In the new “way it is” of my personal world, my life has many aspects of retreat. I spend much of my time in solitude, except for my dear dog. And sometimes there are stretches of several days in which I do not talk in person to others, maybe even days when voices do not enter my life except via texts and other written communications. And most of each day is lived in external silence. This is especially possible because I'm still in the country, the house my husband and I retired to, and there is little traffic noise. Winter muffles the world as well.
This has given rise to a lot of deliberate reflection about the inner silence my teacher talks of as true noble silence: the stilling of the mind's chatter. Meditating often, this mind finds inner silence to be a familiar resting place. But I have been watching my mind as well in the active and doing parts of the day. I've been a writer for even longer than I've been a meditator, so I am accustomed to deliberate narrative mind, the inner voice that chooses from experience, composes and edits and shapes. This voice has a lot of habit energy for me. It makes stories in a way that is a little different from the usual story-making meditation teachers, Buddhist teachers, refer to. These are not the automatic stories that fuel hindrances like anger or desire. Nor are they stories that serve to shore up ego. Not directly. But they are stories. And their medium is language.
So, if I think of inner silence as a place that is still, like a glade in a forest after a hawk has flown over and even the birds and little creatures have gone quiet, then when my writer's voice turns on, this silence is disrupted. I've been experimenting with this, cultivating a kind of renunciation that is not quite deliberate. That is, it does not feel so much as if I'm choosing an inner silence that shuts a door on this writing voice, as that inner silence is choosing me so that I don't reach to keep the door open. Something in practice arises. The old habit energy of sharing this through writing about it arises. New habit energy follows, arising from the peace of letting that go. And I fall back into the quiet. Over and over again. So this blog has stalled for awhile.
Practice is like this. Having the serious intention to live with less suffering, and as much as possible not to contribute to the suffering of others, I hold that intention. I keep it front and center living in the world. I strive to live with awareness. I make mistakes, act unskillfully, turn toward this, move on, perhaps having learned something that will make mistakes of that kind less likely again. And I find, over time, that changes come that were not, perhaps, what I expected. I did not expect that my writing, turning more and more toward the Dhamma, may also slow, the way breathing slows in sitting meditation, the way steps slow in walking meditation. But this seems to be the case.
Yet, there is this: the observing of this change that woke up the writing voice and a door that this time did not close. Explaining here my silence of several months. And also, I hope, sharing an encouragement. Changes happen. Following my husband's death almost a year ago and turning towards all the uncertainties that opened, I set two smaller intentions: to invite joy and fearlessness. These are precious commodities in a world of change, both in our personal lives and in the larger world. About this blog, my writing, my life, the world, I can only have “don't know” mind. But I can return to my intentions and allow the process to unfold as it does.
On fall retreat at Birken Forest Monastery, my morning walk to the marsh after early sit and chores becomes a ritual, preparation for the longer morning session of meditation to come.
After light snow the first night, I walk to the marsh on crunchy trails, weaving around and ducking under snow laden branches. A snow flurry starts with a few lost flakes so that once I thought I'd walked into a spider web but then raised my hand to find moisture on my forehead. Still, could have been both, because a few paces on there is a flake suspended in an invisible spider thread. Briefly the flakes rush down like kids at recess, before dwindling to only a few strays again.
Although no more snow falls, the next morning a little remains in the shadowed areas. The sun, only half visible, still manages to spangle the water. A family of ducks grumbles and flies off...surely the little ones are too small for this time of year? Still they can and do fly. A squirrel scolds me. A rabbit dashes out of the tall grass and across the path.
Another day the air is still but the sun behind cloud. I can hear the ducks but don't see them. I stand still a long time, looking out over the cat tails. Maybe 30 minutes. Just a pillar of black and grey with my toque an ivory dome on top. Physically still long enough for my mind to become flat and mirror-like, like the water, and my heart's beating a muffled rhythm below the inner silence, a hum in my ears. I am rewarded when a little hawk skims low over the grasses and cat tails in front of me, close enough I imagine the sharp glitter of his eyes and beak. He swoops, turns, flies high to a distance and then circles again. A long time, it seems, after his passing, there is a chittering from the nearest grass island and then a small bird appears, then another, finches maybe.
