Those who practice awareness
find their way.
They become like
snowy mountain peaks,
and rise high.
Those who live in forgetfulness
are like arrows shot at night,
They pass through life
and reach nowhere.
Deepen your silence.
Enjoy your empty mind.
~ Emptiness, from Chapter 21 of the Buddha’s Dhammapada.
My new friend Nanci came to sit at my house this morning, cushion and Dharma Cards in tow. Nanci and I met circuitously after she attended a retreat at Hazy Moon – a Zen Center in Los Angeles – led by Karen Maezen Miller, the writer, mama, and priest whose Mother’s Plunge I flew to California for last month.
All things come full circle, and so it happened that Karen emailed me and Nanci one night, introducing us to each other as kindred spirits who could support each other’s practice. We live about twenty minutes apart.
Today was our second time sitting together. We talked and stretched a little, then sat for about 25 minutes, each of us facing the wall in the playroom nobody plays in (until now, apparently). Then I drew the “Emptiness” card and Nanci read the accompanying commentary:
Don’t be worried, Buddha says. You will find your way…
Those who jump in the water will reach the other shore…
How can you travel if you do not believe?
Trust arises in your heart.
You heart will lead you when you mind is confused;
your heart will bring you back when you go astray.
One of the side effects of not having salaries, paychecks, or other trappings of financial security as we build our own livelihoods is that Greg and I often talk about our dreams in a day-dreamy kind of way. Dreams of things we want to do/buy/see/experience/offer our kids… when we have “the money.”
There’s a strong sense that we are deferring a lot of stuff. It’s easy to get the feeling that the dreams are all out there, in that non-existent place where there is no there there. That fuzzy, distant place, where the Polaroid picture hasn’t yet fully developed. It winds up feeling like a mirage, a place we imagine but will never get to, because even when we do, there we will be, and suddenly the “there” will be right here, and we’ll have new dreams that seem far away.
This cycle, this way of living for something yet to come, could continue unbroken. We could get lost in “the money,” the idea of it, the perception that money is what we are working towards, a fantasy of greater ease and comfort. It is just that: a fantasy. If we’re not careful, if we forget to put our shades on, the fantasy can be blinding, distorting – like if you look at the sun for a moment and then all you can see are sunspots obscuring the real view that surrounds you.
How easily we could get lost in that illusion, perceiving our lives as a daily grind of hard work and hope designed to deposit us into some neverland where our future dreams live? One word sums it up nicely: Oy.
One morning a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about these little presents we imagine the future holding (or hoarding?) for us as we made breakfasts and lunches, the bustle of the four of us around the little island in our kitchen, half of the contents of the fridge strewn about, the normal domestic morning chaos, at once comforting and crazy-making.
And suddenly, it was as if someone had snapped their fingers sharply in front of my face. Suddenly, I saw clearly what was happening: We were dangerously close to losing ourselves to the imagined future, the dreams we are working towards, deferring, hoping to reach. I turned to Greg, gesturing to the house around us, the home, our girls, each other, this life we have somehow made through blood, sweat and tears, commitments and intentions, crises and confusion, leavings and homecomings.
“This!” I said. “This was the dream. We are already living it!”
We dreamed of this, this very life we are living. We wanted a family, a home, roots in a place, a community. We dreamed of nurturing a relationship that would withstand tension and strain, and not necessarily in any form we could have possibly anticipated. We dreamed of being creative, of doing work we love, of that particular brand of freedom.
And yet, forgetfulness comes. We don’t hear it coming as it stealthily enters through some side door we leave unlocked, and before we know it, forgetfulness is joining us for breakfast, not seeing the life we have created, refusing or simply unable to recognize what’s going right already, holding awful headlines in our faces. It’s all bad news.
It is not that living in forgetfulness makes us terrible people. It’s just that I want something more. I want to practice awareness, to jump into the water time after time, trusting that I will make it to the other shore no matter how unsure I am. This is living the dream. Because this is living the life, and the life is all we get. This very one.
Greg and I sat on the couch way too late last night – after bedtime with the girls, time spent on facebook and email, buttered popcorn and Weeds: Season 4 – talking about this stuff. What makes a life? What is faith?
For many people I’ve spoken with, belief is a barrier to faith. Something I love about Jewish tradition is that belief is not a requirement; action is. As the Buddha says, if you practice trust, you can travel even if you don’t yet believe.
Belief, to me, implies some kind of cognitive experience, carries a requirement of believing IN something. But faith, this is simply the commitment to keep showing up, being watchful, paying attention to what the heart says.
You have only to keep seeing “the true situation of your life” – a line I love from a poem my friend Jennifer often reads in her yoga classes.
When I forget that this was the dream, that what was once “there” is now here, I become forgetful again, an arrow passing through life and reaching nowhere – because there’s nothing to reach, no there there.
When I stop and really see, see with my heart and not my critical, judging, greedy, impatient, conditioned eyes, I realize that I am on the path up to the snowy peak. Slow and steady. Or even more to the point, I am the path, the snow and the peak, the very mountain, the earth that supports it and the sky it touches. And so are you.
Be watchful. Watch yourself, watch the stories you tell that envelop you and invite reflections of themselves everywhere. There, there, we say to comfort a sad or scared child. There, there, maybe I will start saying to myself, as a gentle reminder that there is no such place.
What is your dream? The one you imagine, distant. There, there. Are you ready to jump into the water?
Jump in. Jump in and swim – at least to the raft, where we can lie on our backs all afternoon, watching the clouds as they change shape, watching the weather roll in and out, like the breath.
Image: Nicholas Roerich, Himalayas