My black lab Shadow, my 18-year-old daughter Alex, and our 13-year-old family friend Jesse (who is with us because a pipe at her school burst) just came charging back into the house all elated and shiny-eyed because they had walked out on our frozen lake on this bright and very cold day in Northern Westchester. Having driven a car on the ice of the St. Lawrence River (and walked from island to island in the Thousand Islands), this didn’t exactly thrill me. Actually, it frightened me. I pictured our big, strong, cold-weather-loving dog breaking away and galloping out to the center of the lake, the girls slipping and sliding after her…and then the ice cracks behind them….before I can consider such a thing, I assure myself that the young ones stayed very close to shore, just off a boat landing that is a kind of staging area for a hockey rink that is carefully monitored by adults….I assure myself that they are nothing like I was, that they will never for example try to chop a hole in the ice with a double-headed Hudson Bay axe without applying a little foresight…but I digress.
The larger point is, well, what has happened to me? I’m so much more aware of the cold than I was when I was young, so much more aware of possible dangers, of mortality. Just as I find myself wondering if I physically have it in me to dive into a frozen lake to rescue a girl or a dog (or a summer lake), I sometimes wonder if I have the energy that cultivating real awareness, real presence undoubtedly takes. Living as a “worldling” and not as a monastic, a veritable Gulliver pinned down with attachments, bones aching from the cold, hampered with bad habits, what hope is there for me? This is when it’s just like the liberation itself to remember that all we really have to do is stop running. It seems insane, but all we really have to do is feel the body as it is, to feel the fear and loss. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda wrote in a recent essay: “As the familiar thoughts that normally fuel our fear begin to fall away, we can experience the healing power of the heart. This is a nonconceptual experience–it does not come from words or explanations, but rather from the spaciousness of a wider container of awareness. As the fear of liging as a separate being dissolves, we natually tap intothe connectedness and loving-kindness that are always availabe to us, and that are the real fruit of the practice life.”
In other words, we’re all on thin ice. Everyone fears falling through the cracks and being groundless (and cold). Nonetheless (as the Zen teacher says) “it’s only when we’re able to reside in the plysical experience of no ground–no longer clinging to our fantasies of how life is supposed to be–that our attachments begin to diminish.”
To see through our attachments and fears, we must stop trying to save ourselves and experience them fully. There is love and peace on the other side.