A rest stop in South Dakota holds a little gift that will change what I think is possible with animals forever.
In 2010 my husband Brett and I had the bright idea that the most prudent way to get our family to a wedding in Minnesota would be to drive cross country. We thought that we could both be economical and turn the trip into an epic homeschooler’s adventure by stopping at landmarks like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, ending the trip at our summer camping spot in Beaver, Utah with my parents before heading home. We mapped our route and headed off with ridiculously optimistic expectations.
The trip was epic, to say the least. One needs little imagination to envision the calamities that might await two adventurous and well-meaning parents with an SUV packed to the gills with luggage and kids smashed in like sardines. Before we even arrived at the wedding, we lost my son Ashton’s Heely shoe in a labyrinth of corn fields during a potty stop. Why had I only packed the child one set of decent shoes for a two-week trip? And how was the shoe still in the road waiting for us after 45 minutes of backtracking?!? I also left Brett’s suit for the wedding in a perfectly packed luggage bag, at home, in our closet, 3 days drive away.
Somewhere close to Mount Rushmore, the computer in my car showed that we had a major transmission failure when we were packed to take off at 6 AM. We were hours, or maybe days from a Land Rover dealership (or anyone who had ever seen a Land Rover for that matter), but were saved when we discovered that it was really just a battery problem. My daughter Alexis also had an altercation with an ATV during this trip that could have ended with an ER visit or worse instead of just revised rules of operation. Woven between these moments of resistance though, were some of the most beautiful, life-changing moments of this season of our lives. I continue to notice that life requires me to overcome obstacles with integrity before some amazing grace pours in.
We call this work of art Geyser with Brooding Teenager
That’s a mini buffalo nursing!!
Everyone has different desires and expectations for what makes a road trip excellent. Some people want to see rich history or meet new people. Some want to eat great local food. I like all of this a LOT, but what I want most is to see wildlife! This trek was brimming with close encounters. After visiting Yellowstone National Park, my animal interaction tank felt full to bursting like the geysers we had marveled at there. We’d seen creatures of every kind who were quite relaxed with humans and so abundant that it was like Disneyland for nature lovers.
Little did I know that something so special was still waiting for me at a rest stop in South Dakota. After driving all night to make our way to Utah and meet up with my parents for the last leg of the trip on-time, Brett pulled off the highway for me and our waking kids to stretch our legs (and pee!). There were dew covered hummingbird feeders scattered around this mountainside rest stop and it was very early so the birds were coming out for their first sips of nectar. There were just swarms of them! The kids and I ran to stand in the middle of the frenzy even in our morning haze.
Brett, always encouraging me to up the ante where animals are involved, silently removed a feeder from its hook and put it in my hand, positioning my fingers above the tiny perches. Inside, I was momentarily hesitant thinking I might be breaking a rule of some kind. But before I could protest, there was a hummingbird eating breakfast from my finger. The kids gathered around and also held feeders, feeling the vibration of wings by their cheeks and tiny claws on their thumbs and forefingers. We stayed at this rest stop for at least an hour taking pictures and drinking in the awe. I’m pretty sure I didn’t need my morning coffee that day. I was buzzing all on my own.
I think Brett and I should publish a coffee table book called “The Crazy Faces Of Jessica Bingaman When She Plays With Birds”
When we got home from our great, cross-country expedition, ripe with lessons and wild nature experiences, I became obsessed with the idea of getting hummingbirds to come to my balcony and yard to eat. Brett helped me get feeders set up all over the yard and the whole space turned into a hummingbird haven for a long season of our life. It took a tremendous amount of work to keep the feeders clean and full, but like anything that we have an internal drive to do, it nearly always felt like pure joy to keep it all going.
Ashton is a calm, cool, collected bird master.
Alexis gets her expressions from her mother.
Audree uses an Audubon app to call birds to the balcony. This works!