Breathing, I realize that I feel a spaciousness alone by the marsh in the cold air that I never feel among people. Why is that? Among people there is grasping onto roles and ways of being, doing my part even here, mindful chores, contributing, taking my turn, behaving with patience and generosity in the sharing of bathrooms, in the lining up for meals. All easy and harmonious. Yet only by the marsh have I felt this great breaking open, a place of grace as Kathleen Dowling-Singh might say, where the self disappears.
Whatever the conditions that allow it today, I am grateful and it takes me a moment to realize that gratitude is the impetus for the tears running down my cheeks. Gratitude for this reminder of what's possible. The availability of this spaciousness, this peace.
I am pondering a metaphor I often use to describe my practice: practice as a container for my life. And suddenly this feels too small, too confining. Practice is infusing my life. Like the re-hydration IV doctors may prescribe for someone ill, this practice puts back what worldly living depletes. And I see that it is up to me to curb the depletion. To take from the world only what I need...not to be pulled in. To know when that happens. The ego-magnet is a significant part of this. It drains resources, energy.
Standing at the marsh I imagine my feet rooting down into the earth and each breath drawing in what is sustaining. I am fire, water, earth and air, held awhile in a deep knowing of being part of this around me. I remember being driven here from the airport in the monastery's new hybrid SUV. How we stopped at a charging station. My morning marsh stops serve a similar purpose. Recharging. Likewise, each time I call up the memory, I can “coast” a bit, recharging that way even as the car does on a downhill section of road if it is set correctly.
Back at the sala, for a moment, I feel a familiar anxiety. As if I were plugging in to all the minds around me, each with its rise and fall of distractions, memories, plans. I conjure a golden rain of metta falling upon us all as we sit and breathe and keep at this till peace finds a foothold again.
One morning, on my usual post chore walk to the marsh, in my head I hear a tune begin: “Going to the chapel....” OK, the rest of the tune doesn't work without new lyrics but the marsh does feel like my morning devotion. Every morning it is different. Today each blade of grass, each speary head, each leaf is furred in sparkling frost...so looking out over the marsh the diversity of yellows and greens is submerged in this glittering white. Like a bride's dress, I think. Like a party. And I wish for a mind like Mary Oliver's, like Mark Nepo's, or David Whytes's that would find a perfect original comparison.
The marsh has a new mood each morning. This time the water is still under a solid sky of bubbly clouds. Later as I still stand and watch, the clouds become flatter and darker, stirring. The small yellow leaves on the aspen spin and shimmer like coins on a belly dancer costume.
Then again it snows lightly in the night, turning to rain by morning so dripping is the music-to-meditate by for first sit. The marsh walk, as the sun comes up, is through sodden heavy grass and I soak my pant legs through and use my windbreaker over toque and vest and jacket for the first time, trying to stay a little drier. Shoes soggy through to my thick socks.
Next morning, the sun is so brilliant and unobstructed it hurts even to look at its reflection in the water. Frost only beginning to melt and bead, so pant legs stay dry.
The morning I say my farewell to the marsh it has rained hard in the night but the sun has more or less persisted since. Standing in my habitual place, a tiny, repeated insight is made real. Science tells me my body is mostly water, yet how solid it seems standing beside the marsh pond. And it tells me too that all matter is mostly space. The overturned canoe seems to defy this, appearing solid. And my hand and the grass blade I touch both seem solid as well. Even so, looking inward myself, I find confirmation of the Buddha's teachings: this solid-seeming self is not. Why should that be a surprise? We live in a world of illusion. We trust microscopes, telescopes and tools to see through to truth. Why don't we trust what we see for ourselves looking inward?
My ongoing practice includes daily meditation, mindfulness, and study, both reading and listening. And over the years I've stopped being surprised when themes emerge and converge for stretches of time. It seems that a particular message falls into my hands and comes to my ears from many sources at one time. So, when I notice such a theme I double-down on attention. What is it that the universe is saying to me? Or taken from another perspective, what is it that I am now ready to see, to hear, that has always, perhaps, been there?
