It’s a warm, moist Memorial Day morning — clear and windless. Earlier, just as the day’s heat was beginning to settle, I did Qigong outside behind the barn for the first time in many years. Then, I sat down right there, next to the asparagus bed, to meditate — using the sixteen steps of awareness of in and out breathing. I hadn’t planned to do this, but I had gotten the laundry done very early so that others in the house could use the washing machine on their day off. I had just finished hanging the clothes on the line to dry when the pervasive stillness of the morning found its way into me and gently pulled my attention farther into the backyard, around the corner into a more secluded garden space.
I felt I was in direct relationship with a palpable, alive silence: like the one we have probably all experienced at times; like the one that had awakened in me a desire to live in the Upper Valley, over fifty years ago. That day in August, while driving from Montreal to my then-home in New Jersey, I had stopped to get gas, and, as I stepped from the car, I felt it immediately, an all-encompassing, spacious silence, one that held and supported me.
A profound and quiet sense of contentment, which I remember from childhood, entered into me that day. It had a vast, comfortably spacious feeling, one that I now know intimately through meditation practice. It has the quality of refuge.
Since the last Valley Insight newsletter one month ago, there have, of course, been many joys and many sorrows — in our personal and collective lives. We had a wonderful Valley Insight full-sangha gathering, held in-person and online, to celebrate the Buddha’s ongoing birth into this world. At the same time, the miraculous, unfolding beauty of this spring, coming as it does after a long, cold winter, is providing an incongruous, almost incomprehensible backdrop for reports of ongoing war crimes, Covid’s continuously unpredictable path, national political chaos, and strife. There have been four more violent, heartlessly cruel mass murders carried out in this country by single individuals filled with intentions of hatred and ill-will. How can we understand this? How can we bear this? How can we bear the immense beauty of the Upper Valley spring in the face of all this death, grief, and cruelty — and the loss, again and again, of our own innocence.
Maybe the stillness of a spring morning can help. Maybe the counterintuitive knowing of the connection between boundless space and a felt-sense of how deeply we are all connected to one another can help us touch belonging and joy without leaving “the ten thousand sorrows” behind. Maybe together we can bear “that which is unbearable.”
I think often of this compassionate reflection on “bearing the unbearable.” It’s from William Stafford’s poem “A Valley Like This”:
But maybe some time you will look out and even
the mountains are gone, the world become nothing
again. What can a person do to help bring back the world?
We have to watch it, and then look at each other.
Together we hold it close …
Perhaps, if we regularly pause to notice and attune to the spacious, quiet stillness all around us, and if sometimes we do this together as a sangha, we will be able to be mindful of the pain and the joy — without seeking answers. We will be finding our way to caring and to gratitude through a connection with one another; and, perhaps through the shared tranquility, we will arrive at a connection with all beings everywhere.
As long as followers of the way gather together and meet in harmony can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as the followers of the way care for the vulnerable among them, can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as the followers of the way tend the sacred places in their environment, can they be expected to prosper and not decline.
~ the Buddha, from the Maha Parinibbana Sutta
This coming together and not feeling alone can open into a clear, unshakeable knowing of belonging, and it is inexplicably linked with a sense of peace and contentment, a boundaryless stillness, one with no borders. In this vast space, which we can begin see as well as feel, physically and mentally, that we might find the much-needed, essential nourishment for our hearts, minds, and bodies.
We are resilient beings, yet fragile and vulnerable. To stay alive, we must regularly replenish ourselves with the four elements: taking in earth (food), water (fluids), fire (establishing bearable temperatures with clothing, shelter, etc.), and wind (breath and movement). In addition, we cannot survive without imbibing the fifth element, which is often mentioned in the Dharma teachings — that of empty, boundless space.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there,” implores the poet Rumi. Perhaps together we can do this — just for a moment — again and again. This is the great gift of equanimity, the equipoise of a balanced, benevolent heart.