This is a special week for Project Conversion. Not only is this the last week for Buddhism, but also for the first half of the year. I will spend this week reflecting on both Buddhism and my experience with the project thus far.
Yesterday, while my wife and daughters attended church, I decided to visit my favorite place: the Lumber river.
I wanted somewhere quiet to think. Somewhere I could process my experiences and lessons from the past five months. The coincidence did not escape me that the Buddha himself came to a river after he decided to leave home and discover the truth about suffering. Although I did not go for such a lofty cause, it was a session to look deep inside, review, and come to some conclusions. So, just as the Buddha crossed the river into his new life, I also crossed the Lumber River to test myself.
After watching a beaver carry tree limbs back and forth for a while, I decided to sit on the sand bar at a bend in the river and meditate. The forest was quiet, save the rustle of a few birds in the brush. Traffic from the road faded into a low hum. I crossed my legs, closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing. It wasn’t long, once I tamed my thoughts, that I felt an odd sensation I never felt while meditating at home: I’m being watched.
Keep in mind, I’m in a place called “Drowning Creek.” Sinkholes threaten every step. Snakes lay in wait within the thick undergrowth. Alligators roam the black waters. Vortexes swirl just beneath the calm, black surface. Men disappear here. But every time I step off the beaten fisherman’s path, I feel like myself. I feel at home.
The Buddha teaches us to refrain from categorizing feelings and emotions. He also teaches us to tame our imagination. Was I being watched? I’m meditating with my eyes closed at the bank of the river. Is a gator looking up at me, waiting for me to come just one inch closer?
Stop thinking, says the Buddha.
The sun gazed down on my exposed scalp. Sweat beaded on my forehead and anxiety sent ripples over my skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I opened my eyes. All of this emotional/mental activity stirred on the inside. Deathly quiet on the outside. I understood the illusion. Now, I had to realize it.
I wiped the sweat off my face, controlled my breathing, and suppressed my fear. My eyes closed and the noise rose inside me once again. I remembered my training, that meditation involves viewing one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions from a high place of indifference. It took some time, but I eventually rose above my fear and anxiety. The noise inside gradually dissipated. The chains of conditioned thought loosened.
Something tingled on my leg. I opened my eyes and noticed a giant black ant stumbling over the curls of my leg hair. Immediately I felt his suffering. The sensation felt like a warm blanket over my shoulder. For a moment, only this ant existed. I took a stick and guided him off my leg. He walked away on the sand. Not a foot and a half later, a green dragonfly swooped in and captured the ant.
I winced at what had just happened. In ending the suffering of this ant in one way, I invited its suffering in another. I remembered how the Buddha, as a child, used to watch animals consume and be consumed in nature. The experience disturbed him as it did me. I turned away and tried to forget the suffering I had witnessed…and caused.
This time I decided to meditate with my eyes half-open while staring at a calm pool of water. Just as my mind settled like the pool, movement downstream to my right caught my eye. I slowly turned. A red-tailed hawk swooped down and landed on a rat foraging along the riverbank. It never even had the chance to scream. I watched as the hawk sank its talons deeper into the rat and ripped him to pieces with its beak. A break in the water robbed my attention from the hawk. A small school of minnows preyed on mosquito larvae that drifted into their path. The hawk flew away as a swarm of black birds harassed him from their territory. Ants carried food around me in a crooked line.
I realized two things in that moment: (1) Nature no longer watched me as an outsider, but had absorbed me into its fold. (2) I was completely indifferent to the life and death around me.
The distinctions between life and death gradually slipped away. The hawk was not evil for killing the rat, but only living out its dharma as one that eats rats. Killing rats does not give the hawk pleasure, but life. I was not witnessing life and death, but the transfer of energy. Yes, the creatures that died indeed suffered, but I was now free from categorizing good from bad. A carnivore in nature is not evil because it kills. A herbivore is not benevolent simply because it only consumes plants. The enlightened truth is that they simply consume.
Though I did not reach Enlightenment, I did witness the tip of the iceberg. Everything around me became empty of labels. Categories fell away. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth came into stark clarity. Life is suffering. These creatures are bound to reality. In a way they are closer to Enlightenment than most humans because they perceive the world exactly as it is at that exact moment. The only difference is that they do not have the cognitive ability to observe and analyze their own mind and sensations. They cannot separate themselves from the drives of instinct. They know how to wash only the dish, but not why.
And just as I began to fall into this depth of understanding, my phone rang. My wife (a nurse) was called into work and I had to leave. I was brought back to earth, to the moment, and reminded that I’m not a monk, but a householder..
The Buddha once said that when the student is ready, a teacher will manifest. Yesterday my teachers were the water, the hawk, the ants, and all the inhabitants of the river. How often do we pass up knowledge and understanding because we aren’t open to who or what our teacher might be? The Buddha asks us to awaken ourselves to reality. How do we awaken if we fail to open our eyes, unbiased, without expectations, and take in the world around us exactly for what it is?
I have so much to learn, and I can’t wait, even here at the end, to get started…again.