Right now, I am delving deeply and daily into the teaching of anatta, non-self, guided by sincere and skillful teachers, whether in person, in recordings, or in books. And as happens on this path, I find I've circled round and come back to an old “insight” but at a deeper level, a level that is informed by experience, by my heart and not only my head. Early on this journey in the avalanche of new things I was learning, and being exposed to...both from science and from Buddhist thought, I formed the idea that while the capacity for self-reflection might be what marks us as human, it is a gift that is like receiving an apple from a serpent. The Garden of Eden allusion is intentional. There was danger there. The capacity for self-reflection means the creation of a self to reflect on. And this created self, which we see as something real in the world, is what we then use to separate ourselves from others, from the world. This, I think, is where the unease that haunts us as human beings has its root.
One teacher I am reading describes the release of this created self as falling into grace. Back to the garden, to continue the Biblical analogy.Her description rings true with my own experience.
When we are tense, anxious, overburdened, our bodies reveal the stress our mind holds on to, by tightening and aching and contracting. In yin, a piece of my daily practice, I learn to trust, to surrender the physical tension I hold onto. Move mindfully into a posture and breathe. Trust the earth. Trust gravity. Let the body release what does not benefit it. This has both an immediate result: relaxation, and a long term result: the opening of stiffening joints, the lengthening of muscles, the softening of tissues. All because of success in surrender. I move my attention away from holding, to breathing, to softening. That's all. Gravity over time will do the rest.
When we believe in the self we have created as separate from others and the world, we contract and hold close. We experience fear, anger and greed. We worry at protecting this “self” and all it “owns”, including our opinions and ideas, from the threats of others, from a hostile world out there. Suffering, whether it is grieving a loss, feeling helpless in the face of climate change, or just being cut off in traffic, or treated rudely, comes from a sense that “I” am being treated unfairly. If I am able to see the suffering arise, and I stay with this, I may also see the self that claims it. This might allow me begin to soften, to fall into grace, in the same way my body falls into gravity in yin. I surrender this painful belief. I move my attention away from self/from ego, to softening and surrender. That's all. Grace will do the rest.
Anatta is a confusing and even frightening teaching when we first encounter it. To be told the self is not real but created seems so obviously strange. Look at me. I'm here. But we know that the “identities” we hold to are not unchanging. Indeed this body is not unchanging. And that is what non-self points to. I don't need to hold myself above the earth as I lean forward into child's pose. If my attention is on this kind of effort, my neck and shoulders will soon feel the strain and the pain. What I need is to let go. Even so, in holding myself as a thing independent from and threatened by others, I work hard. Concerned with the protection and promotion of ego, I will suffer from tension, fear, anger and other negative mind states. Letting go permits grace and spaciousness.
In the same way I may not know how much stress my body holds, thinking this state is normal and inevitable, until I let it go and feel the difference, I recognize the ease of resisting ego's pull only in those blessed moments where I forget the self. We all have those moments. What practice teaches us is that they don't have to be accidental. New habits of mind are formed in the same way that new physical habits are developed. Feel the benefit. Do it again.
In a blue mood one morning, I found myself picking up my cell phone where it lay on the kitchen table. No notifications, except the automatic one that reminds me to drink water hourly. In that nano-second I distinctly heard the voice of a childhood tune begin in my head: “Nobody loves me...” (The rest of the melody as you might recall from your own childhood is, “Everybody hates me...Down in the garden eating worms.”) It's supposed to be mocking and funny. Still, the observer, the mindful part of me that is pretty well trained though nowhere near perfect, was surprised.
I've owned this phone for less than two years. Before that my husband and I shared a flip phone that was turned off and waited by the door for either of us to carry when we traveled, for emergencies, for what was essential. Don't get me wrong. I love my cell and use it for so many helpful things...a dictionary, maps, research at my finger tips when I'm writing or editing, the camera, listening to Dhamma talks while I cook. And, of course, for phone calls and texts. And I love many things about Face Book too, which I joined initially for the purposes of a work-group that used it, but which I enjoy for the ease of getting news out to friends and family and keeping track of other lives that matter personally to me. But this tune in my head was a warning, I think, of how addiction happens.
