Returning, or “5 meditations on the desert”

Returning, or “5 meditations on the desert” June 21, 2016

A little over a week ago, I packed my bags, spent a night in Missoula, MT, picked up 3 (and then 4) fellow travelers, and headed into the wilds of Utah where we met two more friends. I’m not a seasoned backpacker or hiker, having spent usually only a day or two in the “back country” and six days last year hiking 80+ miles of the Wind River National Wilderness Area with two good friends who are much more knowledgeable than I probably ever will be.

However, I am a long-time meditator (over 15 years now), and a firm believer in the power of wild nature to enhance and sustain states of meditation. “But what exactly does that mean?” the picky academic in me asks.

1) In nature, one forgets oneself in order to remember oneself.

In your familiar surroundings, everything has its own story. The computer before me that I bought at such and such a time. The radio beside me that I could choose to turn on. The headphones, stapler, and other miscellany that I could or should clean up. The place from which I’m supposed to do work of this or that kind. Stories. Inescapable stories in everything.

Utah - Goblin Valley Sunrise (photo by author)
Utah – Goblin Valley Sunrise (photo © the author, 2016)

But in nature, things just are. If there’s a story to be told, it’s not one about me. It’s a story of creation, in the naturalist sense. It’s a story of awe and abundance. And it’s a story that folks like me don’t often try to tell. For the words needed are those of poets, not philosophers. Even photos like this one of sunrise in Goblin Valley, which bring me instantly into the scene and all the beauty it held, may simply be flat and “pretty” to a reader or viewer who has never been to such a place.

A great poet could act as a vessel for the story of that sunrise, letting its story be told. But even that poet forgets him or herself in order to let that story flow forth. The rest of us just stand, sit, lie down, or walk in awe.

In that act you find no place for the ego (it can always come back, and it does). In awe the ego is replaced by the plenitude of reality in all its vastness, complexity, and impermanence. Soon enough, the sun rose, the clouds closed in, and just a regular day settled in upon us. Well, not just any regular day. We were, after all, headed deeper into the wilds.

2) Connectedness is measured by openness + time / distractions.

How many times have you been distracted since clicking on this post? Hopefully fewer times than I’ve been distracted in writing it. Setting aside, or getting away from, distractions is essential to connecting. This is true in everything from our studies to nature to relationships near and far.

Utah - Pleasant Creek bend
Utah – Pleasant Creek bend in Capitol Reef National Park (photo © the author, 2016)

In Buddhism, right view is the first step of the eightfold noble path. While one can cultivate the other steps, getting this right is essential to meaningful progress. Luckily for us, right view can be understood with two very basic truths: 1) nothing is eternal, and 2) nothing really disappears.

Instead what is, is a state of constant change, what in the West we call process philosophy. The Buddha explained this truth and its resulting actions in the knower thus:

“By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.

“By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on ‘my self.’ He has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only stress is arising; and that when there is passing away, only stress is passing away. In this, one’s knowledge is independent of others. It is to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.”

SN 12.15 (via Access to Insight)

Imagine the very idea of “‘existence’ with reference to the world” not occurring to you. Imagine seeing all as arising and falling away. Understanding this intellectually is a start. Understanding it in the very bones of one’s body is the goal.

You can look at a stream flowing alongside a cliff face and see that this little flow of water, over millions of years, cut every inch out of that cliff. At one time, this canyon was just a depression, a stream bed. Then it deepened, bit by bit. And it will continue long after you and I are gone. All of humanity’s existence can be measured here, in probably a few feet of the cliff. And your life: probably a couple millimeters.

And yet here you are, at the center of all of this, taking in the scene of history in this moment. No attachments, clingings, fixations, biases, or obsessions. Just this.

3) Live in the moment, knowing it may be your last.

It has been widely observed that we today sanitize and hide death like no other time in human history. We embalm the deceased, put make-up and nice clothes on them, encase them in caskets that cost as much as a good used car and “lay them to rest” six feet underground. We don’t “lay them to return to the earth,” to dissolve, to decay – but this is what they do. Our actions and our words obscure the truth of death.

