I’m taking a step back in time here. Back in November and December, I was on an extended journey, driving to the east coast, down to DC, North Carolina, Florida and back to California across the southwest, visiting family in seven locations along the way. There were quite a few surprises and special moments. But this one day, November 19, was unique, so I decided to share it.
Heading toward the southeast corner of Virginia from Richmond and beyond to the Outer Banks on I-64, the road passes through an extended corridor of forest. Two lanes pass each way with the opposing directions separated and obscured by a dense forested median. No oncoming traffic can be seen.
On this day, the trees were different shades of fall, an uninterrupted curtain of every hue from green to brown to gold, from fiery red to rose. The trees arched up over the road somewhat, creating the sense of passing through a long tunnel. The light flashing through the passing trees was hypnotic, mesmerizing me into a drifting transition, a passing in profound solitude through an attenuated narrow place.
I was also listening to an old retreat talk by Pema Chodron. She was in Nova Scotia, in the 90’s, talking about trusting our selves. Not trusting in events coming out in a certain way that we might wish for, but trusting in our ability to be present with whatever occurs, regardless of what we wish.
She was also addressing the constant dualistic frame we apply to all of our experience, as opposed to a softer, more immediate presence with the reality of our experience in the moment. She named this “framing,” the division of everything into polar opposites, as dissociation to describe the way we distance ourselves from directly contacting our experience.
I considered her words as I drifted along with the light traffic, adjusting my speed very slightly from time to time. What I think she meant is that we cling to our created identity, the personality, our ego self –which we are continuously creating –and dissociate from our direct experience. Our identity means everything to us. It’s our refuge. So the dissociation is a retreat into safety. We are constantly measuring our experience to see whether it fits our sense of self, our comfort zone. As soon as we do that, we leave the present moment.
We are all adrift in the vast ocean of experience, “with its stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death.” The ego is the only safety that is anywhere to be found, like a buoy anchored in the deep, to which we cling for dear life, and from which we dare not let go. Clinging to the ego is the most automatic, the most natural thing in the midst of a threatening world. But the irony is that reaching for the safety of the ego-buoy reinforces the condition that must ultimately be deconstructed. In the act of grasping, we reaffirm our identities, but imprison our beings. As Pema describes it, we imagine we are gaining strength, but seeking strength by reinforcing our identity actually weakens our capacity to see beyond the constructed self. It is only by loosening our grip, drifting into the timeless silence of the deep ocean that we can free our selves from the turbulent surface.
But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to let your attention drift from the road when you’re driving! From time to time, the voice of my phone was giving me directions, as if I had a map. But I was on automatic pilot. I had a sense of being pulled forward. I needed no map. One doesn’t truly need a map if there is real trust in being present. The map will unfold in its own way and its own time. As I drove, I also discovered that if I turned off the musical tape I was playing through FM radio from my phone, the local Virginia radio station was also playing a religious program. That was worth a good laugh.
Pema was then leading a meditation on bodhicitta, the pure dedication to the benefit of all beings, generating the intention of loving kindness and gratitude toward people we love. At her suggestion, I was working my way through the catalog of people who matter most to me: my daughter Casey, my siblings, a very select group of dear friends, progressing to a few acquaintances I feel neutral about and even to a few I do not particularly like. I felt each of them as beings, as my close relations, as people I care for a great deal and what each of them has given me. I also saw us all as flawed beings, with our unique challenges and failings, our longings and desires, the lifelong paths we travel to whatever we are seeking.
When I focused my attention on Jennifer, the deep caring and love I felt for her rose so sharply up in me with a power and force that it took me by surprise. And then I instantly crashed down into a deep sense of grief bursting open for the loss, as if some totemic species had just gone extinct, never to be seen again on this earth.
I was suddenly lost. Not lost on the road, just lost in the reality that something had existed between us that will never be recreated. I wavered between the unique nature of that loss as if it had nothing specifically to do with me, and sinking into a feeling that I was the one who lost her, either through some fault of neglect or blindness or error or simply not being enough of something that she wanted or needed.
But there again, I was grasping for the buoy, becoming the one who needed fixing, looking for the antidote that would relieve my suffering. Is it possible to fully be with such loss without being its cause? Could I extend a little bodhicitta to myself as well as to her? This is new territory, allowing myself to experience loss without blaming myself for it. It was, after all, the dynamic of two people at work here. But each time I returned to that feeling, tears clouded my view of the road. And even now in writing, a sorrow comes for something now absent, a gratitude for the sweetness of it.
The road and the view widened again and the traffic increased as I entered the Norfolk metro area. It was clear that the passage through the forest from Richmond had been a gift. I allowed myself to leave behind what was not needed, refreshing my perspective as I traveled into the Outer Banks from the north on a bright, dry and chilly day. Having passed through the corridor of trees on a road mostly narrow and straight, lifting gently up and over small hills, floating along effortlessly at a constant speed, mostly oblivious to other traffic, my eyes cleared and my throat opened again. Yes, I am heading deeper into unfamiliar territory. This is the very journey that I had wished for, so I am making mental snapshots of this tableau, connecting to some nostalgia, my trust, fearlessness, uncertainty and loss– as well as gain and gratitude– covering myself with a soft blanket of kindness along the way.