meditation.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.