Around the Medicine Wheel with Jim Frank

—Don’t we all want a map with a big arrow that says, “You are here!”

a meditation on finding four-leafed clover

On Monday, October 26, 2009, about 5:30 PM, I found a four-leafed clover on the lawn beside the flag stone path, just a short distance from the patio. It displayed itself about six feet away; it was standing up by itself as proud as could be. I had been looking for it all summer and in autumn I found it at last. I go for a walk most every day and whenever I came upon a clover patch I put my head down and looked, brushing all the three-leafed ones around to separate them. With Autumn’s changes, my level of frustration was rising and I was fighting off the impulse to bargain with the powers that make four-leafed clovers visible. You know, “If you show me a four-leafed clover, I will never again …,” fill in your favorite vice here. Looking for relief from my frustration I discovered some gratitude when I noticed the clover patches were being covered with falling leaves and it occurred to me that I will enjoy walking in the snow when the clover patches will be completely invisible.

Before it had become like a grail search, my interest in finding four-leafed clover came about as way to expand my ability to vision, merely an exercise to improve my consciousness, my presence. The idea is that we all miss more then we see as our minds select from the overwhelming volume of data collected by our sense.  This is the stuff of why drivers run their cars into the motorcycle; their minds were so occupied with looking for other cars that they look right through a two-wheeled vehicle.  And the data is clear that eyewitness crime reports are often extremely inaccurate.  And of course, this is the stuff stereotyping, as well as that of the fundamentalist that is so certain that they may resort to violence in rejecting evidence against their beliefs. Thus it seemed a good thing to expand my vision by seeing if I could see a four-leafed clover.

It sounded simple. I had done some on-line research and the science of it is that variations in the number of leaves on clover are fairly common, that in any clover patch there will be clovers with four, five, and even nine leaves. With the idea that they are there for the finding, I practiced and learned a foot brushing technique that was recommended. By brushing the clover in front with one foot while balancing on the other, anyone could find one if they looked long enough and carefully enough. But I also felt that there must be some other talent or luck involved. Over the years I have known a couple of people who have found many. Bobby Ray was good at it but Dave Thomas was amazing. He could find them on command. It seems to me that I remember once that we stopped the car and he got out, and within two minutes on a lawn by the side of the road he found a four-leafed clover. I think he left open the passenger door for the short time he was gone, he was that confident that he would be right back.

So, maybe finding four-leafed clover is a gift we either have or we don’t, that I wasn’t finding one because I just didn’t have that blessing. But the other thought, that they were there and I just hadn’t looked carefully enough was still stoking my obsession. The latter formed the basis of my theory – finding four-leafed clovers is merely a function of perseverance and careful observation. That theory, seems to be supported by theories of perception; when we look at something we see only what we expect to see. This theory has been explored by many studies, I am thinking of the one where people were shown a movie of six people passing two basketballs around and the subjects were told to count the number of passes or some such, and they became so involved in their task that they didn’t notice the guy in the gorilla suit walk through the frame. Really! Over half the subjects missed the gorilla who stops in the middle of the frame and beats his fists on his chest. The subjects only saw what they expected to see – and I was very used to seeing three-leafed clover. Every time I looked at a clover patch my eyes lock in on the three-leafed clovers there. I suspect that even if there was a four-leafed clover there, my eyes would move on to the three-leafed one next it before it could register in my consciousness. That thought was particularly frustrating because there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. My mind’s desire to be right kept me from seeing the four-leafed clovers because it was so wrapped up in confirming that I was going to see what I had always seen, three-leafed clovers. This theory left it all up to me, that if I said enough affirmations, if I talked to the clover, if I opened my heart enough, I would find a four-leafed clover. I just wasn’t open enough.

Then again, I don’t know. About ten days before I found mine, I was walking with my friend, Adam. Down the hill, through the woods skirting the east end of the lake, we came upon a thick patch of clover by the side of the lane that passes around the corn field. “Did you ever find a four-leafed clover?”-I asked. “Yes” – he said. I threw in – “Did you ever find two?” And with his, “No,” he joined me in looking at the clover patch at our feet. While we searched I explained my theory of perception, how we are so used to looking at what we have seen before that it was likely that even if my eyes paused on a four-leafed clover they would immediately click over to a nearby three-leafed clover. “What’s this?” Adam said as he reached down among the many three-leafed clovers to a little bud-like thing. When I say little, I mean tiny, about the size of a match head. And when I say bud, it was so tight that you couldn’t tell it was clover except that it was the right color and it was in a clover patch. Bending down, he used the tip of his finger to gently tease open the clover bud and then counted the four tiny leaves. I was speechless. One of us might have said something but it didn’t register with me. Adam had found a four-leafed clover and he had not even seen it as such before all his attention went to it. It was as if the clover had called him.

