City of Souls

~  City of Souls  ~

Symmetrical Photograph   "City of Souls"  

Especially in the springtime I love watching the birds swooping into the River Birch tree behind our house.  After they perch themselves on the branches and become still for a moment . . .  they begin singing their songs to the universe.  The songs of birds open my heart.

In the spring I can see their dark forms silhouetted against the sky in ever changing constellations.  This year (early May, 2016) I felt a strong urge to make a symmetrical photograph of the birds in the tree.  I knew I had a limited time to accomplish this task--before the young leaves grow to their full size and hide the birds from my sight.

The tree looks especially beautiful this time of year with its little hints of young green leaves, its golden catkins hanging down from the limbs, and of course the birds who are resting for a while on the branches before whirling off again into space.

Birch Tree Catkins and Young Spring Leaves

For over a week I tried making a satisfactory photograph with which I could construct a symmetrical image, but every time I walked toward the window with my camera the birds would fly away.  Finally, one cloudy morning several birds collected on the tree and became very still . . . as if they were waiting for me to get my camera and take their photograph.  Just as I snapped the shutter, a Crow--which had been perched near the top of the tree next another, much smaller bird--opened its wings and flew off!

Of course that image became the source photograph with which I constructed the symmetrical image at the top of this page.  Synchronistically, just after making the photograph I read a talk by my meditation teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in which she tells the story from the Upanishads of two birds in a tree; one is sitting still, watching, as the other one is busy doing things.  Gurumayi said the birds represent the individual soul and the supreme soul:

It isn't that those two birds have to live differently forever.   
The supreme soul and the individual soul have to merge.  
The two birds have to become one. . . And as the two  
birds merge into each other, there is just one thing 
left, and that is nothingness, like the space 
 inside the tiny seed that gives rise  
to an enormous tree.  
Darshan magazine, issue #152   

This project is a meditation on the "City of Souls" symmetrical photograph, and Gurumayi's teachings about the two birds in the tree, and the space inside a seed.  (See my Addendum at the bottom of this page for the full text from Gururmayi's teaching about the two birds in the tree.)

When I contemplate the "City of Souls" photograph in the resonance of Gurumayi's grace-filled teachings, my mind becomes quiet; I enter a mode of being that is similar to a meditative state.  The two birds at the top of the tree--the one sitting still in the tree, watching, the other with its wings outstretched, flying away--become suspended together in time, just as the tree itself is suspended in space.  The photograph is a visual symbol for the time-beyond-time, the place beyond space, the realm of the Soul between sense perception and intellect where the Truth of the Oneness of Being is unveiled.


Know that . . .  Soul can flame 
like the feather of a bird.
Grow into your own 
plumage, brightly, 
so that any tree 
is a 
marvelous city.
James Applewhite,  excerpts 
from Prayer for My Son

The City of Souls
I looked up the word "Bird" in The Book of Symbols : Reflections On Archetypal Images and found the excerpt from James Applewhite's poem at the beginning of a short essay about the archetypal nature of birds.  For example, the authors write about the bird as a "symbol for the soul," as the "breath of the world" and as the "world soul hidden in matter."  They also mention how the Plains Indians compared the sacred circle of a bird nest to their own tepee where, according to Black Elk, "the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children."

But I kept returning to Applewhite's poem.  I found his images of the soul as a flaming feather, of growing into one's own "plumage," quite evocative.  Most fascinating to me was his image of the tree as a "marvelous city" . . .  a "city" of birds, and thus a city of "souls."  His images corresponded to my photograph and they awakened a memory of something I had read recently in the writings of Henry Corbin.

Corbin's book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth is an exploration--in amazing scholarly detail--of the ancient, traditional, sacred knowledge of Mazdean and Shi'ite Iran.  There is one chapter in which he writes about "mystical cities of light," and in particular one city named Hurqalya which is "located" in the celestial "Earth of the Emerald Cities."  Hurqalya is also a "cosmic mountain," and a "celestial vault" that overhangs our earthly habitat.  The minerals in the soil of the mountain and in the walls of the city "secrete their own light" which, says Corbin, is blue, but to our vision is perceived as green.

