A Contemplative Life

When I was four or five years old, I started practing Metta, loving kindness, before falling asleep, my sangha of stuffed animals and dolls lining the wall beside me. It was a rigorous commitment, sending love to all beings, in concentric circles, starting with the furthest away. Every night, I tried to imagined what other life forms might co-inhabit the universe, and I sent human kindness to them all, slowly working inwards to our planet, then my rural town in southern NH. Eventually the ripples narrowed to my acquaintances, family, friends, and finally my stuffed animals. Only then did I allow a wish for myself. When I ran into trouble sending love to anyone, for example being terrified of alien abduction, I breathed in their tension and breathed peace into their hearts. I found out later that this is called Tonglen. 

When I was twenty-one, I came up with another practice, while living in Saratoga Springs NY. It was during one of my stints saving money in the US to fund my utopian life in Spain. I had dropped out of college, foregoing a four-year merit scholarship to Bennington, to follow my intuition as a mystic. Three girlfriends from high school and I rented a house in a quiet neighborhood walking distance from downtown. I worked two waitressing jobs, and when I had a free shift, I would bike to the public forest outside of town, drawn by spiritual yearnings. Basically, I was doing sitting and walking meditation, though these were unheard-of to me at the time. My upbringing involved no religion. 

Hiding my bike in the underbrush, I bushwhacked, my long brown hair dangling as I pushed past limbs and scrambled over decaying logs away from roads and trails. Finding a scenic place took time. I liked spots with a clearing, slightly elevated, ideally with water, a marsh or stream, in sight. I sat perfectly still, eyes open, noticing the contrast between smooth beech, rough cherry or variegated ash bark. The musty peat smell wafted from the forest floor. I savored the sulphuric stench of muck scooped from grassy beaver bogs, and I chewed black birch twigs, coughing as their root-beer-flavored fibers scratched my throat. I strengthened my endurance for uncertainty, which hurts, upheld by the mood of the forest. Nature is always harmonious, though all wild things are rooted deeply in death. 

A fallen oak, propped at a slant, invited me to practice balancing fifteen or twenty feet in the air, conquering my fear of heights. One of my favorite indulgences is picking apart natural objects. Seeing their construction is evidence of the implicate order of things. While roving over mossy knolls, and around pine thickets, I usually dissected something with my fingers, affectionately demolishing seed pods, flowers, pinecones or rotting chunks of wood, dropping them absentmindedly to caress a tree or a stone. A more disciplined endeavor was honing my perspective, focusing my awareness on the periphery. Listening to everything in unison, the breeze, a sad morning dove, the shrill staccato call of another bird, friendly chirps answering each other, all sounds became music. Trucks belched over the faint drone of the highway far away, and rodents scampered frantically then froze, scampered then froze, not sure if I was a threat. I used my eyes in this wide-lens way as well, drinking from ear to ear the impressionist panorama. Sunlight dappled vertical trunks. The rolling contour of the land enticed me to explore, stopping to admire horizontal strokes of foliage. Other times I zoomed in on a rotten stump, a fern, or the neon leaves of a sapling as I lay under them, sunlight shining through from the blue sky beyond. 

One day, my aimless ramblings led me to a fort someone had built in a spacious glade, far away from civilization. The center pole of the fort supported smaller limbs and branches with dry leaves piled on top. Inside, a few gaps illuminated the dirt floor surrounding a dim fire pit circled with stones. A dry coach pillow nestled against the with a bell beside it, which I rang. Another ring echoed. Looking around, I spotted a triangle hanging from the center of the twiggy ceiling, the kind played in orchestras. I sounded the bell in my hand again, and the triangle replied. No vowels. No consonants. Just tone. The same tone.

It’s like human karma. We find each other this way. How else could I have found my teacher in Spain who inspired me to move back there year after year to study art with him? Like a bell, he drew out the best in me by simply allowing me to observe his everyday life. I learned so much more in those four years than I would have at college. How else did I find Preeti Ji, Geovanni, Alexandra and my other teachers? How did I recognize instantly the lessons I’m learning now? Resonance.

The bells are not the end of the story. I got even closer to truth that day, so close I have been altered ever since. I found a poem, neatly scribed in pencil on a small hand-torn piece of paper, on the ground near the cushion. The verse contained about ten lines. If only I had some way to copy them. It explained how reality is a frozen mirage, transparent, with sunlight streaming through. The only word I remember for sure is “crystalline.”

This being the information age, people look things up online. A lot. That’s where the twenty-first century is leaning, hunched over, arms stiffened, noses to the screen, getting smarter. I know the feeling, forearms pressed on the table growing numb as my fingers command and type, ignoring kinks in my neck and shoulders. One of my teachers, Dennis Klocek, who happens to resonate with a different tone than me for now, but whom I respect immensely, said that the internet is a sorry substitute for clairvoyance. 

