learning how to breathe (again…)
Since the day I first realized that I was coming back to the farm for the fall and winter I have thought about walking through the back forest after an autumn rain. For there is nothing that smells like a fall forest after a rain. The forest of eastern Ontario is deliciously wonderful in the fall.
In all of the things I have done in my life, it is one of my favorite things to do. It is like walking in/under a great rainbow of color. In all directions colors explode – while the dog zigzags this way and that, delirious on scents.
Birch groves seem whiter under their yellow leaves; the oaks moodier in their reds and oranges; the great pines off the back ridge seem more ominous in their great brooding greens that refuse to play along.
I have wanted to return to the spot where my meditation practice began when I was but twenty, when I was new to the idea of the just sitting, and listening.
It has rained most of the night, and now, at daybreak, I am walking back to the place where I once sat still enough – long enough – that I could watch all the forest mice re-emerge from the leaves to forage, watch as the chipmunks dropped pine cones from the pine canopy (to gather and bury against the howls of winter), watched as the porcupine slowly climbed a tree and went about its business. Watched once – stone silent – as a bear walked through the valley below me.
But today I have the dog – who wants the whole world to be his friend – and so he has happily chased away two young does as we crossed the back field. They, fleeing in great leaps, not understanding that he just wants to play; and he, not understanding that hunting season is but a fortnight away.
The chipmunks chirp angrily at him from the edge of the forest and the mice will remain hidden as long as he is tramping along the forest floor.
I cross the back fields and follow the ridge that snakes higher and higher up through the middle of our forest like the half-buried spine of some long ago reptilian creature until I come upon the old meditation rock – the peak of the small summit – perhaps a hundred feet above the valley floor below.
I have discovered that what was once exposed rock is now covered in a thick layer of moss, and in places crisscrossed with old fallen trees – much like the state of my own meditation practice – which I had abandoned last winter. Which, if I were honest, I had abandoned long before that, and had only sat sporadically for the last number of years, until I had stopped completely.
It is hard to explain how one loses something that was once such a major part of one’s life.
I had been introduced to Buddhism and meditation in the early 1980’s as a young man wandering through south-Asia, and by the mid-’90’s I would leave the world on occasion to sit for entire days – I once spent an entire summer purely in meditation.
I often sat so quietly at dusk that raccoons would sniff me on their way by to the garden.
And for fifteen years after that I had an evening practice that had me sitting for an hour, five or six days out of every seven. …For years I taught meditation classes, took classes, sat at Temple, walked with Buddha.
But samsara is a powerful undertone to life. It sits, and moves like water; its surface tension always tugging at the hem of your socks, catching your eye with something pretty, pulling you back into the fray of social expectations, going everywhere, even to places men despise (to paraphrase Lao Tzu).
I woke up one day this summer realizing that I now spent almost all of my waking hours distracted by all of the hurly-burly things that so enchant us. Movies, concerts, work, partners, children, books, community meetings, Spanish classes, volunteering, restaurants, laundry… the list goes on – my life turned into the fizzy bubbles that exists just off the top edge of a glass of soda.
I caught myself thinking of my old practice through the eye of some post-meditating ironic hipster. I looked around for the Buddha, but realized that he was now somewhere in a box in the basement – with all the other boxes of books in our move back to the farm.
So, now I go back to the Beginning. To a sitting mind that has lost its way and now moves like the mid-day ripples in the back pond. Incessant thoughts. Endless thoughts. Thinking about writing. About today’s chores. About money. Getting a latté. Doing laundry. My mother’s health. My health. Is my daughter happy? What to get my partner for Christmas?
“Sit!” I say to myself. “Just sit. Sshh!”
And for a slice of a moment my mind settles. Like the pond last night at dusk. Clear. Quiet. My mind’s eye moves over the water as I sit in my drifting canoe. I listen only to the sound of the paddle stroke cutting through the glass water.
It was beautiful on the pond last night. Watching the beaver fuss over his dam. The absolute stillness of the water. I need to get a new life jacket. What should we make for dinner tonight? And off my mind goes again…
Breathe! Slow it all down.
I re-focus and hear the water as it drips from mist covered leaves. I suddenly realize that the forest is dripping all around me. I had not heard it before this very moment. Slow it all down. Breathe. Smell the fall forest in all of its spent fecundity.
Just sit still.
Move at the speed of deep time. Move at the speed of this forest.
Be like the tree that sits in front of me.