Last week I wrote about the experience of being lost in the woods around the Garrison Institute on the banks of the Hudson. Someone commented that I were never truly lost, and this is true: we wandered just far enough off trail to have a nerve-tingling, sense-heightening experience of waking up from the dream of knowing who we are and where we are going. It was a shock, and shocks have a way of posing big questions like “Who do you think you are?” and “Where do you think you’re going?” Shocks have a way of showing us what we are made of–not just in the usual sense of revealing character traits like good humor and courage or the opposite, but that we are made up parts that don’t quite mesh–we can be brave in one way and timid in another. And at any rate, we don’t add up to an inviolate whole.
The Buddha compared people to chariots, and this analogy is very significant because it turns out that the Pali word “dukkha,” which is usually translated as suffering really means something like “bad wheel” and it refers to the hole in the hub that often got clogged with dirt and grease so the wheel didn’t turn quite smoothly–so there was always a slight bumpiness or unease: life is dukkha means that life rolls along in a way that is always a little less than smooth for us chariots, always a little bumpy and anxiety-provoking. Gurdjieff compared people (at least those who tried to see themselves) to cars with their hoods up–the point was not only that we are actually a collection of parts but this mechanism is not a pretty or smooth-running sight when you see it up close (unless you are a skilled mechanic). When I was lost I had a glimpse of this situation–that we are made up of parts like cars and chariots and these parts don’t purrrr along in perfect harmony with each other and the world around us. I triggered a surge of energy, a definite sense of being here and now. And now I’m reflecting on the experience of being found.
In Buddhism, the experience of mindfulness or “sati” (which literally means remembering) refers to a sky-like state of awareness. Mindfulness can include everything that arises, inwardly and outwardly. At different moments and in different instances, however, mindfulness may reveal different aspects or qualities. One factor is investigation, which is that probing quality of attention that arises, say, when are lost in the woods and seeking the path–in classical Buddhist terms, it refers to investigating the way things are and the way things happen, the lawful unfolding of things. Another factor is energy, which was referred to in anciet Sanskrit and its street variant Pali by the word “virya.” In the Rig Veda and other ancient Sanskrit texts “virya” referred to a hero, one who was virile (you probably guessed that). As in many other instances, the clever, radical Buddha recast or liberated this word to mean the special energy and effort it takes make the journey to liberation.
We still need to be heroes, but the quality of the effort required isn’t so, well, effortful. It has to do with opening to what it is, to letting be. I’m about to make what might seem to be a wild leap, but this is the fun of blogging and I do have a point, so please stay with me. Towards the end of his journey, Hamlet becomes at last reconciled to his particular tragic situation. His friend tries to talk him out of accepting the challenge of a duel that both sense is a trap. But Hamlet has come to understand something profound about the nature of reality–that we really are not in control in the way we dream we are:
“If it be / now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be /now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The / readiness is all.”
Hamlet came to see and accept that reality was determined ultimately by a greater lawfulness, by God. He came to see that our true freedom, our true sense of place and empowerment comes from letting go of our own will (Shakespeare knew a Bible that uses “readiness” for “willingness”) and being willing to take our true place. We find ourselves, our true purpose and path, as we learn to stop leaning forward, effortful and anxious–when we fall back on God.
Last week, I was at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley, experiencing another retreat in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s “Community Dharma Leader Training.” Why an editor of Parabola would undertake such a training, what I have learned so far and what I hope to gain–the Parabola sangha I hope to create–I’ll be getting into that in the weeks to come. For now, I would like to describe how I managed to get lost in the woods.
It rained for days. The beautiful former monastery had begun to feel a bit like a gloomy English boarding school, and I had begun to feel a bit like Jane Eyre, doing my best to keep my chin up and my spirit alive. Finally, there was a break in the weather and many of us went outside. As stood there, feeling a bit lost and lonely (as one does at times on retreats) a friend came up. “I’ve found the path you’ve been looking for,” she said. She was referring to a conversation we had the first day, when we were both looking for a walk in the woods. I knew this. Yet, in the container of the retreat hearing “I’ve found the path…” was irresistable. I set out after her. We hadn’t gone far when we picked up a third hiker, also looking for the perfect path.
