It’s 5 a.m.—far earlier than I usually wake—but the birds are at it again. It is impossible to sleep. I hear a chorus of voices singing me awake. So, it’s time to gökotta―rise early to appreciate the singing of birds.
Admittedly, I have a complicated relationship with birds—ever since my high school boyfriend’s parrot got stuck in my bright blue punk-rock bangs, squawking and flapping. And then there was that other guy I fancied—the birder—whose exuberance for binoculars and journaling roused a fit of fierce jealousy in me. Yet, a strange sort of healing has appeared recently as I find myself curiously drawn to the flurry of activity in our wooded yard.
As I began this practice, I first became frustrated. Beyond the easily identifiable cardinal, blue jay, and woodpecker, I was befuddled by all the other little flying bodies. Illustrated bird books only discourage me more, as the winged ones rarely stayed still long enough to be classified.
In her book The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman describes rising in the dark wee hours with her father to gökotta. As they traversed the woods along the Potomac River, he urged her to go beyond identifying birds simply by their GISS—general impression, size, and shape—to notice actions and behaviors.
Voila! Defined in my spiritual vernacular, gökotta is mindfulness with birds.
How It Works
- Upon waking, silently make some coffee or tea.
- Move outside, finding a comfortable location to sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Breathe in and out naturally, focusing your ears rather than your eyes.
- Sit quietly, sipping while you observe the sounds of the winged ones.
- As you hear a bird sound, tune in to the direction where it originated. Notice the repeat patterns or the interactions between different beings.
- Avoid judging or questioning anything. Just observe.
- If you notice that your mind has wandered to think about your to-do list, gently pull yourself back to the sound of the birds. Avoid judging the wandering. It’s totally normal. Our minds are made to think, and they will think—around 50,000 thoughts a day! Just direct yourself back to the sounds around you.
- After you’ve been sitting for a while, you may hear sounds around you more distinctly; you may feel the temperature (or weather) more precisely; your awareness may sharpen. Simply notice any changes in how you might feel.
- Return to your day slowly. When you are done, avoid jumping up quickly to check your texts or social feed. Move as if your body is on half-speed, easing into activity slowly and deliberately.
On the Flip Side
- Late-rising sleep lovers: Open the windows before bedtime. Upon waking, lie in bed for 10 to 15 minutes tuning into the sounds of birds (or other critters!) starting their days.
- Birdless locales: Search “bird sounds” or “bird meditation” on YouTube to create a morning playlist. After waking, spend a few minutes sitting silently listening to your favorites.
- Get techy: Download Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdNET app for your phone. Simply enter your ZIP code; record your environment; and the app will provide suggestions for what you hear, as well as tips about their lifestyle.
- For the inquisitive: Check out The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker or Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul.
Embracing Gökotta With Your Flock
Swedish author Linnea Dunne describes the early origins of gökotta in her book, Good Mornings: Morning Rituals for Wellness, Peace and Purpose:
“Imagine the villagers in the leafy localities of the hilly county of Dalarna gathering in the woods on the Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) and during the build-up to midsummer. Together the villagers would listen to the first of the morning’s birdsong, in particular the cuckoo.”
(Dunne explains that gök means cuckoo and otta means early morning, hence gökotta is literally “early morning cuckoo.”) Villagers would often linger, staying for a picnic.
I’ve heard it said that “birds of a feather flock together.” For birds, flocks provide safety and companionship. How might you share this practice with your spiritual community, neighbors, or friends? What might it be like to start the day with others in silence, listening to your shared environment? Or perhaps, rally your friends in different areas to gökotta one day each week, and then gather afterward on a video chat to reflect on the similarities and differences of your experiences. My cats are almost always willing to gökotta—from a window for the birds’ sake, of course. In fact, many mornings, Buba-ji and Deacon awake well ahead of me to get a head start.
It’s time to stop using “going cuckoo” as our slang for going crazy. Instead, “going gökotta” restores respect for our feathered friends while providing us two-leggeds a way to ease into the day refreshed and delighted.
- by Sarah Bowen