Hurqalya is yet another manifestation of what Corbin terms the "Imaginal world," the Interworld of celestial souls endowed with "Active Imagination."  This is the in-between world--the inner realm--of archetype Images; a realm of being suspended between the world of sense perceptions (the world of "fleeting shadows") and the world of the Intellect.  For Corbin and his beloved Sufi mystic-scholar Ibn 'Arabi (b.1240, Spain), the Imaginal world is the creative "Source of Life at the psycho-cosmic center."  It is within this Interworld of "archetypal Images" that corresponding parts of both the sensible world and the Intelligible world are united, merged into each other.

Similarly, it is within the center-point of my symmetrical "City of Souls" photograph that the four mirroring source images conjoin into One.  And it is in this center space, this "psycho-cosmic center," where the sitting bird and the flying bird merge into each other and become One in the archetypal-pictorial form of a photograph that functions for me as a symbol.

When a photograph is functioning for me as a true, living symbol, I do not "know" its meaning in an intellectual sense.  Rather, an intuitive understanding arises spontaneously based in the timeless-spaceless realm of the Unity of Being; in other words, in the realm of the Heart, the source of all "sacred knowledge."  This kind of "knowing" or understanding is beyond intellect, beyond sense perception, beyond what's sayable.

The Flight of Birds
As this project unfolded I could not help but remember another story of birds: Mantiq-ut-Tayr is considered a masterpiece of Sufi literature written in 1177 by the Persian Farid al-din 'Attar.  It's a poem of longing that tells in 4,458 verses of a journey taken by a group of 30 birds, let by a colorful bird with a majestic crown of feathers known as a hoope.  The Poem is an allegory about a Sufi master leading his pupils to the knowledge of the Divine Truth.  

Below I am presenting a photograph, some text, and a poem by the Sufi poet-saint Rumi that were first published in the second chapter of my 2011-13 project "An Imaginary Book."  The title of the chapter is Celestial Gardens : Symmetrical Reflections of Paradisal Unity.  click here    


              We came whirling
               out of nothingness
               like dust

               the stars made a circle
               and in the middle
               we dance

               the wheel of heaven
               circles God
               like a mill . . .

               and it is only God
               circling Himself 


 Celestial Gardens #2  ("The Flight of Birds to Union")  double-page illumination 

The great Islamic scholar Seyyed H Nasr writes about Mantiq-ut-Tayr in his book Islamic Art and Spirituality.  The title Mantiq-ut-Tayr can be literally translated variously as "the language" or "the speech" or "the song" of birds.  Nasr's essay entitled "The Flight of Birds to Union" begins with the following statement:

"All those who are not completely at home in this world of fleeting shadows and who yearn for their origin in the Paradisal Abode belong to the family of birds, for their soul possesses wings no matter how inexperienced they might be in actually flying toward the space of Divine Presence."

Shortly after this introductory passage he then writes about the symbolic-archetypal nature of the wings of birds:  "they symbolize directly the archetypal reality of flight, and of ascension in opposition to all the debasing and downgrading forces of this world, leading finally to escape from the confinement of earthly limitation." 




~  Merging With the Song of Birds  ~  

What happens when you hear a bird sing?
What happens when you hear the sound of the wind?
What happens when you watch the flames in a fire?
What do they teach? What do they say?
There are no words that explain
what they say, that explains what they sing.
But deep within we feel that connection, deep within we know something.
The reason we feel that connection, the reason we have the experience
of knowing, is that we merge into the song, we merge into the 
sound of the wind, we merge into the flames in the fire.
We don't need anybody's explanation.  We
just know; that connection is just there.
How does this merging take place?
It takes place through love, the
absolute love that exists
within all of us.

Gurumayi Chidvilasananda
from a talk published
in Darshan #105

Singing "Requiem for the Living"
It's mid May, and I have just recently sung--with 90 other members of the Finger Lakes Chorale--a wonderful new composition entitled Requiem for the Living by Dan Forrest.  It was for me, and I know for many others in the Chorale, a deeply moving, heart opening experience.  Surprisingly the music, and my experience of singing it, has become part of my meditation on the "City of Souls" symmetrical photograph.