So from there I reflected on all those who have grown up with this sort of technology. For whom it is not a new development but a fact of life, like running water or refrigeration. Years ago when I taught long distance for a University, we began with telephone contact, even snail mail letters. Over the time I was doing this work, eventually we moved to e-mail. And that was enough for me to notice how the expectations of students changed. They wanted responses “now”, the way email appeared to move. Not tomorrow or next office hours. Not with consideration for the 90 or more assignments that arrived simultaneously. But each wanted “my” need met now. When it didn't happen, my inbox would often fill with follow up queries as to why not. What would have texting made possible? I gave up that job before I had to discover that.
My point is not a comment on technology, but on the cause and effect way in which the mind responds and the self is constructed. Even this mind, in ongoing training in mindfulness, a relative newcomer to instant communications, quickly develops a dependency on the “other” as both distraction and “confirmation” of value. This is an extension of what we do in daily life face to face. But this makes the distractions and confirmations theoretically possible all the time. FB at 3:00 a.m. when others also wakeful, sad, lonely or restless are scrolling too. Texts whenever an idea arises. No time to process and let whims rise and fall. Responses that are too quick and cause misunderstandings.
I am loved. I know that. And most importantly, I love myself. I work at that because this is harder than loving others for most of us. An inner source of confidence is vital to health of heart and mind. I matter, whether there are red notification dots on my cell phone and thumbs up “likes” on FB to my posts, or not. But human beings look for external confirmation. We're wired that way. We seek approval. And technology has linked approval to these symbolic blips on screens.
So I noticed the tune start, and listened as it fizzled into incoherence. And I made a quiet resolution I will likely have to make again and again. Do not touch the phone, do not tune into Face Book when I'm sad. At least not in the first wave. Let the wave come. Let it rock me a little. Let it pass through, leaving a puddle of tears if it must. Remind myself: This is sadness. This is loneliness. That's all. And as I turn to whatever I turn to next...sitting on my cushion, phoning a friend, work on my desk, yoga with the dog, a walk in the rain, let the other emotions be accepted and noted too. See how they follow each other. How they arise and fall. And in there, when glimmers of something bright washes through...happiness, joy, satisfaction...notice! Who needs to hold on to the jagged stone of sadness?
This is anger, I think, when an injustice slams unexpectedly into my life. But when I explore, look into my body, the label changes. No, this is helplessness. This has happened for me often. Often enough that now I regard all “anger” as a consequence of helplessness. Something occurs which reminds me the world is not in my control. Not just a roadblock or a misstep or a mistake, that reflection and re-strategizing will fix. But out of my control. Can I be with that?
Too often the initial, reflexive reaction to a sense of helplessness is to get louder or faster or both...to act and act and act, as if each action, or one of the actions would turn things around. To rant, to explain, to write letters, to do something. As if I think the world is blind and deaf and I just have to find a way to get the message through. But there are events, big and small, that will not change despite my shouting and pushing. And each subsequent “failure” to correct the problem adds to the sense of helplessness. A feeling that is crawly and uncomfortable in the extreme, so intrinsically repulsive that acting out seems like the only way to distract the mind from the feeling. This is what I have to learn to be with.
I keep at it. So far what I've managed is a small step forward, I think. The sense of helplessness is born in me now with a marker that reminds me to be mindful. It's a bit like having a built in bell, an alarm like the one in my house for carbon monoxide...that silent, deadly gas. Helplessness wears a bell. There's still that awful creepy crawliness, that truncated scream in my chest, but there is also an immediate reminder to investigate rather than push away or distract myself. Because though I may not be able to set things right in the world, I know that I do not have to add to the harm to myself and others by way of hasty and unskillful actions and words. One breath won't do it, though it is a beginning. Recently I took some training in Somatic Stress Release and I'm discovering other ways to discharge the scream and release the ants under my skin. And I'm loving how this fits so beautifully with meditation in any posture, with silent sitting, mindful walking and gentle yin. Sometimes I transfer the need to push, to the wall; or the need for voice, to singing; the need to shake loose, to dancing. New tools. Because the breath is my accessible home already, it's waiting, like a chair in the shade, when the hotter, sweatier work of release is done.
