The parable of the chipmunk—letting be, listening and seeing.

Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) (picture source)

A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


The Czech philosopher and writer Erazim Kohák (1933–2020) asks us to imagine this little scene (“The Embers and the Stars”, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 35):

A small group of us are gathered together in a wood on the edge of a clearing when a chipmunk suddenly darts across the open space before us. One of our number quickly identifies the creature and labels it for us: “a chipmunk” they say out loud. Another, knowing about such things, then explains the chipmunk’s behaviour to us in biological and physiological terms. Within a few minutes, a consensus has formed and it is easy to feel that somehow, and entirely unproblematically, we now know and understand what it is that we have just seen and experienced. 

Kohák uses this story to point out that “[w]hen two or three are gathered together, they seldom have the patience of letting be, of listening and seeing. All too eager to speak, they constitute in their consensus, a conventional image which they interpose between themselves and the living world around them.” And he concludes that, “[d]eafened by consensus, we lack the humility to watch the chipmunk, busy at its tasks, to let him present himself.” 

Kohák’s basic point here is that “the consensus of a crowd can constitute a conventional world far too readily, far too soon.”

Kohák realised that to see the chipmunk as it presents itself — or, indeed, to see anything else in this world as it presents itself — we need to find ways to suspend this consensus making by bracketing it off in some fashion. An obvious and important way to do this bracketing is actively to seek moments of solitude away from the crowd. 

But it is also true that we need to find ways of bracketing off an all too easy and swift consensus making whilst we are gathered together in small groups. The question is then, how, together, might we let things present themselves? How might we better collectively develop the patience of letting be, of listening and seeing?

One way is, of course, regularly and silently to spend time sitting alone together in a time of mindful meditation such as the one we share each week, becoming aware, paying attention and being mindful of what is coming and going just as it presents itself to us. 

Any community that can genuinely and regularly do this is likely to be one which has a reasonable chance of reaching the kind of gentle, ever-developing and ever-revisable consensus that can heal rather than harm and bless rather than curse this extraordinary world we share with all other things — not chipmunks only or, as the poet Gary Snyder observes, “plum blossoms and clouds, or lecturers and [honoured teachers],” but also all manner of other unexpected things including “chisels, bent nails, wheelbarrows, and squeaky doors” (“Blue Mountains Walking”, in “The Gary Snyder Reader”, Counterpoint, Washington, 1999, p. 206). All of these things, when they are truly allowed to present themselves to us, are, astonishingly, always-already teaching us how the world is and our place in it.