At first, we just sat in awe of the tiny bird’s beauty when they came to visit. We looked for personalities in the “regulars” and named them. Scruffy was a beat up, older, magenta headed Anna’s that commanded the yard. He tried with all of his tiny might to keep the territory clear of other birds. Blueberry, whose gorget sparkled deep violet, was a little Costa’s male that was much more gentle. He had no natural fear of us, knowing that he could speed away at even the slightest hint of danger. He would sit on the feeder and go back and forth between eating and looking at us with curiosity, tipping his head from side to side like he was solving a complicated puzzle.
Eventually, the bird word got out that there was abundant food at Casa Bingaman, and the numbers of visitors skyrocketed. Every evening that we were home, I sat with Brett and the kids in complete stillness as we watched them come for their last feedings before sundown. This time we spent felt so important and even reverent because of the awe it produced in all of us. We began to make it a priority every single day.
I later learned that we weren’t just craving the rejuvenation and wonder that was created by these magical evenings, but there was actually something happening to our brains in this state of stillness. And it wasn’t just happening to one of us. We were sitting each night together, syncing up on the very same joyful, wondrous wavelength of rapture!
Awe finds all of us and can come from an endless variety of sources. As I’m sure you have already gathered, these moments are often fueled by animal encounters for me but I also love delicious food, music, wild places, and reading other’s inspired work. You surely have felt awe many times singing a favorite song in church or in front of the mirror as a kid, watching the full moon rise over a mountain horizon, or reading a poem that seemed like it was written just for you. Time stops, attention to the physical world around you ceases, and rapture takes over. Sometimes it’s punctuated by getting the chills or truth bumps. Then at some point, you find yourself back in your body, feet on the ground thinking, “Where am I”?
Biochemically, the brain creates a surge of nitric oxide and a chain reaction of other feel-good hormones whenever we are overtaken by rapture. This produces an incredible sense of well being, wonder, and delicious relaxation that is healing medicine for a human. Once it’s released into the system, nitric oxide works with anticoagulants in the blood, increasing its flow, signaling white blood cells to fight infection, balancing neurotransmitter levels in the brain, reducing cellular inflammation and even preventing heart attacks and strokes. Our urge to satiate this craving was more than just looking for a fun time! We were under the spell of beautiful brain chemistry which was creating deeply rutted neural pathways to help us learn to purposefully create awe in the future, healing our bodies and minds with nature.
All of this nightly hummingbird observation was pure bliss, but I always had this little voice reminding me that they ate from my hand on our trip and I wanted a redo of that. Audree and I tried quite a few times but our birds seemed a bit more skittish than the ones we’d first met. We could get very close to the feeders where they would inspect us, eating right within reach, but never perch on our hands.
One blustery, lazy afternoon I resolved to figure out how to get them to sit on my finger until it worked. I took all of the feeders down and hid them away so that the one I held was the only possible option for food. The birds would come to investigate but then look me in the face and zip away. Moments later, they’d be back to see if the crazy lady had reassembled their nectar buffet. They just weren’t falling for it.
This went on for some time. They’d fly up and I’d think, “Please just eat on my hand… please!” As my arms started aching, my brain started problem-solving. Physical stress is often the impetus for a new thought. I questioned, “What is the element keeping them from just sitting down?” It occurred to me to try changing my internal dialog from “please” to “thank you”.
Instead of thinking “Please, oh please sit on my finger” when they buzzed up I’d purposefully think “Thank you for sitting on my finger”, wondering if I could cultivate the outcome that I desired before it happened with more inviting thoughts. Sure enough, it was only seconds until Scruffy perched on my thumb, drinking up his lunch. I was elated! Could their willingness to light on my hand be that directly tied to my own thoughts and the messages my body emitted?
Scruffy wonders if he can trust the freezing bird lady enough to sit down for a sip of nectar.
I ran inside and got Ashton and my daughter Audree to help me experiment with what I’d discovered. I gave them each a feeder to hold and asked them to think and try to feel the word love or welcome in their hearts and bodies to see if the birds would feed. Within just a few minutes, they did. Then I asked them to imagine and feel the word want or need. The birds zipped around the feeders but wouldn’t stop to eat. We tried other feeling states like contentment, fear, desire, and lack. Sure enough, the negative feelings repelled the birds, and the positive ones attracted them. We sat outside and played with the experiment until our fingers were freezing off, giggling with excitement that we’d figured out the puzzle.