We encompass the mystery, an intelligent substrate full of cracks. Genuine interest spawns increasingly refined fractals of meaning, our true essence penetrating the entire matrix. This weave of wondering and knowing beckons us. What sense told me I had stumbled on a gem in that fort, a peer-reviewed gold mine of wisdom? The kindred bells and the meaning of the poem answered questions I had been living with for years. I found a perfect mirror, setting me free to ask new questions, to change the tune of my song. To awaken is to rest in the forgotten. How we surrender, moment to moment, becomes our eulogy.

Inventing Metta practice, Tonglen and mindfulness meditation is not unique. Bearing the sweetest fruits of contemplation is every human’s birthright. That’s what we do when not distracted by the media. My current practice is noticing universal law through the example of this life’s experience. “My” biography is direct scientific proof of cause and effect, rather than the personal beads of a storyline.

Version 2

My mother took child rearing very seriously. She listened to her inner bell when deciding whether to shelter me or expose me to societal conventions. I was born in a cabin that she built herself with no running water. No electric wiring or gadgets came near me until age one. On raw wood walls kerosene lamps and candle holders were nailed, and water buckets were hauled from a nearby stream for washing. My toys were made of cloth and wood, or I had no toys at all, just mud puddles, sheepskin and metal pans to play with. We never owned a television. I still do not watch movies or tv, and looking things up online is something I do with discretion. Greater authority abides in silence. 

I think about the unknown, for hours, days, for weeks. Many questions stay with me for years. I dream about them. I pay attention to desires and regrets, not to manipulate my experience, but to understand how intention manifests conditions. I believe I am meant to be happy and continue reflecting. I ask questions in journals, of friends, to the trees, before falling asleep, diving after them, deep into the heart. The quest is immense and dark and warm. Intuitive awareness is not the same as the internet, but is is similar. Search results are not sorted by google. No one advertises to the psyche, which has access to myriad sources without websites.

Our bells ding incessantly, hammered by doubt, ignorance, hope, fear, paused by reverence. The soul sings with questions. 

After years of practicing Tonglen with my starry neighbors, extraterrestrial beings came to visit me. Finally, when I was six or seven, I could send Metta easily to them, and a light show was performed one night, right outside my mother’s house. I awoke instinctually from a deep sleep, wriggled to kneel on my pillow, blankets wrapped around my shoulders, chin propped on my hands clenching the lathed headboard of my bed. The farmhouse, where I lived from age three until graduating high school, was located on a dirt road bordered by tall maple trees on both sides, which always reminded me of a cathedral sanctuary. My bedroom on the third floor felt like a tree house because maple branches surrounded the dormer window in the refinished attic overlooking the mowed orchard of pruned apple trees. I watched, nose close to the windowpane, as light beams pivoted from the dark grassy area at the base of the orchard. They could have been police flashlights, though these were much brighter, extending miles into the sky. The beams widened towards the top, but below them was nothing but pitch black.

The light sources began to jump, vanishing and reappearing a stones throw away, with no pause in between. This would be impossible for humans to do, unless there were hundreds of people standing in my yard in the middle of the night turning one light off and another on at the same instant. This went on literally for hours. Gradually, the bases jumped faster and faster, and the long beams swung themselves into a frenzy. Then the movement decreased. I remained wide awake while slowly, one by one, the beams shortened, faded from white to golden, and extinguished. 

When the last light had disappeared and only silhouetted maple leaves stirred gently against the indigo sky, I saw a faint glow. A grayish shape, the size of a person, moved from the orchard towards the street. Running downstairs, I peered breathlessly out the kitchen window, careful not to make noise nor flip on any light switch. In front of our house, there was the gray figure again, moving at the speed of someone walking up the dirt road. It was not yet dawn, so no physical form could be distinguished. Alone in my pajamas, I was not afraid. Leaning as far as I could across the kitchen table, I watched until the ghost, or whoever it was, vanished into the darkness.

I rarely tell this story. Who would believe me? The bandwidth of reality perceived by humans is usually very narrow. Our bodies are fragile and short-lived. The truth remains quiet and hidden. But every now and then, we are nudged, like a child in the night, by something like a whisper. Where am I? Who am I? What am I? 

When I was young, I thought that the stars were tiny pinpricks where celestial beings, who lived happily together in a luminous community beyond, could peep into this sphere of earth and sky. The whole universe was condensed, a yin yang of night and day, ebony and opal. The heart effortlessly loves nature as something living. More and more people are learning to trust the voice of the heart. If we honor this relationship, through inquiry and rational thought, a gem sometimes falls into our lap. The landscape becomes crystalline. A guest waits to confirm our devotion.

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