I want to be clear though. This isn't displacing anger. I'm not pushing the wall because I want to push someone or something in my way. I'm pushing the wall because my body is telling me there is something here to acknowledge. I'm pushing the wall and letting it push back. I'm acknowledging the feelings rampaging through my body. Feelings with too much movement to clamp down on.
The Buddha gave a metaphor for agitated mind/body in the story of someone running. To go from a run to stillness is too abrupt. So the runner slows to a walk. And then from a walk to standing. And maybe from standing to sitting. And then perhaps from sitting to lying down. When we clamp down on the emotional surges in our body, they will continue to move in the small container we've closed them into and they may break their bonds when our vigilance lessens. Instead, mindfulness lets me assess the level of agitation that has arisen and to choose a skillful way to keep my attention there. Somatic Stress Release training teaches me to stay in relationship to the obstacle, the discomfort. So I press into the wall and feel it pressing into me. As agitation tapers off I am able, perhaps, to move away from the wall and stand, coming to the breath. If agitation is still there, I may walk, or move back to the wall if I still need a stronger sensation. I keep contact in this way with the feeling itself and do not tell myself stories about what “caused” the feeling.
Mindfulness requires continual effort and skillful means. Teachers tell us to use “what works” and I am grateful for the discovery of new tools for addressing a persistent experience.
I am thinking about identity. The who-I-am-ness that moves us to action, that prevents other actions, that is the drink in the glass that the straw of action and speech draws on. What if the glass were empty? The straw would fill with air, the very air it would draw on were there no glass at all. And now suddenly I see “selves” that way. Each body like a glass, fragile boundaries that seem to be separate and distinct. And over a lifetime we each fill our particular vessel with a sense of identity. We don't notice how identities spill out and over the edge and how, in time, the contents of the glass is entirely different than it was only a while before. Put a glass under a tap and leave the water running and when the volume of water is more than the glass can hold, it just spills out. If you were to add a drop of dye at the beginning, you would at first see the dye fill the glass with color and then fade and fade until what fills the glass is only clear again. So it is with this self. The student I am in one phase is replaced by the teacher at another. And the student shares space with daughter, sister, friend. In the recipe for “me” these are a pinch only, examples of all the identities that make up what I call me. These few are easy to name because they seem point-at-able and concrete. But they are no more “me” than are other labels that appear more abstract: control-freak, book-lover, introvert, non-dancer, independent, solitary. In fact, the list is so long and so seemingly in my bones that I live from it without being able to define it. So what would happen if I broke the glass?
If the glass is the body, then one day it will break apart. And the “I” I thought was real will disappear. But what if the glass is imaginary? Rather than the body, what holds together all that I think of as me is only an idea, a projection, something without substance.
A Dhamma friend once suggested a list that she uses to work through the moments that are “difficult” in life. It begins with recognition by asking the question “Am I suffering in this moment?” In a difficult moment, the answer, obviously, would be yes. The suffering may be large or small. Mourning a death or feeling annoyed about a scam phone call. This morning, the suffering that caught my attention, was a wave of tears saying goodbye to my son as he left for another stint of work that will go on for several weeks.
The second question is “If I am suffering now, what am I attached to? Has a thought of my/I/mine arisen?” This morning, the significance of the second part of this equation became crystal clear to me. What am I attached to? Well, at first it seems, the answers are obvious: my husband (in the case of mourning), my privacy and peace of mind (in the case of the scam call), and my son (in the case of this morning's tears). But clearly, when I list the moments this way, “my” is the common factor in all three of these instances.
The questions now lead to a response: “Make an effort to let go the attachment.” Previously, I might have said that I am attached to a person in two of these cases and to a feeling in the other. And the idea of letting go of these attachments, especially to the two beings involved, causes another lurch of suffering. But suddenly in this moment of insight I see that I am attached to the personal sense of “me”, to the possessive pronoun “my”, to the idea that forms the container for the ideas that fill it. Everything inside this glass is me and mine. This glass contains me as wife, me as a person with rights and a sense of justice, and me as mother. My actions and words draw on this. But like the illusion it is, me/my/mine dissolves when looked at directly; shift perspective and the transparent glass is nothing at all.
