To be alive
So totally alive
That I seem poised
To burst at the seams
Sending forth sparkling light
In all directions, above below and within
Merging with the stars and our great mother, earth
Becoming one with the dirt and debris until I smell like mud
Like mushrooms, bursting forth with the earth, of the earth, in darkness
Uncurling slowly and completely, animated and alive, returning to my true nature.
Seamless once again.
“There is a lesson in these fallow days, a lesson that does not come in frantic motion, but in the soft light of a lengthening day.”
~ Karen Maezen Miller
Storm showers continue outside as flotillas of dark clouds sail in from deep in the Pacific. She is most certainly not pacified today; rather her mood seems dark and stormy, full of strength and courage. As I type these words, occasional thunder can be heard and all of a sudden a furious downpour of perfectly round hail thunders down from high above, ricocheting off the metal roof of the bread oven. The noise increases in pitch as more balls of hail cruise down from deep within clouds and I jump up and head outside to see. From the relative protection of an overhanging roof I watch as the crystalline balls bounce off the deck, careening in all directions. Then as suddenly as it had started to hail, the iceballs metamorphose into falling rain falling originating in those same dark clouds. Its as if an alchemist resides inside the clouds turning ordinary substances into something miraculous.
As I pause and consider this transformation, I consider other miracles in the lore and myths of our culture. What do we mean by the word miracle – something amazing or supernatural? Something hard to believe or an event of great blessing, great gratitude? Or is each moment a miracle in and of itself, one that we seldom notice in our strivings and yearnings for something different than just this? Kaz Tanahashi, Zen teacher and master calligrapher said that, “A moment’s worth of transformation may seem so tiny but that moments add up to large-scale personal transformation. “Our narrow view,” he says, “always misses the wide ripples of a moment.” The wide ripples of small miracles are often overlooked as insignificant or even nonexistent. Oftentimes we don’t even notice them. We run around constantly distracted and distracting and reach the end of our days wondering where all the time has gone.
Let us take the time now in these “fallow days” of winter to slow down, be quiet and pay attention. We recently turned a corner, so to speak, and are now in lengthening days. The days before and after the winter solstice are times of deep quiet, of slowing down. Do you hear it? Can you feel it?
R.D. Lainge said, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.” By slowing down and becoming quiet like these deep days of winter, we can notice the small things, the miracles of this moment and by doing so expand our range of what it means to be us. Each moment is a miracle, if we notice it. And like the imperceptible alchemy of water turning into hail and back again to water, so too can our lives be transformed moment by moment, sending wide ripples into the soft light of these lengthening days.
“You have only to rest in inaction and things will transform themselves. Smash your form and body, spit out hearing and eyesight, forget you are a thing among other things, and you may join in great unity with the deep and boundless.”
~ Chuang Tzu
I hustle out the backdoor into the cold rain, grab a bucket of chicken food and hurry on my way. My head is down and I am lost in thought when suddenly my feet slip. My heart is instantly in my throat and pangs of fear shock it into beating wildly. I catch myself, narrowly escaping a meeting with the wood boards of the wet deck. “Whew, that was close,” I say to myself. Continuing on deliberately and slow, I raise my head up and am no longer lost in thoughts. Much steadier now, I feel balanced and stable and am able to finish up the chicken chores without further mishap.
Sewing recently with my Zen group, I had an interesting discussion with a friend about perspective and balance. She told me that her balance has worsened as she has aged, which isn’t surprising given that our balance usually declines from our 20s onward as we age. She also said that losing her balance is particularly easy when she has a narrow or blocked view. We know that vision is a critical component to maintaining balance so this isn’t surprising either. What struck me was that she said that if she has an expansive view, however, she feels much more balanced and stable. While she meant this physically, I also took this to mean metaphorically. There was even a period of her life when she was holed up in her house for a couple of months straight for medical reasons and that she would easily lose her balance during that time. When her medical incarceration was over and she could go outside, her balance was tentative but could be steadied if she could see the horizon. A narrow view was her balance nemesis.
