Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on October 29, 2013

[Note: This is a very long blog and I apologize. I could break it up, but I am not going to. Please don't feel you have to read it. It is a dharma practice story and probably not of that much general interest to many. I will try to do better, but here it is. ]

It was the great Tibetan yogi-saint Milarepa who said that he didn't need to read in a text about what are called the Common Preliminaries (The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma). All he had to do was look around to see that impermanence is everywhere!

Milarepa is also quoted as saying "I do not study what is written in black ink," but rather he studied everything just as it is. He looked around at nature and found the dharma clearly enunciated everywhere.

Mother Nature is a straight shooter who never blinks when we look her in the eye. It is all right there in front of us if we will just look.

I learned this on my own, but my dear friend Lama Karma gave it a name. I was learning from, so he said, what is called "The Lama of Appearances." Written dharma texts and physical lamas are not the only avenue to enlightenment. The dharma is also written in nature, perhaps more clearly than in books. There is only one edition and it never goes out of print. The pages of Nature's book can be as easy as those early-morning walks we take. However we do have to look.

And what did I see when I looked into nature? I didn't see anything but clearly. I saw more clearly. Somehow the "seeing" cancelled out the content, which simply means that of course I saw the mini natural worlds at the end of my macro lens. But more important was the pristine clarity of my mind. I saw that too and that is what I had never seen before. This was a special time for me, but let me back up a bit and here comes the story.

Remember the old chestnut "How do you like your martini?" I can make it very dry or I can throw an olive or two into the mix and tell a story. This will have some story to it. And you beginning meditators don't panic. What I am writing about here is not the traditional basic meditation, but what is called Vipassana or insight meditation, actually a superset of that called Mahamudra.

I was 67 years old at the time and suddenly without a livelihood. And no, I didn't have a lot of money. I had made a lot and lost it, like so many others. Suddenly I had no job and no income.

It was a time of intense pressure in my life because these events had thrown me for a loss, leaving me outside of what I knew (and was comfortable with), and with no clear direction known. What was to become of me? I had become a non-sequitur in my own life, suddenly shoved aside by circumstances. I know, many of you have had something similar happen, but just because it is a general condition does not mean that we don't each take it personally. I certainly did.

And as devastating as that time was in some ways, it brought about a profound change in me. Suddenly I was listening again to what nature had always been whispering. As a child I could hear, but as I became an adult I had stopped listening, fascinated instead by the kaleidoscopic display of time.

Perhaps I am a case of "shake before using." I had to be really shaken before I could see. And it was in this time of real upset that I first realized something like actual clarity in my dharma practice. And that was no accident; the two are linked.

The closest analogy I can imagine is that of a woman in labor. I have watched all four of my kids being born and have seen how women turn inward, and go deep inside and on their own, to have that baby. They are just 'gone' as far as the outside world is concerned, totally occupied. I know, because I remained present at those births, sticking out like a sore thumb. I was so "not-occupied," except for my awareness of feeling useless – a great lesson in itself.

Anyway, the late spring of 2008 I was like that. Driven by events beyond the edge of my known universe, I found myself standing in the void, just staring. And I got there without knowing where I was headed, and was so humbled by life events that I fell out of line with the program I was in and just wandered off into the meadows and forests. For sure it was some kind of intense purification.

It is true that I was undistracted as I peered through pristine camera lenses at the perfect tiny macro worlds I found in nature. My own personal world (and career) was no longer a distraction (having proved undependable), leaving me stranded and just out there on my own. Talk about "revulsion of samsara," the fourth thought that turns the mind toward the dharma!

Outside of my family, I was revolted by everything in my mundane world, tired out and sick at heart. I was not even distracted by the thought that I was not distracted. I just didn't care. All of that held no meaning for me. Everything was empty but still right there, going on. It is somewhat of a revelation that at times like these, the world just keeps going on without us, or worse, with us.

And we can't simply engineer life-changing or tragic events in our life. We have to start where we are and take advantage of what we have been given, good, bad, and indifferent.

I have written about this period in my life before, that in those stark times I was up before dawn with my camera and out in the very wet grass and dew of early morning summer in Michigan. In the beginning it was an escape. This went on (almost every morning it did not rain) from late May until long after first frost, all the way to the onset of winter. I watched the sun rise each morning for half a year.

And I mean I got ringing wet crawling through the grass, staying out long enough for the sun to slowly rise and dry me out again. I kept going. I was giving nature a good long look after decades of turning my head. And I was being purified by all the chaos going on in my career, so it was with real joy that I sought solace in those early foggy mornings in the meadows, and it went on for like six months straight! God knows what the neighbors thought as they drove by and saw me crawling through the weeds at the edge of the local cemetery.

Little did I know at the time that I had stumbled on the missing ingredients to my meditation practice, and was totally mixing my mind with my practice for the first time. Better yet, I was meditating, and no longer just practicing meditation. Somehow my personal disappointments were being purified through this whole process. This, mixed with true joy in deep concentration on nature, created the perfect storm for my meditation. I had no idea this would take place. It was an adventitious byproduct.

