There’s a point in any practice, whether it be artistic, athletic, or intellectual, where the beginner, after many sessions of going through the motions, suddenly “gets it”. Something clicks in the brain, some gear shifts, and there is a sudden revelation. “I’m doing it! I get it! This is what the instructor has been trying to teach me!” It all makes sense, the mind or body slides into a mode of doing or being that comes from inside, no longer imposed from outside.
I was waiting for my host, who had business in town that morning. We were to meet at noon and then drive to Evans Notch to camp overnight at the Wild River Campground. Well, noon came and went, and Mary hadn’t come. So I decided to make use of the time by sitting in the sun and practicing.
I’d listened over and over to the guided practice on the audio, the gentle voices of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams teaching me how to understand depression, depressive rumination, and how mindfulness can break the cycle. I understood the theory and how it was supposed to work, and even felt distinct moments of success in dealing with my own Ruination Chorus, tearing back the curtain to reveal the self-destructive habits of mind, furiously whining for my attention: not the bleak truths of my wretched life, but mere events in the mind, thoughts and emotions as insubstantial and fleeting as soap bubbles, with only as much reality as I grant them. As analogy, consider the scene in Labyrinth when Sarah confronts Jareth and says, “You have no power over me.” I imagine the look on the face of the Depression Demon to be much like that of Jareth, knowing he has lost.
But I still suffered the less substantial, insidious effects of negative emotions, the tar pits that I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of. No specific thought patterns to identify and call out. Just a creeping mist of grey melancholy that blocks out the sun. So while I waited for Mary, I sat on the picnic table, struck a proper meditation pose, and talked myself through the steps.
What is in this moment? I asked myself, and began methodically inventorying the sensations in my body, what was going on in my mind, the emotions and thoughts in the mind stream, always gently returning to focus on my breath each time I found my mind starting to leave the station on some train of thought. Not pushing the thought away, or blocking it out, just making note of what it is and letting it evaporate in its own time as I attend to other things. What sounds are coming to my ears? What can be seen from where I am sitting? I can feel the breeze and the sun on my skin. What else is there? I am reminded of something, I begin to follow that thought, emotions associated with that thought rising up. Then I realize I have begun to be carried away by the mind stream, and I return to the breath. Now. What is in this moment?
And there it was. With sudden clarity I recognized the “I” that is the subject for which everything else is the predicate. Distinct. Aware.
I saw the image of my little Buddha talisman, sitting on the windowsill back at the cabin, smiling, laughing with delighted approval.
Mary was quite late, apologizing profusely as she got out of the car. I told her, very sincerely, that it was all right, I didn’t mind. In fact, I had become quite oblivious to clock time. I had spent over an hour, fascinated by this new perspective, this awareness, this Being distinct from all the Doing, Thinking, and Feeling. This new sense of “I” calmly, curiously, contemplating the content of each moment, the workings of my mind, the busy-ness all around me that I could be aware of, but not a part of. It was astonishing.
But of course, in returning to clock time and the habits of living, I lost that sense of awareness, although I could remember having it. We followed our plans, going to Evans Notch, setting up camp, cooking dinner, enjoying the experience of being outdoors. We spent the night in our tents. The next morning Mary told me she had heard a owl hooting in the tree right above us. Alas, I’d missed it. The group at the tent site near to us had been partying rather loudly and late, and I’d resorted to earplugs to get to sleep.
We had our breakfast and made our plans for the day. Mary, who can’t do strenuous hikes right now because of problems with her knees, was going to enjoy the brooks, ponds and autumn woods at ground level. I would hike up over Basin Ridge and down the other side, where she would meet me with the car at an appointed time that afternoon.
I set out on the trail, pausing now and then, standing still, seeing if I could recover that sense of awareness as I listened to the forest, to the falling leaves, to the woodpecker drumming in the distance, small creatures furtively rustling in the leaves, birds calling and squirrels scolding. I observed the light, the colors of the foliage, noted the scent of decay from ferns killed by frost, the richness of dried leaves crushed underfoot. And my own interior landscape. As inevitably happens, sad memories, regrets and unpleasant thoughts emerged in the mind stream. There you are, I thought, I know you. Say what you have to say, and then disappear downstream. I will not follow you.
But somehow melancholy caught up with me as I toiled up the rough path to the top of the ridge. This is a wilderness area, so the paths are not maintained. One hikes them at one’s own risk. There are signs at intersections to keep the hiker from getting lost, but one cannot count on blazes, or bridges, or walkways, or any of the other niceties. I am an experienced hiker, and this is a fairly well-trodden trail, so I had no difficulty finding my way, exercising the special care essential when hiking alone. I made it to the top of the ridge. But I felt sad, not exultant. It was a beautiful day, a splendid view, I had achieve my goal. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me?
And so I sat down. Don’t start with that business. There is nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all.
Breathe. What is in this moment? The beauty around me. The amazing view of the pond below and the distant mountains, ablaze with autumn color. The breeze on my skin, evaporating sweat, cooling. The small creatures around me, doing their thing. And sadness. Vague, amorphous sadness. It could pull me down, engulf me, rule me, if I let it. But I see it for what it is: a state of the mind, created in a conspiracy of mind and body. It is as impermanent as the weather. I am aware of it, but it is not me.
And it has no power over me.
I am not sure how long I was up there; I guess about an hour. It would be my turn to apologize to Mary for being late. But when I packed up my things and took up my hiking stick for the tricky, steep and treacherous descent, the melancholy was gone. With good humor I negotiated the loose dirt and fallen leaves, erosion, logs and dislodged rocks, and got to the bottom. I bathed in the pond, splashing the salt and dirt from my face and arms, relishing the delicious, cool sensation of water.
Grinning like my little Buddha.