It is the attachment that should be let go. That tiny, seemingly insignificant pronoun. Not the memory of a beloved man, not privacy or peace, not a much loved son. Letting go of “me” brings a crystal clear moment of freedom.
I've likely referred to this piece of wisdom before. I know it comes to mind often. Have it under a magnet on my fridge: Expectations are premeditated resentment. This is a gem that turned in the mind reveals more depth than at first imagined. Lately I've been thinking that expectations are sneaky things. They become habits of mind that are difficult to root out. Difficult to see. They form a template, in fact, for viewing the world.
This comes to mind in a specific way for me as June, a month of significant dates, approaches. It will be four months, one third of a year in linear time, since my husband's death. In June too there will be what would have been his 58th birthday. And barely afterward the public marking of Father's Day. I expect to be shaken and sad, I've discovered. And my body is what reveals this to me. Mornings I often wake in a cloud of ennui. “Sweet ennui”, Peter Townsend called it in the lyrics of one of his songs, but this does not have that taste. This is ennui without the sugar of the second syllable, without the “we”. It's cloying. A bit unpleasant but inescapable. Mindfulness allows me to notice it. Right mindfulness reveals that this heavy state of mind is not “healthy”. And I do the work of both turning toward and uprooting, but with a great reluctance that makes this less than effective. It's like asking a five year old to weed your garden. Only the really in-your-face invaders are dealt with and then, the roots are likely left in place.
Now I don't imagine that this is the sort of expectation the author of this pithy saying had in mind. Previously, I've mostly applied it to such things as expecting a happy Christmas, or expecting help with the dishes from the kids after a meal, and then noticing what happens when those expectations are not met. But here I see that expecting something dire means that the resentment of what seems inevitable colors the landscape even now. Looking through the warping lens that tells me bad times are ahead, today is also distorted. Ah, what a convoluted thing the thinking mind is.
Why, I wonder, should a day that has Jim's name on it, so to speak, be anything different from all the days that are permeated by his absence? Some confused expectation that is knitted from old patterns of anticipated happy times and the still emerging patterns of loss.
So I took my undisciplined mind for a walk. Literally inviting it into the body, I put the leash on my dog and headed down our road. Feeling the heaviness that rested around my heart in a physical way, I let that drain through my torso and into my shoes, in the same way I ground on a yoga mat. Let the negative energy disperse into the reliable earth that supports me, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally too. Walking in the dust and gravel, I could sense each step releasing a little of the negativity my body held. As I became lighter I was able to raise my eyes from the ground to the high clouds, the budding trees and the antics of my happy dog. And then I could hear the frog songs and the bird choruses that were threading through the air. Letting expectations of any kind go meant a space for what was here. Ignoring pushy mind, I let my body talk to me, tell me what it needed. And for this I was rewarded.
The most reliable treatment for a heavy heart, and a contracted mind, is to open. The only channel this embodied being has for that is the body. Whether it is a walk, Tai Chi by my biggest window, yin on the living room floor, or using a bow saw to cut up a fallen tree, I'm learning more urgently than ever, to listen and to let the body talk.
The room isn't very large. It's a classroom in a small college, and its usual purpose is revealed in the whiteboards, chalk boards and pull down film screen. A number of chairs have been moved out into the hallway and a few to the back of the room to form a couple of closely placed rows. In the cleared space, all manner of folk, young and old, sit almost shoulder to shoulder, in varying postures on a variety of cushions and blankets, zabutons and meditation benches. In one front corner a low table is graced with a small Buddha image, in the other a second table with a basket for dana (donations for the teacher). Large pots of flowers sit beside each table. Front and centre a more elaborate arrangement of blankets and cushions where the teacher sits, often draped in a black shawl, as windows are pushed open to the cool spring air.
This is my first formal retreat in the nearly two years during which what had become the pattern of my life was abandoned to a new pattern, as my husband and I navigated the unpleasant and often frightening landscape of his illness.