The Chorale, directed by Dennis Maxfield, consists of all kinds of people: students and grandparents, amateurs and professionals, housewives and businessmen, etc.   I am not a trained musician, and I am certainly not an accomplished singer, but I love music and love the experience of being inside the creative process of making music, a process that inevitably takes me into the very center of the composition we are singing.  This center-space of the music is the place where I merge with the sounds of all the voices around me; it's the place where singers, musicians, conductor and audience become united in One Voice.  We transcend our differences and separateness and become--as it were--a "flock of soaring birds" on a musical journey together into the Unity of Being.  Counter-intuitively, this state of being is pervaded by a stillness and a peace that is a kind of meditative state . . . in which the mind comes to rest.  Indeed, Dan Forest wrote in an introductory statement for his Requiem for the Living:

Overall, the work is a prayer for rest ("Requiem"), for the living as much as for the deceased.  It's a "grant US rest", even more that a "grant THEM rest." ~  The final movement, Lux Aeterna, is simply an arrival at rest and peace, not just in the "eternal light" . . .  but even here and now, for us, the living, on earth.

A deep feeling of love, longing and devotion is at the heart of the Requiem for the Living, and when I fully embraced this graceful music, my heart opened to it and I experienced a kind of "death" myself as I was singing it.  That is to say, my individual voice, and my sense of being an individual person dissolved into the music and all the other voices surrounding me.  When this merging occurred I could sense a presence in the center of my being emerge into a much more palpable awareness. Gurumayi teaches that this is the experience of the Heart, the abode of love, the abode of the supreme Soul.  It's as if a door has been opened, revealing the most secret of hidden treasures within.


The Trickster 
Our back yard is visited by many kinds of birds, including Golden Finches, Blue Birds, Cardinals, Sparrows, Robins, Blue Jays, Red winged Black Birds and Crows.  They make for quite an amazing "concert" of bird song.  They come to feast on the seeds we place in feeders on the borderline that conjoins our back yard with the beautiful meadow beyond.  After eating some seeds many of the birds fly up into the birch tree to congregate, to rest, and to sing their songs.  But, clearly they are also watching for an opening, the right moment when they can descend once again to the feeders.

The Crow is a most fascinating bird.  It's a black, numinous, and tricky bird.  In The Book of Symbols : Reflections On Archetypal Images, the authors refer to the Crow as a "dark angel" and "a minister of mysteries."  They write: "The crow or raven daemon, perched in our psyches, open doors, steal treasures for us from hidden places . . . "

And they write: "We never grasp the full measure of the birds.  They subvert our attempts to do so, just as the tricksters, shamans, magicians and culture heroes they embody in folklore and myth subvert our fondest notions of human superiority, put in question what constitutes the reality of sacred and profane, and rearrange our moral landscape."

In my "City of Souls" photograph, it is the Crow that is held suspended in flight as if it were caught frozen in the act of trying to escape its limited world for another far away.  When I see this image of the bird with its wings spread wide, I am reminded of a story I once read somewhere long ago--perhaps it was a folktale--that continues to haunt me to this very day.  It goes something like this:  A flock of crows descended upon the roof of a house.  Inside the house someone was deathly sick.  The birds rested on the rooftop throughout the day and throughout the night.  Mysteriously, in the morning, after the person inside the house died, the birds flew away.

The Catkins 
After I made the "City of Souls" photograph and began working on this project, I decided to make some close-up photographs of the golden, hanging catkins--those long, tightly clustered, cylindrical flower forms which contain the tiny seeds which give rise to any number of large birch trees.  I used one of those catkin photographs as a source image with which I created the symmetrical photograph below:

Symmetrical Photograph   "One Enormous Bird"

When I am in the process of contemplating an important photograph I often make other, new photographs that are in some way associated with that image.  This is, I believe, a visual form of meditation on the initiating image, a spontaneous, intuitive way of extending or deepening my understanding of--in this case--the "City of Souls" photograph.  Regarding the numinous symmetrical image of the catkins, above:  when I first let my imagination have free reign with it, the image appeared to me to be two large crows frozen in flight, with their wings spread wide.  The two birds seemed to be confronting each other, or perhaps communicating with each other in some non-verbal, perhaps telepathic way.