It was glorious, the perfect path through the woods, complete with a waterfall and tumbled down rock walls. As we walked, we talked about life and about our lives…and the next thing we knew we had lost the trail and we were lost. It was fun at first, and then we really couldn’t find the trail and we grew a bit frightened. We worried that we would miss dinner, which is a huge source of comfort on retreat. We fretted that the retreat organizer would have to call for volunteers with wildnerness skills to come looking for us. I wondered about using the GPS app on my phone as a compass.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said Thoreau. This was another one of those times when the trance of the ordinary was suspended. My true vulnerability, my true lack of connection to the real world was suddenly painfully exposed. It was glaringly clear that I live mostly in my head and that I have very little in the way of practical knowledge. I saw that I am a collection of parts not a whole, and that these different parts are often pulling in opposite directions, driven by different motives. And yet I saw that this very act of seeing, this opening to what is, called up—literally recalled–a different quality of understanding and intention. A more spacious quality of awareness appeared that was quicker and more sensitive than my usual thinking. I didn’t magically become an expert tracker–it was my companion who found the trail–but I felt as if I was assuming an inner attitude—a way of being with life–that was more whole, more deeply human than the way I usually operate.
Not only did I feel that body, heart, and mind were more aligned and working together, I felt the three of us start pulling together. I’ve written before about noticing a glow inside, the glow of our own life force and our own capacity for awareness. I’ve written that it can seem very faint, like a candle or a nightlight. But when I was lost in the woods around Garrison Institute, I discovered–or rediscovered–how we can pool our light and find our way.
After I made it safely back to the dining hall (and in time for dinner), I reflected on how important it is to have a journal and a community like Parabola–a place where people who are walking different paths or searching for a path can come together and have an exchange about what we have found. Due to forces and conditions beyond the control of our loyal band, we are struggling as never before. Please consider subscribing or make a tax deductible donation so we can continue to publish and become the sangha we know we can be.
In the wake of Irene, we lost power for four days. For days, I collected sticks in the yard to burn as kindling in the wood stove, and hauled buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet and wash the dishes. It was strange, being so cut off in one sense yet feeling so intimately connected with life and with the way much of the rest of the world lives. Instantly, I was aware of how precious clean water is, and how much I usually waste. Suddenly, I became aware that a house grows dark and cold at night without someone to build a fire and tend it. I became the fire builder, the keeper of the hearth. Anthony, my daughter Alex’s boyfriend from England, cooked food on the cast iron stove. We all learned how long it takes to cook over a fire—hours! And yet this was the center of the evening, the light and warmth from the fire, the promise of warm food, the common talk of how it was coming along, and then storieswe told as we ate. We all learned what is elemental and crucial, and that these basic things can be hard work, yet there is something inherently good and right about it. All beings deserve to eat and be warm and safe, and being mindfully engaged in this work can bring wisdom about life. (For starters, a couple of highly educated young people here learned a little something about what it takes to build a good fire).
As the third day dawned to no hot coffee or tea (unless I got up and built a fire and waited for three hours), it began to feel like an ordeal. Alex was sick with a bad cold, our water supply was almost exhausted–and I discovered that those little moments of good humor—that impulse to forget ourselves and help someone else are as crucial fire. On the third night, as I was struggling to light a fire with damp kindling, the neighbors came by with big pales of fresh water: “We wanted to give you the gift of being able to flush the toilet,” they said.
Another neighbor came by and asked from my email address so she could forward updates about the progress of repairs and availability of water to my iPhone. I saw how technology can help in crucial and elemental ways. I also marveled at the way this common humanity–this pulling together–just arose spontaneously. We innately know we can’t go it alone. We neighbors who rarely have the chance to stop and talk stood outside together laughing and talking. We even looked up at the stars that we commented were so clear without ambient lights…and…
And we marveled together at the roar of some of our other neighbors’ gas generators! “It sounds like a carnival!” said one woman. And it did! It sounded like the county fair, with all the motors that power ferris wheels and who-knows-what—and all of that sound and all of the gas that went into it to keep their refrigerators pumping and the ice cream frozen and the laptops charged. “This whole experience would have a different quality without that din,” she said. And I’m not pretending to be Thoreau. I took several long drives (dodging downed power lines and trees!) to charge my laptop and iPhone at a friend’s house and take a shower. And yet, I came away from this experience knowing body, heart, and mind that we don’t need to use as much energy as we think. I glimpsed how life can actually be richer and better with less.
When the power came on (bringing a blessed silence), I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment what a pleasure and luxury it is to have such a thing. I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I washed dishes and cleaned for hours, experiencing it as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I am very privileged. Alex and her boyfriend left the house to go shopping for college (street lights! No danger of fallen trees and wires and flooding in the dark!) And when they came home the house was bright and cheerful. Instead of gathering around the fire, they took to their laptops, and I took to my bed for a bit of CNN and a book. Witnessing ravaged areas here and abroad, I felt blessed.
May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.