Meditation and daily mindfulness practice sustained me in that time in a way that was mostly solitary. A return in some ways to early years when I began this path on my own. Yet, I have now a network of Dhamma friends and a commitment to a wise teacher at a distance, as well as a small but vital and beloved sangha here in my hometown. Yet, I had a heart longing to sit among many, known and unknown to me, sharing the intentions and the journey toward a peaceful heart, a harmonious existence, and, ultimately, liberation from suffering. To be exclusively held awhile in this practice, without the multiple things-to-do that are inevitable in daily life.
Retreating again was in some ways like revisiting a favorite place. The rhythms of retreat, the formalities, held me easily. Bells, walking, sitting, silence, community. Often I was aware of the lift of spontaneous gratitude to be here. Not only to hear Dhamma wash over me in the teaching and guided meditations, but to breathe it in in the shared intentions of our group, to carry it with me back to my silent hotel room at day's end where I journalled and sat more. In the mornings gratitude infused my waking breath and carried into the yin asanas on my bright orange mat, and through my breakfast of muffins brought from home, an apple from the reception desk bowl, and strong tea made in the wee suite kitchen. Then I walked the chilly morning streets of the area before making my way back to that small college room and my particular place on the floor.
But retreating again was also new territory. This is the first retreat I have ever sat without the invisible thread that connected me to my husband holding our home for my return. Without his blessing as I left, his hug to return to. Without his care for the living things our life enfolds...at one time small children who have grown and flown over those years...always a host of plants and a changing roster of pets. This time there was a need for a neighbor to feed the cat, for a good kennel for my dog, for a rush of plant watering when I got home. This time there was a different tone to the leaving and to the returning. My only debriefing in the pages of my journal, and later with friends and family in small bits and pieces. No collapsing into a kitchen chair across from him with a mug of tea, exploring aloud the entire experience. He would often laugh at the avalanche of words that the silence held back and after long retreats of weeks, this was formidable.
The practice which has sustained me through shock, through caretaking, through loss, has itself been changed by these experiences. There is a greater tenderness at its heart, more spontaneous arising of the Divine Abidings, particularly love and compassion. Small inroads in the development of equanimity. This is what life offers, the first Noble Truth : there is suffering. But the dominoes fall. I have awareness of the cause in my clinging and selfing; I know the effectiveness, the wisdom of the path; and the promise of release shines more clearly on the horizon.
At least once a week now I take a Jeep load of “stuff” to the Thrift shop drop off location. I put an empty box in a corner of my bedroom and through the days, I sort. Some to that box directly, some to piles in the living room or hallway, or even my husband's former office. These piles are designated for kids to look through or for other family members or for possible sale. Eventually much of the stuff in those piles also makes its way to the box and eventually to the Jeep.
When we moved here about eight years ago it was from a much larger home, and we sifted and down-sized considerably. So it is a bit of a revelation now to see not only how much we held on to but also what more has accumulated. Even without the will to do so. Hmmm.
So all this has me thinking, of course, about simplification and renunciation. I have a friend who gave away all his possessions upon ordaining as a monk. Some of those things are now in my own home. Most of the stuff my parents accumulated over their lives was dispersed, but I have a few things, small and large, among my own possessions. Will they matter to my kids who might not recall their origins or who just won't have room in their lives for fancy teacups or an antique desk? Hard to say. At some point, it's obvious, someone will inherit things that have no emotional pull for them...this generation or the next or the next.
Stewardship. Not just of land, of homes and treasures, but of all manner of things large and small. This process of sorting is more poignant for me than the process my husband and I went through together upon retirement. This time, I see not only “his stuff” but “my stuff”, the stuff I hang on to, with different eyes.
What matters to me among my husband's possessions? Some I believe were especially dear to him and so for me there is a bond of trust that makes them “sticky”. But even then, I find myself reflecting. If it were reversed, if he were sorting my things, I can imagine what he'd think I had attachment to. And from here I want to whisper: it doesn't matter. The stone Buddha, the handmade crafts our sons made for Mother's Days, the rows of journals. In the end it isn't “stuff and nonsense” as the popular idiom goes, but “stuff is nonsense”, isn't it?
