“Let go of the past. Let go of the future.
Let go of the present. With a heart that is free
cross over to that shore which is beyond suffering.”
(Dhammapada, v. 348)
Another new year meets us, dear friends. At its dawn, I send you blessings and wishes for deep liberation and awakening in this very moment. The days and nights are relentlessly passing, but the time for awakening is always here, always now. As I settle into my third year here at the monastery, the inner adventures continue to unfold in new and awe-inspiring ways. It has taken me longer than usual to get this particular blog entry started. Penning the recent experiences of my heart into words has proven a bit difficult. Perhaps it is because the experiences themselves have been somewhat difficult to make sense of. This has been a very different kind of year for me and I have faced at least a few large and messy mud puddles on my path. Life in a monastery can feel like a prison or a paradise, depending on your state of mind. I’ve had a little of both this year.
When my teacher began his year-long solitary retreat last April, I was dwelling in such an exalted state of joy for him that I thought very little about how I would fare without his presence here. Since I first arrived here, and long before, he has been my Lighthouse of wisdom as I navigate the dark waters of my deeper mind. In his absence, I can appreciate even more profoundly how privileged I have been to have someone in my life who truly lives the Dhamma from the inside out. In the holy life, many can talk the talk, but few can walk the walk. Many can play the notes, but few can play the music. Once you have met someone who has mastered their own mind to a greater extent than the vast majority, it’s quite easy to get attached to their presence. It’s also easy to mistakenly assume that they are the holders of your own truth and liberation. There is no doubt that I have thrived in the presence of this great Lighthouse and I will continue to benefit from his wisdom as long as the universe allows it. But one of the most rewarding aspects of this year “on my own” has been the opportunity it has given me to see where my true refuge lies.
Since returning from my month-long island retreat in September, I have been experiencing an unprecedented feeling of letting go that has been, quite frankly, a little terrifying. In the past, renunciation came in small doses, and not without my prior consent. “Yes, I’ll let go, as long as I’m in control of the process”, I’d fool myself. “Mustn’t go to extremes, right?” But at some point along the way, some sort of illusionary cord was cut and I now find myself in this kind of free-fall state where I am sure of very little other than the fact that everything inside me is changing and everything is perfectly, sublimely, out of control.
The terrifying part is not so much the fall itself, but rather the realization that so much of what I once held to be true and solid seems not so true, not so solid anymore – even my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not that I am beginning to doubt the teachings, but rather that I’m beginning to doubt the doubt itself. My ordinary critical mind has been running the show for so long – questioning everything, including my own wisdom. But in this falling, a subtle confidence seems to be emerging. There are things that I do know to be true. My inner voice of wisdom is gaining ground. The call of ehipassiko is gaining deeper meaning.
Of course, my critical mind is not without protest over this unexpected coup. There are times when it tries to convince me I’m moving backwards on the path, perhaps losing the plot altogether. The little me is quite understandably screaming with fright: “You’re losing the Way! You’re caught in Mara’s snare! You’re falling headfirst into delusion”! But these words seem to have no effect. I’m simply falling. And it feels just fine, thank you very much. Here, in the midst of this free-fall, my truest, most trustworthy friend appears by my side. No, it’s not my teacher, the Lighthouse. It’s a light all my own – my inner light of sati (mindfulness). Sati comes to my rescue and reassures me, “You have nothing to fear. Just remember that you have wings.” And then, as if waking from a dream, I suddenly realize I am not falling at all – I’m flying! How could I have forgotten? I’m a butterfly gliding!
I confess to Sati that things are changing in ways I did not expect, cannot control, do not approve of! I ask her, “Am I losing the Way?” “Well, how do you feel inside?”, she replies. Then, a memory long buried in my consciousness bubbles up. I am about 18 years of age, sitting on a piano bench, with my piano teacher at my side. I have just performed a technically sound performance of a classical piece of music that would make you yawn without shame. For years, I had been preparing for one piano exam after another…going through the motions…mastering the structural foundations of the art, all the while slowly losing the gumption to play from my heart. She looked at me with the eyes of a caring teacher and said, “My dear, if you continue on this track, you are going to lose your love of music completely. How about we learn some jazz?” Thus it came to be that in my last year of formal piano lessons, I learned the sacred art of jazzmatazz: the art of syncopated rhythms, offbeat arpeggios, playful sharps and flats in the most unexpected places… freedom. Of course I couldn’t have just started there. It was only because I had gone through all that dry technical and theoretical training over and over again that I was able to give myself over to jazz in the eleventh hour. But that’s when I began to really feel the music from the inside. This changed everything.
Sometimes, when we’re just starting out in the butterfly life, it can feel all wrong. Everything we thought we knew about the law of gravity doesn’t hold in this new world. It takes some getting used to. But here in this new place of being, my trusted friend Sati looks me deep in the heart and, with a conviction and clarity that only true mindfulness could have, she assures me that I haven’t lost the Way… I’m just getting used to my new wings.
So how do I feel inside these days? I feel like jazz on the inside. I feel like knots that I didn’t even know were there are coming undone. My inner chords are surrendering into arpeggios. To the average caterpillar, it could seem like I’m losing ground. But on the inside, I feel a new kind of groove. I am channelling my inner Thelonious Monk (Nun?) and it feels good and true, cool and easy… Yes, it’s a bit offbeat…a little melancholy at times…a bit dissonant on occasion…but these aren’t just random notes. There’s an oh-so-sweet melody in the madness. A butterfly’s inner rhapsody, I dare say.
Sending you love, light and a little jazzmatazz…
When the great dam burst
I could only ride the wave
Faithful of the Way