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.

 

Leaving Lexington

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“Leaving Lexington…” I’ve texted this phrase a hundred times if I’ve texted it once, but on New Year’s Eve, I sent this message for what will likely be the last time. Packing the last of my belongings out of my bachelor pad and into my car, I headed a couple of towns west to move into my wife’s home. It isn’t a far move, but the distance isn’t the point. In a small way that’s significant to no one but me, it’s the end of an era. I am the last member of my family to inhabit the town that my grandfather immigrated to from Ireland in 1915. As he put it in “The Girl From Donegal,” a poem legendary to a dozen or so surviving family members, “I hit the road for Lexington, that place of great renown; no brass band played and no parade did welcome me to town.” I can honestly attest to a similar lack of fanfare upon my humble departure 100 years later. But it isn’t simply family history that makes this move interesting. It’s something more than that… something deeper. Buddhist Stuff. Namely, attachment and impermanence.

I like to think of myself as someone without strong material attachments, but the process of sifting through the detritus of my past sketched a slightly different picture. It’s a curious experience indeed to physically handle every single object that one owns. I was faced with artifacts of life phases gone by that have survived move after move after move. Books. I’m speaking primarily about books here. I’ve tried to travel light, and over the years I’ve instigated periodic purges, donating or selling books to try to lessen the load, but some are more difficult to part with. Spiritual books, mainly, books by teachers who have told me what I’ve needed to hear when I’ve been ready to hear it; Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, Steve Hagen, Joseph Goldstein… the usual suspects, really, for American spiritual seekers of my generation.

I’ve read and reread all these books and would likely read them again, but in contemplating the prospect of moving hundreds of pounds of paper yet another time, I had to consider what I was really clinging to. I had an interesting conversation once with a young person who grew up downloading all his music. He suggested that the reason we oldsters are so into our albums is that we feel a need to somehow “own” the music rather than to simply experience it as it plays. There might be something to this theory. Perhaps I subconsciously want to own the teachings contained in the dozens of books on my shelf, to display them like trophies, or like souvenirs from far off places I’ve visited. Ram Dass reminds us in Grist for the Mill that “the Dharma belongs to no one.” He found this point so important that it’s the first line of the book… before the page with the table of contents… so I sold all his books to a metaphysical bookstore in Cambridge.

Interestingly, however, I hung onto my albums. I’ll probably get rid of them eventually, but not today. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan… the usual suspects for American spiritual seekers of my generation. I haven’t actually owned a turntable in close to twenty years, but these old records fall into a category of belongings that is so common, so legitimate, that it was recognized in print by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: stuff that I can’t let go of YET. Although Bill Wilson was referring specifically to “defects of character” or mental habits when he wrote that “even the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet,'” the psychological mechanism of mental attachment is very similar to that of physical clinging.[1] Hence the tremendous power and effectiveness of ritual.

Ram Dass speaks of an Indian fire ceremony in which participants ritualistically place whatever they want to get rid of inside a coconut and toss it into a fire.[2] In 12 Step Recovery parlance, this is known as “letting go of old ideas.”[3] In my case, the process also involved letting go of old relationships, or at least loosening my grip on them to let them slide into their proper place in the past. It occurred to me as I looked over all of my stuff that, just as I’ve clung to books and albums that are physical artifacts of my life, I’ve dragged along physical artifacts of other people’s lives, as well. People who are no longer alive. A father, a brother, a past girlfriend… It occurred to me also that these things are more than just mementos; they, like gravestones and monuments, represent a desperately futile attempt to create permanence. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but eventually, everything must go. Ourselves included. I thanked each one of those departed individuals as I dropped their stuff off at the thrift store, placed it in a donation bin, or simply threw it in the trash.

Attachment involves a lack of acceptance of impermanence. Throughout the process of downsizing my belongings, not only have I come to accept the impermanence of loved ones, I’ve come a little bit closer to accepting my own impermanence. I am not these hundreds of items that I possess, nor am I this body. What am I? Don’t know. I do know, however, that at some point in the not so distant future, someone will be sifting through my stuff after I’ve died. Maybe they’ll grab a memento or two, or pick up a piece of my writing, smile and say, “I’ll probably get rid of this eventually, but not today.”

REFERENCES
[1] Anon., (1952). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 66

[2] Ram Dass, (1976). Grist for the Mill, Harper Collins, p. 53.