What matters to me are the memories, the years. Despite their sentimental value, even the photographs we have mean so much less than some of the moments engraved in my memory which were never recorded in any other way. And that, logically, reminds me that those last only as long as this body, this mind, this memory last.
Impermanence as an incentive to renunciation makes more sense to me now. That doesn't mean I'm ready to “give it all away”, though I'm giving a lot of it away, little by little. But it does mean that even if I hold to things physically awhile longer, years maybe, I am not holding to them in the same way. Thich Nhat Hanh talks of drinking from the cup that is already broken. Knowing stuff is just stuff, and not only breakable, but, finally, pretty insignificant in the big picture.
Pharaohs' tombs were filled with stuff that languished until carried to museums, to languish some more in storerooms a lot of the time between periods of display. When I was a child I found “treasures” in garage sale bins of half broken things; as I grew I became more discerning, or so I thought. My emerging perspective is to see that “treasure” isn't anything I might hold in my hands, only what I hold in my heart.
There are pussy willows in the gully at the front of our property. Mud holes for the dog to play in. Mice about for the cat to catch. Mounds of poop to scoop near the pasture fence...till now hidden in the snow. It does feel like spring.
My heart lifts, but like a balloon it has a tether. It was a long winter for my sick husband, huddled by the fire most days, wrapped in layers. And the ice was treacherous too. Now he's not here to see the turning of the seasons.
It has felt sort of like one long day. The legalities our “advanced” and systematized society requires have taken and continue to take a lot of my time. Paperwork, phone calls, numbers, letters, and files. So much of that. Here and there I'm also beginning to sort the “stuff” we all accumulate, finding loving homes for many music books, warm coats and vests, almost new shoes, and so many other things. Setting aside stuff for the kids. Running across ordinary items that break me open with memory, so that I am stopped in my tracks and retreat from the effort to cry awhile, and then to breathe.
How does practice fit in with this process? Not a piece in the puzzle. Not something I take up now and then in order to find peace. But as with everything, this path both encircles and opens, forming a container that holds this, as it holds all my life. No moment in the day is without a sense of loss. No moment in the day is without a sense of this as a human truth. Not merely my personal loss, but the impermanence of all life and all phases and things, obvious in the seasons, and made manifest in this leave taking too.
Solitary life means a dropping of the schedules that we develop in shared times. As a culture we agree on hours for business, the convention of weekends and yearly vacations, certain days designated as holidays. In households we set patterns to accommodate the members...mealtimes, waking times, bedtimes. We develop certain ways of spending leisure and of dividing work. I've lived alone only briefly, ever, in my life. But there is already an ease here that I see as akin to retreating, something I've done a lot of though never for the extended months and years some practitioners do.
So what is happening without planning is a dropping into meditation as a punctuation in my days. Not sitting when bells ring or at certain designated times, but as a place to center and restore between this and that. In the way that I settle for a few minutes into each posture in yin practice, I find a need to drop into stillness in my day to allow mind, heart and body rest and opening. Maybe after a bout of tears. Maybe after a long and difficult phone call about legalities and processes. Maybe after a meal or a walk. Or before beginning a task. Before sitting at the computer. I sit 10 minutes or 20 or 30 or without any marker at all. My life has fewer markers and this is helping me to understand the arbitrariness of time.
Why shouldn't this period feel like one very long day, or like years though it's not yet two months? Time is a concept we invented that pays homage to change. The movement of the earth around the sun. The changes in the light. For me right now, the changes of light and the movement of the earth are less apparent than the shifting of shadow and light in my heart, the sense of monumental internal change happening at the rate that icebergs melt or grass grows. Perhaps not visible yet, but present as something unnameable below the level of a vibration or tremor. Would time lapse photography catch the way my life, my self is changing, dissolving even? Not in a bad way. But as something felt, rather than as concepts in my head. No core. Only change.
Spring. It colors loss in pastel colors and softens the edges. I am making deep bows of gratitude to the example of the Buddha, to the Dhamma manifested, to the precious support of the Sangha. I understand a little better the fragile and fleeting nature of this life, and I love perhaps with a more open hand and heart, not pulling to me so tightly what I cannot hold. Change is in the air I breathe. I am only change.