Success! Those tiny feet feel awesome.
The dramatically obvious results of our little hand feeding experiment were the perfect material for contemplation at this particular stage of my personal development. Later, I’d discern that all of these animal lessons always came to me perfectly timed containing a divine direction manual that I could learn to read based on each animal’s meaning historically and by observing their behavior.
Once I learned to watch and listen closely, animals became more than a simple fascination. Instead, they began to help me work to heal old patterns and move through some furiously intense times in the coming years. At this moment though, all I knew is that I had physically been able to act out a concept that I’d previously understood but had never effectively integrated.
“External circumstances do not create feeling states, feeling states create external circumstances”.
I have always been a highly sensitive, feeling, loving, grieving, empathetic little human! I am never just happy, but elated, never just sad, but devastated. My emotions don’t naturally hang out near the center where balance is found. I also could always feel the mood of the people around me with reliable accuracy. I knew exactly what state my parents were in when I hopped in the car each day after school or the mood of my co-workers as they walked through the door to begin a shift.
This empathetic perception gives me tremendous insight and makes me a sensitive parent and friend but also has a troubling downside. Without a mature understanding of it, I could allow myself to be too easily influenced by others emotions. If one of my friends was sad or upset, my mood synced right up with theirs, seemingly without my consent. Equally, if a close friend was feeling excited or my family was buzzed about some future fun we were planning, I found myself surfing on good feeling waves. I spent my teenage and early adult years stuck on a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, tossed around by whatever was going on with those I loved or even whomever I chatted with in a grocery store line.
By the time I found myself feeding these hummingbirds out on my balcony, I had a nearly desperate desire to be more in charge of my internal ecosystem. I grew up surrounded by adults trying to effectively use positive mental attitude principles and read people like Wayne Dyer and my beloved Christiane Northrup’s writing about staying present and in love and gratitude as a young mother. It’s not that I had a lack of good upbringing or material for growth to construct a balanced internal life. I just struggled intensely with putting it all to use while adulting. By now, I yearned to find a way to stay more centered without giving up my effervescence in the process. I knew if I could solve the puzzle of how to master my emotional states it would stabilize my daily living and also create and attract better future experiences.
But what I knew just made me feel like I was going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I constantly watched myself roll down into the pit of anxiety, or depression, or fear, all the while knowing I was the only one who could stop it. When I was on the joy upswing, it was contrasted by the reality that it would soon pass and I’d be cast back into my internal struggle as soon as the momentary high ended. I tried cognitive/behavioral techniques like the Sedona Method, read voraciously about the mind-body connection, and tried till I sweat to take charge of my feeling states with no lasting success. I understood that there was no magic formula that an author or scientist had recorded that I could follow for instant healing. What clicked during that moment on the balcony is that I was able to intentionally control and create my desired experience by feeling it first, instead of waiting or begging for it to come to me, for the very first time.
Hummingbirds are excellent kindergarten teachers because we can practice these concepts completely unattached to the outcome. The kids and I easily found this flow because there was no real risk. The worst thing that could have happened inside of our experiment was that they wouldn’t sit to feed; certainly not a life or death scenario.
This experience created a brand new neural pathway in my brain which I would continue to work with for years. Animals were always willing to help! The effort created so much fun in me and my family’s life that it didn’t feel like therapy, but ultimately it would be the exact the medicine I needed to master my own energy, healing the fear, anxiety, and sadness I’d had running the show in my head.
The hummingbird kindergarten lesson is that grasping, begging, feelings create resistance to what we want and need and therefore repel the very solutions to difficulties that we are trying to create. Just like the “Little Engine That Could” had to change his mantra from “I think I can” to “I know I can” to make it up the hill, these little, winged gems teach me to master internal dialog and begin to form what I desire from knowing to being.
The children survived! Even the ATV scrapes were evidence of tremendous gifts.