Spring as a Practice

“The trees are coming into leaf /Like something almost being said,” writes the poet Philip Larkin.

Walking outside in spring can feel like walking into a big green, murmuring party. And it can bring a twist of longing. We want to be part of the conversation but we can’t quite hear what is being said. We are delighted that winter has passed at last, and  that new life is bursting forth. It seems a miracle, every year. And yet, we can also a little wistful. Larkin’s poem continues: “The recent buds relax and spread,/Their greenness is a kind of grief.”

Why grief? Spring brings a surge of hope and energy. But it is also a pretty flashy demonstration of impermanence. Life is beginning again, no matter what happened in your life last year. If you have experienced a big loss, this can be wrenching. We want life to hold back just a little. “April is the cruelest month,” writes the poet T.S. Eliot. “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.”

But deep down, we don’t really want to be onlookers at the party, dressed in black, clinging to old stories, old selves.

“To study the self is to forget the self,” taught the 13th Century Zen sage Dogen. To forget the self is to let go of our fixation on certain opinions and beliefs about ourselves. It means seeing into everything that arises, feeling into everything, refusing to banish or judge what we deem to be “negative” or “bad.” It means opening to our experience with honesty and with kindness, discovering that our so-called negative emotions and mind states is actually our life force, our creative force, our deepest wisdom.

Our practice is not to censor but to transform by seeing–being with what arises with compassionate, allowing awareness.

We long to begin afresh. Under all our transitory desires, under our endless if repetitive thoughts and resistance, there is a love of life and a wish to be part of the great green flourishing. This longing can feel wild and unseemly. But it is as much a part of being alive as our beating heart.

Why not go ahead and invoke another great spring poem? “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” writes Dylan Thomas. “Drives my green age.”

We share the life force with all beings that live. This can be clear in the spring, and at other times. I had the flu last week, and when I felt stronger and better it was as if the life force was pouring back in.

We rarely recognize this longing to be part of life for what it is. We try to fill it with all kinds of things: coconut ice cream and money and expensive shoes or vacations. But even when we attain all those things and more, deep inside there is still an inextinguishable homesick feeling. A marvelous old teacher of mine called it “a nostalgia for being.” We want to be here. We want to come out of our separation and be part of it. As shy and introverted as we may be, we long to peel ourselves off the wall and join the dance.

Strange as it may sound, the way towards this freedom is to shift from unconscious to conscious suffering. The root of the word suffer means to bear or tolerate. The aim of practice is to see, to hold what arises in consciousness without judgment or commentary, without clinging or pushing away. Just that. Just the sunlight of nonjudgmental awareness.

As we do this, one moment at time, something slowly miraculous begins to happen. We stop clinging to the life force that flows through us as if it is strictly ours, as if I somehow created it and must affirm and protect it at all costs. Something deep inside begins to soften and open and unfurl like a seed becoming a shoot. We begin afresh. We bloom.

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