Nothingness. Absolutely nothingness. My senses are disconnected as if a switch had been thrown. My eyes see only black, and no breeze blows over my skin. It is so quiet that I strain to hear even my heartbeat in my ears. Yet, I do sense a presence every once in awhile. It rushes past my head, and banks away just short of my face. Standing in this foreign world, I feel as if I entered another state of existence. An existence that lies somewhere between the living world and an unknown future existence.
With click of a button, light beams from the headlamp, and a more knowable world rushes back to the fore. The grand hall where I stand comes into focus. Smooth limestone walls and a high ceiling with stalactites weighing tons delicately dangle. The place seems to be lifeless at first glance, but nothing could be further from the truth.
What had brought me into this cavern was the Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, a species that I have, up to this point, only managed to catch a handful of the most fleeting of glimpses. This all changed on this day. I was literally surrounded by the creatures. A large maternal colony clung together in cool hollow about 20 feet overhead, and several were careening in the air around me. This colony was full of pups that are almost the same size as the adults. My camera has fired off a precious few shots as I do not want to disturb the colony in any way. The colony is stirring as the sun is descending behind the western horizon. They are preparing to exit the caverns, and began their nightly feeding bout upon the multitudes of flying insects. These are the same insects that I observed several hundred White-throated Swifts feeding upon only an hour earlier.
The Townsend’s Big-eared Bat is a member of Vespertilionidae or Vesper Bat family, which comprises the majority of the bat species found in North America. Weighing only 0.3-0.4 ounces, these insect-eating dynamos consume many hundreds of the flying invertebrates each evening. Their exceptionally large ears are the result of an ever-escalating evolutionary arms race. Townsend’s Big-eared Bats prey heavily upon moths, like many bat species, through use of echolocation to pinpoint the insects. Over the course of millennia, the moths have evolve the ability to sense the final feeding buzzes that indicate the approach of a bat, and as an evasive maneuver, they simply fold up their wings and plummet earthward, thus avoiding being gnashed by those sharp little teeth. In an extraordinary evolutionary response, Townsend’s Big-eared Bats have evolved those ears, which allow them utter their feeding buzzes at a dramatically lower volume, thus avoiding detection by the moths. If the moth cannot hear the bat coming, it cannot evade it.
Once again, I turn off the headlamp in order to experience this world as the bats do. Once again, I enter into an unknowable existence where my mind seems to be the only definite quality of what I call myself. Maybe this is close to bardo that I will experience in this life.
Bardo, the intermediate state between one life and the next, is when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body. For many centuries, Tibetans have guided those willing through the transition and bardo using the Tibetan Book of the Dead, helping to free their mind stream from delusion and result in more fortuitous rebirth. In the sensory-free state present in the heavy darkness of the cavern, I feel as if my mind is not incased in this body, but rather it is free to roam. Thoughts and memories of dreams race about chaotically at first. They crash into one another with thoughts stopping mid-point and other ideas blazing forth. These first few moments are particularly frightful as I have lost control of my own thoughts, and grasping for control only exacerbates the frenetic state of mind. Heartbeats come faster and louder as I wrestle with my own mind. Shouts from my conscious slam against the walls of my skull.
“What about money, you have none…GET SOME!”
“What if you die in this cave?”
“Remember the times you failed?”
I decide to release any notion of control, “Let these thoughts pass, like dark clouds that do not pour rain.” Slowly the chaos condenses into single thoughts that pass peaceful by in white light. They transition into observable entities that do not require my intervention or control. Most of these thoughts are events that I have hardly thought about in many years. I see myself walking down the draw where corrals stood on the ranch where I was raised. The rough poles still had the bark on them and rusty spikes anchored them to the creosote-oozing railroad ties that served as corner posts. The manure pile smells musty and sweet as steam trails rise from its mound. Earthworms mine their way though of fertile remnants of many a cow’s meal. A newborn calf that just today entered into this world lays curled up atop a mat of straw. Its hide is shiny and soft, and the large eyes observe everything around them, learning about the existence in a hurried pace. The thought arises, “How do I this is a dream or reality? Which is more true, the dream or what we call life?” What an odd question from the mind of four-year kid. Christ, I was four – I remember this day. This memory was turning point in my life where I decided what was real. Deciding one state was illusion and other was concrete, provable. Concepts of what is real were set solid for me for some time after this episode.
The new thought arises, “Is it not all illusionary?” Are my dreams and thoughts just as real as the dark air in this hall or the limestone walls? What about if I twist this notion around, “Or are both states simply illusions as they are interpreted through my senses and mind. How can I be so certain that the state called reality is just not another dreaming state?” George Barkley, a philosopher from the 18th Century, stated that “nothing exists except the mind and its ideas.” Perhaps I should stop pondering what states are real, and only except that my mind is real. I know my conscious does exist, and it is creator of any current reality through thoughts, biases, and sensory observations.
A moment later that thought is gone, slowly fading but not forgotten. The darkness now seems inviting like a warm blanket on a moonless night. I have no thoughts now, just this present moment. My mind is calm and still with no fears or obsessions.
Pale yellow light illuminates the cavern for the second time. I have no idea how long I have standing in the dark. It must have been close to half an hour as more than half of the colony has left for the evening, the perception of time is very much affected in this place. The difference between one second, one minute, and one hour is compressed and almost indistinguishable. A single Big Brown Bat is flying near the exit of the cave. It casts a much larger shadow than the Big-eared Bats, and it soon fades into the dark.
Upwards I climb, making my way toward the exit of the cavern. In a cranny, a Western Long-eared Myotis seeks comfort in solitude; it seems that there is another loner in this cave. With each the light begins to fade into existence. Upon reaching the exit, I can see the expanse of Gallatin Valley and the Bridger Mountains, however faint, in the background. The world seems so huge now, compared to the tiny universe that exists in moments ago. The transition between subterranean world and this present view is quite startling. They exist in separate planes, and which one is real? They are both beautiful, perfect illusions of perception.