Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Up, up and away

My spouse has more birds than ever at the feeders this year. Green finches, chaffinches and coal tits, mostly, with robins (tiny European robins, a different bird altogether) and wrens cleaning up on the ground. I swear she spends more money feeding the birds than setting our own table.

Still, the birds provide endless hours of entertainment. And envy too. How lovely it would be to fly. The dinosaurs figured out how to do it. Some mammals too.

I sometimes dream of flying, vividly, but always wake up firmly affixed to the bed. Freud believed the flying fantasy is a disguise for the infantile wish to be capable of sexual performance. He buttressed his case by compiling instances of words in various languages that associate birds and flying with sexual organs or sexual activity. For example, the commonest expression in German for male sexual activity is vogeln, "to bird," and in Italian the male organ is called l'uccello, "the bird." What this has to do with my flying dreams I'll leave for you to decide.

As some of you may recall, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles, was into levitation. I remember a "yogic flying" competition staged by the Maharishi's followers in Washington, D.C.. They demonstrated their mastery of Stage 1 of levitation, a bounce from the lotus position called "hopping." Not surprisingly, they failed to move on to Stage 2, "hovering," and Stage 3, "free flight."

In 1977, when the Maharishi went to India with his disciples, an Indian skeptics group offered him 10,000 rupees (about $1,000) to fly from Old to New Delhi, a distance of about two miles. He agreed, but then backed out when the time came to soar up or shut up. Yogic transportation is a spiritual activity, he claimed, not for secular demonstration.

Levitation has a long mythic association with the spiritual life. Holy men and women of many religions have been reputed to levitate, including hundreds of saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most consistently airborne saint was Joseph of Cupertino, who reportedly made dozens of flights in or about his church, once landing amid lighted candles and becoming badly burned. Many people claimed to have witnessed Joseph defy the law of gravity, but since it all happened a very long time ago there's not much we can do to check the reliability of their reports.

I'll stick with the laws of physics and leave levitation to the birds.