A bird in the bush – Forest Refuge retreat

Sunday, November 3, 2013

shapeimage_2-9It was wonderful to return to Forest Refuge for ten days just as the peak of fall colors were blowing away in the wintery winds. My yogi job was sweeping the decks and entrance ways, and I learned a tremendous amount about letting go and letting be from the ever blowing leaves. By the afternoon, there were always more leaves on the decks no matter how many I swept away in the morning. It was incredibly beautiful to be outside just as the sun was rising, even though some mornings it was close to freezing. The amazing quiet and stillness of the place was especially so in the newest moments of each day. Sitting was delicious, and I was so happy to be here with Susan O’Brien teaching, and a number of my classmates from ISPP also on retreat. Even though we didn’t speak, we felt a warm bond of support as we passed each other in the hall or the dining room.
Most of the excitement of the retreat happened out in the woods, where I spent most afternoons. One of the first days, as I walked down the road towards Pleasant Street, I heard a rustling racket in some bushes. I stopped to see what it was, and looked mindfully for quite some time, but couldn’t see the source of the sound. I noticed how much I wanted to see whatever bird was probably scuffling about. I finally decided to let go of that craving and continue with my walk. On my way back, as I passed the same spot, I saw some small brown birds hopping around in the leaves on the ground. Yup – that’s what I thought it was, small brown birds rustling the leaves. Pretty ordinary.
Another day when I was walking on the wooded trails, I stopped again to listen to some rustling in the leaves. It was coming from down the hill on the other side of a stone wall, and it was getting louder and louder as I listened. Yikes, what is it???? I peered and peered into the yellow and orange woods but couldn’t see what was making the noise. It sounded much bigger than a small brown bird, maybe a squirrel, maybe a bear, no probably not a bear, but maybe it could be a bear, or a wild turkey, yes that’s more likely, and it is coming closer and closer, maybe a whole flock of wild turkeys to be making that much noise – ah what the mind does during a meditation retreat. I finally saw the wild state my wanting mind had gotten me into and decided to let go of needing to know what the sound was. OK good for me, for today at least.
The next day as I walked by that same spot in the woods, I heard, down the hill in the trees, the cackling and squeaking of a large flock of blackbirds and starlings. In the fall they love to swarm around in huge coordinated flocks. As I stopped to listen, a fellow FR yogi came along the path and we stood together and enjoyed the chorus for several minutes. Finally, he continued on his walk and with the crunching sound of his steps, suddenly all chirping stopped, and for a moment it was strangely quiet. Then in perfect unison the flock lifted out of the trees with a whooshing sound and took flight up the hill and lighted in the trees just over our heads. I was surrounded and the sound filled me like an orchestral climax. Perhaps what I heard the day before was this whole flock rustling in the leaves on the ground and hidden from view. Now I could clearly see them in the trees over head. My heart soared with wonder and joy.

It is so interesting how external circumstances so often reflect the inner state of your mind – in regular life, and especially on retreat. Wanting to know the source of the rustling sound felt like a koan, or part of the famous Ox Herding drawings. I had begun the retreat by reading a short talk by Ajahn Chah in which he mentioned that in order to know what the mind is, you have to look at what is in the mind. He used this example: you know what a spittoon is because you know what is in a spittoon. Hum…that stuck with me and was churning in the background the whole time. One day, sitting on a rock in the woods it occurred to me that the “woods” are made up of “the things in the woods” – trees, leaves, rocks, birds, moss, streams, etc. The woods don’t exist as a separate distinct entity, only as a collection of all the things that make up the woods. In that way, it followed that the mind is made up of the things in the mind – sights and seeing, sounds and hearing, thoughts and thinking etc. Yeah, isn’t that from the suttas???? At my meeting with Susan, she agreed that this was an insight, incredibly ordinary as it seemed. Hearing the teachers say it is one thing, seeing it yourself is something different. Yes, of course it is a little brown bird rustling in the leaves. Yet a few days later, after I had gone to the Thursday group discussion, I was sipping tea in the dining room and the huge swarm of starlings swooped in and surrounded me: we are all having the same experiences, seeing, hearing, tasting, thinking etc. It is only when we make them “mine” that we suffer. Yes, the teachers have been saying this all along, but it feels so different when you see it and know it yourself. Seeing clearly and knowing what is there – heart full of wonder and joy.

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