This threw me into a funk. We walked for a bit and I thought over my theory again. What had happened? He sure seemed to be called to that little bud, giving credence to the gift idea that a four-leafed-clover was a blessing. But the observation theory was also supported by the idea that he had noticed something different in the clover patch, that his attention had gone to the bud, that he had looked past all the clovers with three leaves and focused on the unusual.

So that brings me back to the one I found. I was standing on my patio, not really searching, when I rather casually glanced along the flagstone path at the clover there. Yes, there is a lot of clover in the area. And yes I was seeing a lot with three leaves. And I had put effort into developing a habit of openness to seeing something other than the three leafed variety. But the one that showed itself was standing by itself. It was not among a clump of ordinary clover. It was standing tall, by itself; it had reached above the leaves of grass and there wasn’t another piece of clover for a foot around. I wasn’t using any foot brushing technique; I was merely standing, five or six feet away, absentmindedly looking down. I didn’t have to find the unusual, out of it’s isolation it was  calling to me. I had been there to respond to the call but I am not convinced that finding it had anything to do with my improved powers of observation. And on the other side of things, I could not blame and shame myself for not seeing what I didn’t see.  I could do what I could to acknowledge my limitations but understand that there is also a capriciousness to all that might be seen and known.  This is what Bobby Ray meant when he would say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Sitting with this later, another quote came to me, “Many are called but few are chosen.” I can make myself ready but it is not under my control. I am still searching but I believe that I have had my humility reinforced. This all reminds me to be grateful for all my blessings.

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3 Responses to “a meditation on finding four-leafed clover”

  1. Andrea Q. says:

    “Before it had become like a grail search, my interest in finding four-leafed clover came about as way to expand my ability to vision, merely an exercise to improve my consciousness, my presence.” …Love this!

  2. Becky says:

    It’s a good question, how do we open up our vision. One of my concerns is opening up my vision to people. After Kitty Genovese was murdered outside the window of many people who all chose not to even call for help, a study was done at Princeton University, using seminary students who were studying to be ministers. They had them write a story about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then they did an intake interview in one building, and asked them to cross a courtyard to another building where they would have there sermon taped. They told some to hurry, some just to go, and some that there would probably be a wait but they should go over anyway. As they crossed the courtyard, there was an actor whose job was to make sure he was seen and to act like he was ill or hurt and in need of help. Remember that each of these students had just spent time preparing a sermon on a parable in which Jesus tells his disciples to be like the Samaritan who helped a stranger who had been mugged. As it turns out, only some of the people who were told they would have a long wait actually stopped to do anything. After the sermons had been taped, they asked people if they had seen anything interesting on their way to the building. And at THAT point, many or possibly all of the people had a response that was essentially, “Oh my gosh! I wonder if that man needs help!? We have to go do something!” They had seen him, but it had not registered on their brains in a way that they were processing, until they were reminded, because their attention was focused on the task at hand.

    I wonder how I do on that score. Certainly I have a greater than average ability to zone out while I am walking around. In some ways, it’s easier for me to see plants and animals than to see acquaintances. And yes, I’d like to be able to notice gorillas. And people in pain.

  3. Adam Lush says:

    “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.” Isaac Newton

    As I reached down for that clover I had no doubt that it had four leaves, and still, I was amazed when I unfolded it. Finding that clover was a similar experience to seeing images in the sweatlodge rocks. I trusted it was there and allowed myself to find it. When I am in the lodge, patiently waiting for the rocks to tell me their stories, I almost always will eventually see an image. In contrast, when I am in the lodge focusing more on wanting to see an image then I am on waiting for it to appear I see only a hot rock. Like Newton, patient attention, trusting the universe will amaze me, allowed me to find that clover and to see the stories in the rocks. It is a skill I hope, through practice, to develop. Staring at an apple, waiting for it to fall, is more frustrating then patiently waiting for the universe to amaze me with the story of gravity.