“I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did more than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life,” writes Thoreau, as quoted in beautiful “Many Paths One Truth” issue of Parabola.
Thoreau describes finding his own way to the luminous awakened mind, first bathing in Walden Pond in the morning, then sitting his sunny doorway, “rapt in a revery, admidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, undisturbed solitude and stillness….” Thoreau discovered that when he was still and observant, when he refrained from all striving seeking anything outside himself, those moments were bountiful in a way that our conventional busy life is not: “They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”
Day by day, finding his own way of meditating and being with his experience, Thoreau discovered that life unfolds naturally without any input from us. He describes a luminous awakened mind state of mind that innately knows how to meet and mirror what is arising: In this deeper, receptive state of mind, everything about the housework and chores that were part of his simple rustic life became interesting and fun: “It was a drama of many scenes and without end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.”
I happened to think of this as I poked the fire in the woodstove, cold and miserable, desperately wishing the power would come back on so I could get on with my “real” life. I suddenly wondered what Thoreau would have made of the experience, and that changed everything. Especially during the days when trees and wires were down everywhere and we were advised not to drive, I realized that I could actually try not fighting the experience, letting go of fretting about what I was missing and following “the last and best mode” of mindful observation (the last resort for many of us). It’s amazing how an attitude of attentive interest, a wish to investigate and learn, can allow experience to unfold.
I actually jotted down a list of things I wished to remember, and these are a few: I noticed how darkness and stillness aids concentration—and that I didn’t feel cut off from life but closer, part of it; I noticed the power of illumination—even a small candle brings warmth as well as light; and as I wrote last time acts of kindness and cooperation also bring warmth. I learned that the effort I most need to make is not grasping but letting go, being with life as it unfolds, receiving what is being offered instead of huddling there shivering and waiting for the lights to come back on.
I tried to get into the chores that faced me the way I thought Thoreau wood, and I did enjoy the drama of it all, and I found it absorbing, well, until the morning of the fifth day when I spent hours trying to get a fire started with damp wood. But I realized that this is the way it goes. As I walked around the yard, foraging for fallen limbs, I realized that this was a very different way to reflect on impermanence. Somewhere along the way I heard or read that impermanence is most often allied with deterioration. Trees fall down in a storm, all conditioned things—including loved ones and ourselves—change and pass away. And we, living in the forest of desires, are entirely composed of the impermanent. Last week (at least at my better moments) I saw how my desire for things to be different blinded me to this deeper truth. And when it occurred to me to stop fighting the experience—and let’s face it I couldn’t turn on the computer or the TV or be busy in the usual way, I had to live so deliberately!—I saw that my own mind and body states were continually changing, shifting from pleasant to unpleasant to neutral, continually arising and passing away.
Like Thoreau, I began to realize that the truth of life—and its real unfolding drama–is not to be found in a book—out and away somewhere. It is right here and right now, wherever we are. And when we give up doing and striving for a time to watch, we may find a field of brightness inside, a kind of natural solar powered attention, that can meet any condition that arises, illuminating from within.