Eagle’s Message: Beyond Letting Go


Photo by KellBailey via Flickr

A few weeks ago I visited the Portland Zoo with Genevive, my  niece (by marriage) and her two children. They’d arrived in town early that morning, ready for adventure. Which for Lutian, the 5-year-old, meant the elephants at the Zoo.

I’m not a fan of animals in captivity so I usually avoid zoos, but I did feel a child’s sense of wonder at the exotic animals wandering about in little slices of nature meant to replicate their natural habitat. Especially the giraffes and zebras. Lions, cheetahs, leopards. Made me want to visit Africa.

Soon after we arrived we came upon the eagles.  I winced since they were enclosed in an area so small for these mighty birds. They’d spread their great wings and fly from corner to corner, and I couldn’t help but mention my discomfort with their enclosure.

Genevive  said she thought this zoo contained only animals who’d been injured and wouldn’t survive in the wild.  I hoped this was the case while watching these regal avian beings, lords of the air yet here confined to a few hundred yards of air space.

And then Genevive told me something else I’d never known about eagles. She’d learned that when an eagle reaches a certain age its beak becomes so bent and deformed from devouring its prey that it can no longer get enough food.

At that point it does one of two things. It dies – or it bangs and bangs its beak on rocks and trees until it falls off completely. Then the eagle grows a new beak and is able to live for another fifteen years or so.


If the bird is to live, it must violently and painfully get rid of that old part of itself that has now become a hazard to its survival. It’s a step beyond just releasing and letting go. It’s ripping away the old, the no longer useful and serving. And then waiting as a fresh appendage grows.

I was stunned to hear this, and frankly kind of shuddered at the mental image it evoked.

And then I thought, I wonder if that’s what I’m doing now? Is this why it hurts so much sometimes? Is this why it’s so scary?

It also struck me how this is a metaphor for the fire we are called to walk through at midlife. If we turn from it, cling to those old patterns, we may not perish physically like the eagle, but something inside surely withers and dies.

Midlife – menopause – is a time when the veils fall away. A new clarity arises, often a painful and scary one..

For me the question remains: Are there still remnants of the old beak I must bang away? Or am I finally at the phase where regeneration is happening? I want to grow my new beak, my new piece of myself, the part that will allow me to nourish, feed and love myself.

Yet it might take the courage and grace of an eagle to be with the pain until the old bits have all been knocked off.

The day after my sojourn at the zoo I picked up The Pocket Pema Chodron and opened randomly to “Everything Has to Go.”

“All of us are like eagles who have forgotten how to fly,” Chodron writes.

She goes on to explain that somehow we got trapped in our nest despite our longing to soar through the vast skies. We’re like eagles, but we’re weighted down. She uses the metaphor of our clothing and sunglasses, iPod etc. We need to take off a few things.

Then, as we begin flapping through the air, we realize we have to take it ALL off if we’re truly to fly. We have to let go of it all. Because you can’t fly when you’re wearing all that stuff. Everything has to go.

I don’t know about you, but that scares me.

What more must I relinquish, I wondered? What more must I beat away, let go of, so that I can finally fly?

How about you? Are you growing your new beak yet?


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Showing 7 comments
  • Dian Reid

    I can relate to so much of this, Sarah, especially the ripping away of the old and what is no longer serving me. For me it’s not always been a decision I make on my own, but one that’s been made for me. And still, it’s all in how we choose to deal with what life throws our way. Do we choose to try to hold on to that piece of ourselves that is either no longer there or serving us? Or do we make a conscious choice to grow that new appendage and learn how it will serve us best moving forward?

    Wonderful post, thanks for sharing.

    • sarah

      I’m so glad this resonated for you Dian. You’re spot on in saying it’s all about our choices. For me I think it comes down to giving into the fear and settling for the safe ‘old’ ways – or boldly moving forward into the unknown, even though it’s risky. Ultimately we may grow stronger wings as well as a new beak!

  • Sheila

    Thanks, Sarah. This is a good post. I didn’t know this about eagles. Genevieve is a fearless, intense woman, like her mom. I understand being afraid. I was too, when I left my ex at age 49…didn’t want to be married at age 50. Fear takes up a lot of time. Yeah, we are breaking our beaks.

    • sarah

      Yes – I know you can intimately understand this metaphor Sheila! Fear can definitely consume way too much of our band width and energy. Genevive is definitely wise beyond her years! Thanks for commenting – I see you as an example of someone who risked the pain and is growing a beautiful new beak!

  • Byron Go

    I know it’s not about the story of the eagle as truth, per se. And I love the metaphor. And my own journey at the moment is vividly tumultuous in its own way, thank you for sharing about yours.

    And I want to point out that as far as we can tell, the story of the eagle and its beak is untrue. If you don’t know that, then you’re possibly at the victim of it. If, instead, like with many tales of the world and fables of the universe you know that it’s the meaning and the moral that are important and can say so, then you can be at its source of power.

    I hope this helps, thank you again for the post, and for your vulnerability in being out there with it.

    • sarah

      You know I thought about researching the eagle story to verify if this really does happen in the wild. Then I realized – as you say – my little essay is all about the metaphor, and it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s ‘true’ or not. That said, I’m relieved to hear that this is more of a fable than an actual wildlife truth. I really did shudder to imagine those poor eagles going through so much physical pain.

      So – thank you for your comment and clarification, and I’m so glad you still enjoyed the spirit and intention of the post. It’s a tumultuous time for many of us and these stories that have been passed on can offer hope and cast just a bit of light as we step along in the mist. Glad you stopped into for some Holistic Hot Sauce Byron!

  • Sue Mitchell

    Beautiful post, Sarah. I am in the strange place where I had the freedom to be and do whatever I wanted in my 20s and 30s, and now, in my 40s and 50s, I have the types of responsibilities other women my age are moving on from. We are programmed to want to revise our lives in midlife, but my revision has been toward life being less about me rather than more. So what I have to let go of is my attachment to that feeling of flying and instead appreciate my time in the nest!

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