More recently, however, my perception of the image has shifted, and I see it in a surprisingly different way.  Now, there is only one enormous "bird," its gigantic dark wings flapping as it flies through the air.  The bird's "body" is nothing but vast, luminous, round space.  ~~  The two birds have become One.

And as the two birds merge into each other, 
there is just one thing left, and that is nothingness, 
like the space inside the tiny seed that gives rise to an enormous tree.

Gurumayi Chivilasanda

see below
"Two Birds In A Tree"


~  Addendum  ~
Stories, Teachings and Background Information    
about the Upanishads

Two Birds In A Tree

The Upanishads
The Hidden Place
The Heart
Inside a Seed
The Seed of the Universe


Two Birds In A Tree   
Gurumayi often gives talks in which she comments on selected teachings from the Upanishads.  For example, in one such talk she tells the story, from the Svetasvatara Upanisad, of two birds in a tree:

One bird enjoys the fruit of the tree, and the other bird watches the first bird eating the fruit.  Who are these birds?  They are the supreme soul and the individual soul.  As individual souls, we live in this world through our senses.  Through our eyes, we watch.  Through our ears, we hear; through our mouth, we speak; through our nose, we smell; through our hands, we touch; through our legs, we walk, and so on. 

All the while the supreme soul just witnesses, just watches, just observes.  It is to attain this state of becoming a witness that we meditate.  Then we can live in this world, not through our senses but through the dristi of Shiva; through the real eye, through the real vision, through the real attitude.

In meditation the senses go to sleep, and that is when you experience the Witness, the observer.  When you experience the Witness, how do you know that you are experiencing it? If you say that you are, then you are not the Witness.  They say, nihsabdam brahma: the Absolute is without sound; the Absolute is completely still. . . There is an inner quietness.  When that takes place, know that Brahman is within you, God is within you; you have acquired Witness-consciousness.  

Lets go back to those two birds in the tree.  One bird is eating the fruit and the other one is watching.  It isn't that those two birds have to live differently forever.  The supreme soul and the individual soul have to merge.  It is for this merging that we meditate, it is for this merging that we chant, it is for this merging that we follow the spiritual path.  

The supreme soul must merge into the individual soul, and the individual soul into the supreme soul.  The two birds have to become one.  The Witness stays as it is, and the enjoyer of the fruit stays as it is, and yet in the inner realm they merge.  And as the two birds merge into each other, there is just one thing left, and that is nothingness, like the space inside the tiny seed that gives rise to an enormous tree.  This nothingness in the seed is beyond the beyond the beyond.  And this beyond the beyond is the ultimate devotion, the ultimate love.

This love is free from the senses, free from our actions.  This love is unconditional.  This love is what we yearn for, what we long for.  When it takes up permanent residence within us, then we live a life of truth.    note: this text was published in Darshan magazine, issue #152


The Upanishads
The Upanishads are collections of holy texts, spiritual teachings from ancient India which reveal and preserve the eternal, sacred truths of Vedic Hinduism.  According to Dr. William Mahony, a professor of religion, and a student of the Siddha Yoga Path, there are well over one hundred Upanishads which were composed by 200 B.C., and some were composed as early as 500 B.C. or earlier.  He says the Upanishads are the earliest texts in which we learn of the single, divine Self that is the source and sustainer of the whole universe, the divine presence which dwells deep within each and every created thing.

In an interview with Dr. Mahony, published in a monthly Siddha Yoga publication, Darshan, #152, he explains the four foundational teachings of the Upanishads: 

1.  The whole world is Brahman.  Everything that exists finds its origin, essence, and fulfillment in the single, ultimate reality that is Brahman.

