I was at a summer picnic on a beautiful day at a home on a hilltop in the Hudson Valley recently, when out onto the veranda walked a group of people dressed in black, fresh from the funeral of young woman who died suddenly a few days before. You couldn’t help but be struck by the grief on their faces. At least one of them had been up for days, creating a moving memorial montage set to Bach, and all of them looked stricken and pale, especially against the blue sky. You would catch their eyes staring off into the far distance, not resting on the rolling hills that spilled out around us, but as if they were searching for something that wasn’t there.
One of the group sat down next to me. She spoke of how fragile life can seem, and also how wildly random. “I don’t know whose driving this thing,” she said, speaking of this rattling old heap of a cosmos of ours. “But I’m pretty sure they’re drunk.” I started to say something and trailed off, realizing that what I was about to say was just, well, a thought–a nice thought but just a thought. Then a real question arose. “Knowing life can be like this, how should we live?” She repeated the question and told me it would require some reflection. Then she got up and fetched a drink.
Life can be like this, utterly beyond our knowledge and control, random. Things can come “out of a clear blue sky.” Recently, I wrote about how much I love the sound of the bell on meditation retreats, the way it seems to call us to a greater way of life, a way clear of the confusion and strife. When I’m meditating or alone in nature sometimes, there can be a glimpse of the stillness beneath thought, of a state that is not emotion or even a very fine feel but of obedient, watchful receptivity. Being the type I am (which is not much of a cook) words come into my head from Thoreau: “My truest, serenest moments are too still for emotion; they have woolen feet” ….Thoreau goes on to describe this state, which the Buddhists would call samadhi, as being like a lake untouched by a breath of wind. It is a state when all is calmed and clarified “by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws,” and the unknown depths of life and of ourselves are revealed.
But what about when the lake is not calm? What about when a gale is blowing or you find yourself in the midst a perfect freaking storm? What about when there no “all-just laws,” just ice cold turning of cosmic wheels? Leave aside the heart-rending tragedy of the sudden death of a child. Just working in the kitchen and getting the message that you aren’t so swift at it can break your heart and make you feel like crazy Mrs. Rochester raging around in the attic. I mean, in such instances you can see yourself and your life as a collection of broken parts–and what in better moments may seem to you free consciousness is grasping at broken little spars of thought or images or memories, anything to keep you from sinking into that wreck and that stormy lake.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said good old Thoreau, who admittedly did not travel very far, at least in an outer sense. We understand that we are in pieces, every of us, and at the mercy of unknown forces. What can possibly help us then? Years ago, when I was in the place my friend is now, I noticed something. I was beyond all comforting thoughts, even grand ones from great beings. I was beyond hope. I sat in a numb way–no, I think I was even lying down, staring. Suddenly, I noticed a small light inside me, a very weak light like a night light. You would never notice it in the blaze of full sun and good times, only in total darkness. It occured to me that even though it seemed to be very weak there was something indominable about it because it didn’t depend on outside conditions–it wasn’t a mere reflection. My so-called thoughts and dreams and hopes were all up and down on the wheel of life, slavish things, but here was this little glow that kept on, serene as Thoreau’s wilderness lake. Recently, I saw a quote from my old friend and teacher William Segal who described seeing the same little light when he meditated. He called it our own life force and said it is our salvation–which he described as living beyond ego. Think of it as living beyond devastation, after the power grid has collapsed, and you are powered by a tiny solar battery.
You can’t see far on such a light but you can see to the next step, or to the next person who is also equipped with their own solar-powered life force night light. We can pool our light, and together we may be able to make out a greater light behind the forms and happenings of this world. The light that gave us our light, a light that is not separate from love and compassion, that binds us and all things together. And here is a scrap of proof that. There are people who stay up three days making memorials for young women who die suddenly.
When the great writer Raymond Carver knew he was dying from lung cancer he wrote “Late Fragment”:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
The young woman who died was beloved.
May all beings know that they are beloved on this earth, even when they are in darkness. May all beings find the light. May all beings be free.