Circling Through the Seasons (written 2015)
Winter's coming again. The long dark nights that mark the season at this latitude. In the summer my early rising is a way of catching more hours of sunlight...beams across the kitchen table, sparkles in the window of my little room as I kneel for my morning bows and chants. At the monastery, the big wooden panels that cover the wall of windows behind the majestic white Buddha in the sala are rolled aside and light patterns the gleaming black floor. It is easy to see the gift of rising early. Easy to roll a still tired body out of bed with such a world to welcome opened eyes.
But lately I rise in the dark again. The soft sounds of my husband's breathing behind me, the tiny chime of the bell coaxing me across the room. These days, I find my thick socks and sweater in the dark again and soon may add a touque and vest to this morning fashion ensemble as well. At the monastery, others also shuffle sleepily out of their rooms and we sit in a silent circle, the dark floor a deeper black than the shadows, wooden panels closed over the windows to keep warmth in. In awhile, the wood burning stove at the far end of the sala will crackle and snap in the silence of the dark mornings. But not yet, not quite yet.
At the monastery in the dark days on retreat it is cold. But the muffled sounds of bodies moving are an invitation to the gathering. And I like to pause at the door of the sala and wait for my night vision to allow me to make out the circle of cushions from the last sit the night before and a few blanket draped humans sitting like mountains. I take my place among them, bow towards the white gleam of the Buddha and close my eyes. There is only my breath and the whisper of soft steps in the room as everyone finds a place. Perhaps a muffled cough, the shush of blankets and then when the abbott enters, a gentle flurry as we bow together again and settle into shared silence.
Anyone who is part of a spiritual community will fill in this picture with their own nostalgic memories. In my childhood, it was the smell of polished pews in our little church, the stiff rustle of hymn books and women's skirts. The whispers of mothers hushing children. The first notes of the piano. There is a great comfort and a subliminal energy in sharing a spiritual practice with others. In having companions of the heart on the path that one's heart has been drawn to.
For a couple of decades now, this path for me has been the 8 Fold Path taught by the Buddha. And following that path has meant a devotion to silence and meditation on a daily basis. So, at the monastery, or on retreats in other places, I sit with those who have a similar commitment. At home, physically, I sit alone. But I have developed a practice of imagining my sangha circle. Sangha is a Pali word that properly refers to the disciples that followed the Buddha over 2500 years ago. But most practitioners use the term more loosely in reference to the community of practitioners. And so my sangha is made up of those all over the country and the world who are also following this practice. For me then, in the early dark mornings or in the sparkling sunshine, I feel the presence of friends known and potential who are faithful to this discipline. I allow myself to see a circle of remembered faces, to send them loving kindness and encouragement and to feel how it flows back to me. These few moments each morning are a simple habitual part of my personal practice.
One of the delusions that human beings are subject to, one of the causal fragments that leads us deeper into suffering, is that we are alone. As a species we wish for and dread the discovery of others in the universe. And as individuals, we can feel locked inside our private experience; we can feel that every emotional pain, every intellectual struggle is personal and unique. And yet, the sharing of this very perspective is evidence that the human mind, the human heart, is bigger than that. We spill into each other. We gather and shed bits like snow balls rolling down a hill as we tumble through life.
When I find my breath as I settle on my bench in my small room, the breathing of others, not even present physically, supports me. The Buddha stressed the significance of like-minded friends in spiritual life. Our own experience verifies this wisdom. I am grateful for my community, present in our shared intentions through the seasons of the year, through the seasons of life.