March 20, 1016
It was spring break at Princeton and I arranged to spend 11 days at Forest Refuge. It had been a pretty mild winter so far and I had no weather trouble driving up to Barre where the ground was bare (no snow as in this picture). The temperature was moderate, with cold mornings, when I loved walking out on the beautiful deck after breakfast, and warmer afternoons for crunching through the dead leaves in the woods. I had no physical limitations this time and no family drama either. The past few months had been quite calm and steady in both my inner and outer world. I had a phone chat with Susan O’Brien in January and asked her about an interesting experience I was having pretty regularly: a mind state would come up, maybe an annoyance or worry, sometimes with an accompanying physical sensation, tight stomach, gripping chest, and I would take a step back and observe from a wider awareness and the state would just softly dissipate or evaporate. It felt like a gentle “I don’t have to get involved with this now, I don’t have to identify with this.” Is this OK? Am I avoiding or bypassing? No, Susan didn’t think it sounded like there was aversion in what I described. Seemed OK to her. Alright, continue.
In my first interview at FR, I asked Caroline Jones if I should use the breath to get some stability or just stay with open awareness. She suggested that when I got lost or spaced out I could use the intention to rest in open awareness as a grounding home base or reset. Hmm, that sounded sort of scary but good. I worked with it for the first few days, on and off the cushion, and it was very helpful. I could feel myself getting more calm and concentrated, interested in my moment to moment experience, aware of mindfulness being present, pretty equanimous, that’s five of the seven factors of awakening. Then one afternoon I came into the dining room after lunch to get my boots and coat for a walk in the woods and I saw something on the counter. It was a water jug filled with a clear liquid and a sign that said NE Spring Elixir. Interesting, what’s this!? I took a water tumbler and poured myself a small amount and raised it to my lips. As it entered my mouth and slid down my throat, it tasted cool and clear, pure and fresh and oh so delicately sweet. This must be the first sap run off from the maple trees, what eventually gets boiled down into maple syrup. At that moment it tasted like awareness itself and my heart filled with joy and energy. I headed down towards Gaston Pond and sat on a rock in the sun. A few years ago I had sat in this very spot trying to rest in open awareness and I kept drifting off into day dreams. I told Steve Armstrong about it and he said “try again.” This day I was aware of seeing, hearing, smelling, sensations on my skin, solid rock under my seat, air around me, water in the pond and in my mouth, fire coming from the warmth of the sun and in my belly. It was all very clear and ordinary. Then everything got a bit brighter and clearer and then sort of evaporated and dissipated into awareness. It was there and not there at the same time. Hmm, is this “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”? It only lasted a short time and then all was as it had been, just ordinary and extraordinary.
In the next few days I watched the wind blow the brown leaves around the yard outside my window. I watched delicate snow flakes appear in a sudden blizzard and then just as suddenly disappear as the sun came out. Ah, the changeable New England weather – of course everything is impermanent, and of course trying to hold on to anything causes suffering, like trying to hold onto a handful of sand. Of course Bob Dylan got it right – the answer is blowin’ in the wind, duh!!! Then, as is my habit, I got all excited and tried to hold onto the experience. I saw this too, and tried to go back to the intention to rest in awareness. When I saw Rebecca Bradshaw at my next interview and recounted all of this to her she smiled and said, yes it is exhausting to try to keep and catalogue all of our “special” experiences. She said there is a continuum between regular seeing and the unconditional, and we get acclimated to the new way of seeing as we move along it. Yes, she had said something like this to me a number of years ago and I didn’t understand. Now it makes more sense. I still had five days to see what there was to see and let go of it all. Susan O’Brien and I had emailed about possibly getting together, but I decided that I wanted to enjoy the calm, concentrated, open awareness that was happening, so I didn’t leave her a note. I knew she would understand.