Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Up Close and Equanimous

Two apple trees close together among drifts of wild, fallen grasses. The lower branches, leafless, bracket the underside of the joined canopies with their crisp gestures, their broken and tapered joints and ends. Behind the trees a ribbon of mist lies across the field, silver and dull orange, slightly gold. The sun rises inside it, its light diffused, a light blub inside a lampshade.

It's dawn. The cool of Fall has begun to infiltrate the days, eating away at them from both ends, morning and night. I am squatting, both hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea. Two deer are eating fallen apples under the trees, and one appears to have wedged an apple too far back in its jaw, so that it starts jerking its head to dislodge it. A funny thing to witness. A moment.

I just returned from a Vipassana meditation course, ten days of silence and a grueling routine of sitting, broken only three times a day for an hour or so at a time for eating and walking. (Yes, I post-dated the last couple entries. Tricky, I know; will you forgive me? I'm bound to do it again.) There is so much I could say about it, and halfway through my time there I had developed a series of starting points, a blueprint, for a humorous, poignant, elegant-yet-gruff written treatise on the experience of a first-timer at a meditation course. Then I realized all the scheming was just one more way my mind had of salvaging itself from the present moment. Of escaping. Thinking about the future to avoid being fully with the present.

Nonetheless, I was left with some observations. Some moments. And, as a responsible citizen blogger, whose duty it is to speak of gardens and gardening and all things that are at least minimally-related (or can be minimally-related with a little creative effort) to gardening, I am going to offer you some of these observations.

The grounds of the meditation center (in Southwestern Washington) include a small, dishevelled garden and a couple fields for walking, bordered by woods. There is no excess of design, or indulgence of aesthetic sense; there is hardly a design at all. The point of the grounds is to host a deep "operation" of the mind-matter phenomenon, after all, not to put people at ease.

The wild animals on the grounds, though, are remarkably at ease. Clearly they've learned that the worst a strolling meditator is going to do is stare at them for an unnervingly, impossibly long time.

And this is precisely what happens there. Everything gets stared at, pondered, ingested, digested, dissected, grokked. We are not allowed to bring any diversions into the center, which includes books and journals and drawing pads in addition to electronic items, but the mind is remarkable in its ability to make diversions out of anything, and so the little things that we usually breeze past on our way to more important, bigger, more impressive things, get a lot of attention. They're what is left. And they, too, become objects for meditation.

The bumble bees on the sedum blooms. Every day, all day, the blooms were crawling with bees. I would sit down right next to them and watch the bees six inches away. I would watch their movements, look into their eyes (they never looked back into mine--other insects, yes, but bees, I learned, are just too busy). Put myself in their shoes, feel their movements as they made them, try to feel what it is like to be a bee. They would crawl the blooms incessantly, sticking their nectar-straws into every tiny flower, over and over, probing for dregs.

In the morning I would go check on them. The bees would be passed out on the flowers, like party-goers, drunk with nectar, who never made it home. Do they have a home? Are they far from it? I would wonder these things. I would lean down close and blow slightly, then slightly harder. One would stir, lifting a lazy leg like, "What? Go away." If it was a warm day and warmed up quick, they would start work fairly early, but if it was a cold day they wouldn't start 'til noon. At some point, though, they would awaken, and right away the work day would begin. They'd start before they were even able to fly. Crawling half an inch or so across the surface of the bloom and unfurling their proboscis groggily, they'd take their first sip.

The best cure for a hangover is another drink, right?

There was the caterpillar with the legs like sea glass, translucent green. The soft, dense, hairless body like a piece of clouded, speckled jade. The two little specks of its eyes, disturbingly human in relative proportion to the size of its head. When I touched it, finally (I just can't resist; I'm a meddler), it condensed into a smaller, harder version of itself, humped its back, and squirted three jets of slightly-green liquid out of orifices on its side. I reacted quickly, rubbing the juice off my hand onto the tree, then on my pants. I waited a moment to see if my flesh started dissolving.

And, finally, the grasshopper. The grasshopper returned my stare. No matter that I caught it, when I opened my hand again it chose to stay. It looked right at me. From several inches away I saw my reflection in its eye. It's big, Jiminy Cricket eye. The carapace of its upper body was square as a box. The cluster of palps (the tiny appendages under its chin) was like the underside of a very small crab, pale green, pale as an eggshell. It's legs were serrated, with hooks for feet and after the hooks small, flat, paddles. For swimming? For ping pong? For smackin' fools down?

It didn't move, except its palps, once, which came alive and twittered together for a moment. Was it talking? Just making sure they still worked? I tried to crawl inside its skin, to become it, but it wouldn't let me. I am me, it seemed to assert, you are you; let's keep it that way. It was opaque, impenetrable. It would die soon, when the temperatures in winter fell to freezing. It would freeze and its consciousness would go where consciousnesses go and what would be left would be like a twig, a hollow carapace, then nothing. I was aware of this. I was aware of this in me, too. Death is so real, so unavoidable, and yet it is impossibly opaque. We cannot alleviate our fears with knowledge. There is no flashlight that reaches to the back of that cave. How does one prepare for death? How does one accept it? What does one do?

It moved suddenly, after many long minutes had passed; a ripple went through its legs as each lifted and set on my skin, one after another, like it was making sure that none were attached to my hand. Then all of its palps opened like fingers, to grasp the air or take a breath or accept everything all at once no matter what. There was a slight lean forward, like a helicopter, and then it became a tiny explosion of whisked color and was gone.

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