A Glimpse of the Whole of Which We’re Part

I learned a new word this week. (This means it is going to be a good week. I love learning new words.)

Murmuration: a large group of birds, usually starlings, that all fly together or change direction together, or the act of birds doing this. (Cambridge Dictionary)

I came home from a long walk on the beach down to the bird sanctuary. This is a walk I have done countless times. It is breathtakingly beautiful and feels rather wild, especially given the fact that I am staying in a quite developed region of the New Jersey shore.

What I love most about this walk is that it is different every day. The shape of the point itself changes annually depending on the winter storms and tides. When you go every day, however, you begin to see smaller differences – the placement of tide pools, the texture of the sand, and the wildlife – horseshoe and fiddler crabs, many types of gulls, piping plovers and skimmers.

On this particular walk, as I paused to look over the dunes toward the inlet noticing that the bird sanctuary had been extended to the very tip of the point, an enormous flock of birds lifted off from the beach. There were hundreds of them.

As they flew up, they split in two. In slow motion each half arced up and then turned down and back toward each other – almost like silvery curls of a fountain. It was so graceful it looked choreographed.

I had never seen anything like it and was excited to describe it to my husband. He said matter-of -fact-ly, “Oh. You saw a murmuration.” (As if that was a word I had ever heard.)

The miracle of murmuration

It turns out that starlings create the most astonishing murmurations. Please take a minute to see for yourself in this video on NPR.com. What I watched was also pretty special:  a smaller, but exquisite murmuration of a flock of Black Skimmers that are unusual in this area.

It turns out that I am far from alone in feeling as if I’d seen something significant on that walk. When I Googled the word murmuration, I had to choose between scientific and spiritual meanings. Wanting to actually understand what I’d seen, I chose a scientific article and – boy! – am I glad I did. The spiritual meaning was right there waiting for me.

Starlings flock by the thousands. Watching them, as you move past awe, even non-scientist me eventually arrives at the question, “How do they know which way to turn?”

The question George Young (the scientist in the NPR article linked above) asked was much better considered than mine. He wanted to understand the birds’ “remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information.” If that doesn’t sound like precisely the situation that we humans find ourselves in right now, I don’t know what does.

How a flock holds together

Using mathematics and systems theory, Young and his team discovered that each starling keeps close tabs on only seven of its neighbors in the flock. Young goes on to explain something he calls the “role of seven” that allows the birds to participate in a dynamic system where the parts combine to make a whole with “emergent properties.”

Emergent properties, by the way, are when the whole has characteristics that the individual parts do not have. For example, saltiness is a property of salt, but not necessarily of the two elements that make up salt – sodium and chlorine.

Starlings, even a small group of seven starlings, cannot individually create the mesmerizing motion of murmuration. Only when they choose to participate in a whole that is greater than they can even begin to sense or understand, does the “magic” happen.

Doing our small part adds to the magical harmony of the whole

What does this mean to you and me? The “work” we do in the world – the way we love the “seven” people around us, the way we stick to our principles, the way we try to live our values, the way we can choose to make our faith a way of life rather than a way of thinking – all matters tremendously.

Imagine, one day, getting such a perspective that you could see the murmuration of which you and I are parts – the graceful artistry of the dance of Life. Humankind trying one by one, or seven by seven (like the starlings), or family by family, or community by community to make this world a better place.

The Skimmers I watched earlier this week make me 100% certain that we can do it. I hope the starlings convince you.

Are you looking for ways to connect your spiritual life to what you observe in the world around you? Give me a call and we can explore some practice to help.