This got me to thinking about the effect of one’s view and perspective on the balance a person experiences in their life and I think that my friend’s experience contains an important lesson. When we have a limited view, we easily become unbalanced because our perspective narrows. Jane Brody, in her New York Times article, “Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance, said “without a sense of balance, just about everything else in life can become an insurmountable obstacle.”
The reason that I nearly fell doing chicken chores was not because of a physical degeneration in my sight, proprioceptors in the bottoms of my feet or tiny hairs in my inner ear but because my perspective had narrowed. My whole world had focused in on thoughts in my head and I nearly fell on my ass. The benefit of the near disaster was of course that it opened me back up again to the world around me and in so doing returned balance to my life. I had become so focused on my own thoughts that I was missing what was going on all around me. When we have such limited views, we can’t help but be unbalanced. On the other hand when we have limitless sight, we are totally balanced and boundless. Being boundless requires great balance as we move rapidly from one moment to the next like moving from one boulder to the next. As I type this I am reminded of cross-country backpacking trips where I have had to navigate across boulder fields with rocks that moved haphazardly under my weight. In order to stay balanced on unbalanced ground, I had to move quickly and lightly while maintaining present awareness and a boundless field of vision (seeing the horizon). I had to know both where I was and where I was going in order to bound in a boundless field.
Our practice for maintaining a balanced life, then, is to expand our views and perspectives and to keep an eye on the horizon. What we don’t want to do is cultivate a narrowing of views which we know leads to imbalance. This would be like when you are about to pass out and your vision narrows to a dark tunnel ultimately ending in the height of imbalance – falling over. And the more myopic we become the less likely we are to venture forth into new territory – literally, cognitively, spiritually, and figuratively – because we are afraid of losing our balance, even if it is already a bit unbalanced. We erroneously think that by remaining in a narrow comfort zone that the ground beneath our feet is solid and therefore we won’t lose our footing. What I learned from my friend is that the opposite is actually true – that we need to venture forth and to expand our view in order to maintain our balance. This helps us navigate our always changing life and to not lose our balance in the process. The beauty of this is that we can take the expansive view with us wherever we go and we no longer have to worry about keeping our feet on so-called solid ground. This doesn’t guarantee we stay balanced anyway. When we keep our heads up and gaze out at the world as it is, we maintain a balanced and boundless state and realize the nature of the ground of our being: constantly changing and beautifully balanced.
“Scrubbed clean by the dawn wind, the night mist clears. Dimly seen, the blue mountains form a single line.”
~ Eihei Dogen (1248)
As I head to work, the once expansive clouds are now scattered and the sun is peaking out for the first time in a few days. With the scattered clouds come bouts of rain showers that are heavy at times. My mind, like the clouds, is scattered and like the storms is tumultuous. It’s racing and taking me with it. I notice this because of my actions and words which reflect a tumultuous mind and wonder at the reason. Perhaps it’s simply because I am running a bit late today and feel anxious. Bu where does this anxiety come from? Do I create it myself with expectations of when I “should” (I seriously dislike this world and seldom use it) arrive at work and its associated guilt? But what am I late to and for whom do I rush? And who exactly is doing all this rushing around chasing after things I can never catch?
The clouds part and sunrays beam through the sky like so many paintings of heavenly light. I look westward and see a partial rainbow, subtle and diffuse, hanging in a gigantic cumulous cloud. My agitated mind softens at the sight of so much beauty and I am reminded that even in the tumult of storms there is the sun shining bright and rainbows manifesting the colors of light. Rainbows form where storminess and calmness meet, where there is both raincloud and sunlight. This interpenetration of light and dark, storm cloud and clear sky, agitation and calm is the nature of our minds, our lives and this world we live it. How could it be any other way?
Onward I drive with a calmer mind and I laugh to myself – really at myself – at the ease with which I get caught up in my own mind. With a lighter heart I let the rainbow continue to radiate within, reminding me of the sun that is always shining above whatever clouds I create, whatever clouds there are. Do I hold on to this mind or let it flow freely, not resting on anything?