Utah - mountain lion print
Utah – five-toed mountain lion print in Sheets Gulch (photo © the author, 2016)

There is a Tibetan meditation on death that goes something like:

  1. Death is inescapable
  2. The time of death is uncertain
  3. The only thing that can help at the time of death is our mental/spiritual practice

While moments like sitting alongside the above stream and cliff face can bring one “out of oneself” and into the long geological history of the earth, spotting mountain lion tracks along the path is a quick way to return to the immediacy of the present moment. But again the story of “you” is transformed. Gone are the narratives chosen from the menu society has provided: job duties piling up, husband or wife, 1.8 kids, suburban house, 401k, etc.

Now the story is simple, if there even is one: I am an organism, typically at the top of the food chain, but not immune to predators. In fact, though, for me the sighting of the tracks baked into the desert sand simply triggered awareness. Awareness that I should scour the cliffs a little more closely, take heed of sounds more carefully, take heed of my own body for signs of overheating, dehydration, and so on.

4) Life is a flow of phenomena, the labels we put on them are not reality.

One of the most dangerous activities we all participate in is reifying labels, setting our judgments in stone and deeming those judgments to be reality. For much of life, this is actually important: drinking unclean water will make you sick, drinking too little water will lead to dehydration, backpacking with little preparation will lead to sore feet and legs. All of these can be judged, in a sense, as bad or wrong. However, rigidity here can be an obstacle to life (I broke this third axiom and managed okay).

Utah - rattlesnake in Sheets Gulch
Utah – rattlesnake in Sheets Gulch (photo © the author, 2016)

As I made my way back out of Sheets Gulch with my companion I saw a movement in the rocks and dust in front of me and then heard the tell-tale sound of an unhappy rattlesnake. I had come within 2 feet of the slithering animal and had leaped backward a good 3 or 4 feet all before my brain had brought any of this to my conscious attention. Only from this safe distance, with my heart rate doubled, did the labels “snake” and soon “rattlesnake” come clearly to my mind.

This is saññā, or recognition. It is the cognitive labeling of an aspect of experience and is always necessarily “after” and non-identical to the experience itself. Luckily, an evolutionary aversion to slithery/rattly creatures and relatively quick reflexes were allowed to act, taking me to safety before higher order processing was needed. Luckily, I wasn’t “carried away by” the rich conversation leading up to the snake encounter or “lost in thought” or otherwise “oblivious to my surroundings” (today, obliviousness has become the norm even when walking, as cellphones seem as though surgically attached to palms in front of people chests, necks craning downward as LEDs consume modern attention spans).

Being present allowed some very basic part of my mind to signal the need for temporary “flight.”

5) Community of the heart runs through everything; be grateful for it.

Sometimes we just want to go it alone in life, adverse to the challenges brought by relationships. And yet it is impossible to say just how impoverished this makes life. Yet this impoverishment cannot be measured in individual actions. After all, the very nature of this trip with my six friends into the desert was a sort of “getting away” from some of the chaotic social structures and chaotic people back home.

There is an unspeakable grace in the stillness and solitude of the desert.

Utah - Kodachrome Basin slot canyon
Utah – Kodachrome Basin slot canyon (photo © the author, 2016)

And yet I, for one, could not have experienced any of it without the kind invitation of our trip leaders. Nor would the experience have had the depth it did without the rest of my fellow travelers, one in particular…

If I think of the web of connections that brought me to each of these people, flowing like a river backward in time, I get lost in the collection of faces and smiles. It brings humility to the “go your own way” lifestyle so prevalent in the American West. It brings a wealth of knowledge immensely beyond what one 30-something could have accumulated, especially one with limited time backpacking. It brings shared experiences, from the smiles of dawn’s first light to the groans of that last mile at dusk. It brings joy. It brings gratitude.

And all of these must be brought back to the world, in some form or another. If we can be altered by the solitude, beauty, awe, and simplicity of some aspects of life, so can others. If you believe that this is the change needed in the world, then be it and bring it forth.

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