Knowing Ourselves

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In New Hampshire, we know ourselves by winter.  – Robert Frost

I don’t live in New Hampshire.  I did, for a long time many years ago, but I have since moved back to my native Massachusetts, just south of the Granite State.  Not so far south, however, that we’re not given occasion to slow down for two or three months every year, to go inward, to reflect, to take stock, and, in the words of local hero Henry David Thoreau, “to front only the essential facts of life.”  I would amend Frost‘s words, if I may be so audacious, to read “in New England, we know ourselves by winter.”  And this year, in this corner of the United States, winter is not going softly into that proverbial good night.  Though the calendar tells us that spring is a week away, as I sit here now looking out my window at the woods outside of Boston, snow has been steadily falling for the past twelve hours and is expected to continue for another twelve, and the view is nothing short of sublime.  Practically everything in my field of vision is white save for the flashes of crimson, black, and muted gold of the cardinals, chickadees, and goldfinches that jockey for position at the thistle seed feeder hanging from the cherry tree outside the window.  Except for the snowflakes and the birds, there is no movement; time has stopped, and I’m left with the simple silent beauty of a forest snowfall.

The meditation comes easily, effortlessly.  Awareness becomes whittled down to only this moment as the cosmos so generously hands us what we endeavor so diligently to create in the Dharma Room: a sparse and calm environment free of distraction where the mind is ultimately left to itself.  It occurs to me that I’m in the same space of quiet expansiveness that I was blessed with seven years ago when I sat a week-long silent retreat at Diamond Hill Monastery on the grounds of Providence Zen Center, the international headquarters of the Kwan Um School of Zen.  Snow had just started to fall as I drove down there with Sung, a sangha member from Open Meadow Zen.  It was beginning to accumulate as we walked up the dirt road to Diamond Hill.  “If you have anything to say to me, say it now,” she half-jokingly said, “because we won’t be talking for a long time.”  And with that, we disappeared into the silence and routine of Korean-style practice.

It snowed every day for the entire week.  We began each day sitting in the 4 a.m. darkness of the large Dharma Hall, and my fondest memory of that week was opening my eyes as the chukpi was sounded to signal the end of the morning sitting period.  As breakfast was brought into the hall to be eaten temple-style, while still seated on our cushions, the light of false dawn illuminated the surrounding woods just enough to show us freshly fallen or still-falling snow.  I felt the awe, excitement, and happiness of a child waking up on Christmas morning.  During periods of outdoor walking meditation, the temple became the world, fresh and new, each step an act of creation, every wooded path untrodden.

That’s the hook of the snowfall:  the freshness, the unfamiliarity, the profound sense of interest I feel in looking out of this window I’ve looked out of a thousand times.  Gone is the false belief that I’ve seen this moment before.  I never tire of watching the snow fall.  With awareness, there is no boredom.  How do I hold this awareness, this appreciation, this sense of interest in this present moment when the skies clear, when the snow melts, when the flowers bloom, and when the air is full of activity and distraction?  Perhaps this is the question that Frost alluded to with his observation that “we know ourselves by winter.”  He didn’t say “we know ourselves in winter;” he said “we know ourselves by winter.”  To know myself by winter doesn’t mean that the snow has to be falling for a day straight in order for me to find this sacred center.  Having experienced this, it is available to me at any time of year, and at any point on the globe.  As Black Elk said of his Vision Quest, “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the hoop of the world.”  John G. Neihardt, Black Elk’s biographer, offers the following footnote: “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” [1]             Joseph Campbell remarked that this gives us an indication that Black Elk had a clear understanding of the relationship between symbolic reference and direct experience.

To borrow a phrase from Campbell, the epic snowstorm that I’m in the middle of right now is a “reference point,” meaning that it has deep intrinsic value that is not limited to the experience itself.  Peak experiences are called “peak experiences” because we don’t get to stay there.  We have to come back down sooner or later; that’s Impermanence.  A true practitioner develops the innate capacity to incorporate those experiences into his or her daily existence when the snow stops, when the silent retreat is over, or when the Vision Quest ends.  Very easy to write.  Not so easy to do.

The good news about impermanence?  I won’t have to shovel my car out for another nine months.

 

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”

[1] Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska         Press, 1932, p.43.

 

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