2.  Truly the Brahman is this Atman.  The eternal Self dwelling deep within the heart is identical to the Absolute that is present in all things.

3.  I am Brahman.  The divine power and Truth that give rise to and support the whole universe are identical to one's very deepest self, the Atman.  The "I" here refers to the Atman, which is identical to Brahman.

4.  Tat Tvam Asi: "Thou Art That"  The sublime essence of our deepest Self is identical to the sublime essence of the universe as a whole.

The Hidden Place
Dr. Mahony then reads to the interviewer the following passage from the Subala Upanisad on the mystery of the single divine presence that dwells, hidden, within all things:

In this hidden place within the body
there lies the eternal one.  The earth is
his body; he moves in the earth, but 
the earth knows him not.  The waters
are his body; he moves in the waters,
but the waters know know him not.  Light
is his body; he moves in light, but the
light knows him not.  He alone is the
indwelling spirit within all beings, free
from all stain, the One, the divine, the 
wise Self, the incomprehensible form,
radiant, autonomous, pure, residing in
this hidden place, immortal, shining 
with bliss.

The Heart

The Upanishads generally locate this "hidden place" within the heart, says Dr. Mahony.  The heart is therefore the abode of the divine Self; the heart contains all Truths and embraces all things:

. . . the space of this universe, 
both heaven and earth, 
fire and air, sun and moon, 
lightning and stars . . .

In general the Upanishads teach that the best way to reveal all that is hidden in the heart, to know the divine Self, is through turning within, that is to say,  through the practice of meditation, and sitting at the feet of a true teacheror sadhguru.

Inside a Seed 
In the Chandogya Upanisad there is the story of a student named Shvetaketu who is having a hard time understanding the nature of the single, essential Self that is his own true nature and which dwells, hidden, within all the things of the universe.  He asks his teacher, the enlightened sage Uddalka, for a lesson that might help him understand this greatest of mysteries.

The sage has his student crack open a tiny seed from a huge banyan tree.  ~  The student says he sees nothing.

The teacher tells his student:
Believe me, my dear, that subtle essence that you do not see: truly, from that very essence this great banyan tree exists!  ~  This whole world has a subtle essence for its self.  That is what is really real. That is the Self.  [And then he tells Shvetaketu] You are that! 

Upon hearing this, Shvetaketu has an "Aha" epiphany.   He has received the compassionate gift of his enlightened teacher's grace, and his heart "cracks open" releasing deeply felt intuitive understanding of the invisible secret, the hidden place within.    Darshan, issue #152 

The Seed of the Universe    

Gurumayi comments on the story above from the Upanisad with the following words:
What is the seed of the universe?  . . .  It's not something that is located in one place or another.  The seed of the universe is the soul.  It is the Self.  The sages have experienced it as a tiny Blue Pearl, a tiny dot.  Sometimes it looks like a star and sometimes like a pinpoint.  It's very very small.    Sometimes you don't even notice it even though it flashes before your eyes.  ~  The blue dot is very tiny yet very very powerful.  It has the power to create the universe. . . Sometimes people experience it as a light, either a soothing light or a burning light.  ~  Not just the earth made of clay, but the entire universe, all the galaxies, all the planets, and all the stars. . . have manifested from one tiny seed.   from a talk by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, published in Darshan #102   


This project was published and posted 
on my Welcome Page in the 
"Recently Added" section
June 1, 2016


Related Links & Projects:

Siddha Yoga Path

The Sacred Art Projects List    
Here is the list of the projects that belong together under the sacred art category.  The projects are listed from the most recent at the top to the initiating project "An Imaginary Book" of 2011-13 at the bottom: 

There Is No Thing to Know   2016  
The Blue Pearl   2016
The Center of Being   2016   
Field of Vision   2015  
As Above, So Below ~ Mirror in the Temple   2015  
Photography and Yoga   2015  
Snow : Photographs from the Silver World   2015  
The Photograph as ICON   2015  
The Angels   2014 
The Space Between Color and Black&White   2014  
The Creative Process   2014  
"An Imaginary Book"   2011-13

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.