Out of that mix was forged a clarity and insight I had somehow ignored up until then. Like a kid on a bike, whose training wheels have been removed, I soared down the street, finally right there, perhaps a little wobbly, but experiencing something that never went away, but was always there whenever I took the time to look. It is still there today.

Looking back from now, it is so easy to rattle off the poetry of that time. But back then I was in the thick and thin of it, up to me ears in change, and pretty much alone. Even my family could do little to solve my existential crisis. What transpired back then as regards meditation was incredible, but the whole time itself was so amazing that I hardly noticed at first. I only gradually realized that I had realized something. I was too busy realizing it.

And perhaps the main reason for that was because it didn't happen on the cushion like I always imagined it would. It happened out in fields and streams, peering through a lens at nature. It never occurred to me that virtually ANY object of meditation will do, not just a pebble or a candle and a cushion. But you have to love doing it! What had always been missing for me were the exact right conditions, in particularly the joy of practicing, a joy that I found while looking through a lens. I had always loved nature.

And it was my friend Lama Karma, a Tibetan monk, who pointed this out to me. Teachers are those who point things out to us. What I learned from all of this is that to succeed in meditation, like anything else in life, all of the right conditions must be present. I had been practicing meditation for decades, but had not spent enough time creating the right conditions. Of course I couldn't know what they were. I must have assumed dharma practice was like some Jiffy Mix, just stir and bake. But it is not like that.

This kind of alchemy requires just the right ingredients and in just the right proportions, carefully mixed by time and place. I don't know what I was thinking all those years, but the fact was that I had not thought much about it at all. I had little idea how delicate the whole practice of meditation is. Now I do, which is why I am trotting all of this out for you to read. It is hard to know what you have never even heard of, right? Well, now you have.

And less you think that I am telling you I am enlightened, think again. This is not about enlightenment, of which I know nothing. This is about what is simply called "recognition," which I had a glimpse of in 2005 while attending a teaching on the instructions for pointing out the true nature of the mind by my dharma teacher. That opened the door, and it was followed by almost three years of intense practice on my part, not just on the cushion, but practice all day long in whatever I did, as much as I could manage anyway.

And then this personal crisis shoved me off track and up against my attachments to money and career, but I put myself aside. I just did not care. In that ensuing time, the missing elements of my mediation training came together quite naturally and, like superglue, stayed that way. That is the difference between experiences and simple recognition.

And here is the point of all this: What I had been looking for all those years of dharma practice was some kind of enlightenment. That never happened, but I did realize that I had no idea whatsoever what enlightenment might be. I just thought I did. I assumed.

What did happen is that I realized (and became clear about) the nature of how the mind works and immediately saw that, because it is so simple, even I could work it. This after some thirty years of not knowing, but still practicing.

My advice to anyone listening to this? We must learn the physical process and muscle-memory of sitting meditation. Like any other kind of practice, we have to get it down cold until it becomes automatic. There is no way around this that I know. But there is more, what we might call the intangibles. I call them intangible because we are not yet in touch with them.

For example, there is more to music than learning chords. You have to love and hear the music in your mind and also be sensitive enough to play it beautifully. Meditation is like that. Yes, there is great benefit to just learning the basic technique and applying it throughout your life. That is true.

We are not all Mozarts, but when it comes to meditation, we have no choice. We must all be Mozarts, just like we must eventually be Buddhas. There is no such thing as a bargain-basement Buddha, an almost-Buddha, much less a copy or rip-off. The paths may be many, but the final ascent to enlightenment is the same for us all.

Beginning meditation has its mechanical aspects, but beyond that it requires not only all our sensitivity, but an awareness we have never known and have yet to develop. It is all about awareness. We have to rise to the occasion beyond even our imagination and certainly beyond our expectations. It all happens above the clouds in our mind.

Our whole environment must be fine-tuned with the proper aspirations and dedications, with love and compassion in everything we do. There is no brute-force final assault to peak of enlightenment. The nearer we get, the more we back up, bow down, and make way for real clarity. Me, myself, and I are left at the doorway because they cloud the mind until we learn to see through them. Obscurations are removed.

So the moral of this story is that while the mechanics of meditation can be a grind, actual meditation requires more than just brute force. And while we hone the mechanics, we should at the same time develop the context in which all of this takes place.

We can wait for the perfect storm to form like I ignorantly did or we can set about preparing the conditions for a perfect storm and help to bring it about.

In my opinion, questions that are natural to sincere students might include:

How do I make my practice joyful?
How do I develop compassion?
What are proper meditation objects?
How do I log enough hours?
Do I leap or need a push and a shove?
When does the good stuff begin?
What are the natural articulation or waypoints points?
Why can't I just do it on my own?
What about aspiration and dedication?

[Over the years described above I have taken many hundreds of thousands of nature photos. If I got better as a photographer it was because in the beginning I had to photograph if I wanted a clear mind, thus I was photographing every day. ]