Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on February 9, 2014

It is my experience that intense spiritual or psychological experiences tend to isolate one from the consensus, at least for a time. That is pretty much the definition of a shaman, someone who mentally is pushed outside of society's norms by an inner experience, suffers alternative states of consciousness, and either goes mad or stabilizes and returns to society as a shaman – one who knows alternative states and can instruct others.

As many of us know, we can feel isolated and in isolation in the middle of a city, even surrounded by people and with all the busyness, confusing signs, and what-not going-on. On the other hand, Mother Nature is so much more stable, consistent, and clear that it can make getting our bearings much easier; at least it did for me. Nature gives it to us neat, and straight-up. She never blinks, so it is no wonder that it is recommended that yogis seek an isolated location to do intensive meditation. At the time of this story, I wasn't seeking isolation. I was 67 years old.

In my case, it was the flow of life events that finally separated me from my normal distractions, in particular suddenly finding myself without a job and old at the same time. I had just been let go from my job as a senior consultant for NBC (along with a lot of other people), but I took it personally. For one, I needed the job to support my family.

So I was plunged into a kind of personal isolation by these harsh events, suddenly self-exiled from my family and from everyone I knew. And while this was devastating, I was also free for the first time in over thirty years from the responsibilities of running a company or working for someone. I didn't really want to just go around complaining or unloading. But, as my first dharma teacher used to say "I had no pot to piss in."

Of course my family was supportive, but right then I was not consolable. I had ended up at one of life's turning points and didn't even see it coming. And I had nowhere to go, so I ended up out in nature, which has always been for me a place of refuge since I was a small boy. Nature was familiar, stabilizing, and consistent, and I knew it like the back of my hand.

I had no job, so I found myself getting up before dawn each day and heading for the woods. This went on for almost half a year. There I was, standing out in the meadows, often soaking wet from the dew on the grass, just watching the sun come up. I was seeking refuge and nature was my instinctual escape from a life that suddenly was just not working, and a return to the one thing I knew best, natural history, nature, and its inhabitants. I didn't even think about it; I just did it. I needed a time out.

And I took along my camera. Having done nature photography since I was fifteen-years old, it was almost a reflex to grab my camera, which doubled as a good excuse to go out in the wilds. People could understand a nature photographer being out there all the time. And I was just out there in the fields, woods, and streams every chance I could, as I mentioned, watching the sun come up, crawling through the wet grass with my camera, and peering through exquisite lenses at perfect miniature worlds.

At that time I was not intentionally practicing dharma. In fact, my personal on-the-cushion practice went on hiatus as I found myself struggling to cope with my difficult job situation. What I did not realize at the time is that all of these different exigencies were conspiring to create the perfect storm for learning dharma. It never even occurred to me.

I threw myself into nature photography without a thought to the consequences and with all my heart, if only to push aside for a while all of the problems I was confronting in my everyday life.

I already knew nature very well, and my love for it was deep and unqualified. However, I had gradually moved away from spending time in nature over the years since my youth because some of the harsher truths of nature were too much for me to face on a regular basis. I feel the same way about listening to my favorite woman singer Billie Holiday. I don't just put her on for a listen. I have to get up for it. It is too touching and I am not always ready to be touched, to go through something like that. It was the same with nature. However, at the time I am describing here I was knee-deep in facing some of life's harshness, so it made no difference. I was already way beyond that. Nature was more than welcome. In fact, I instinctively sought it out.

All of this was quite organic, and I soon found myself combining nature with the very demanding photography technique of learning to stack focus, taking at times over 100 photos of a flower at various focal lengths and then combining those photo layers into a single photo that appears to be in perfect focus.

So I was holding my attention very exactly and for long periods of time and loving all of this while I did it. I was giving 100% effort and intense mindfulness, with no thought of reward or the future. The recent past had gone void on me and I didn't see much of a future for me at the moment. The Buddhists have the phrase "revulsion of samasa," disgust with the cycles of this world. Certainly I was revolted by what I was going through. So I was just in the present, out there in the wet grass, watching the sun come up, and taking photos of small worlds, worlds much more pristine than my own. Little else mattered.

At the time, it never occurred to me that what I was doing was in any way dharmic. It was what I naturally was drawn to in my particular situation. It just happened. Furthermore, I was not initially aware that by doing this intense photography I would be getting any dharma results. This took time to filter through.

What I WAS aware of is that my early morning sojourns into nature were becoming more and more compulsory. For example, when is the last time you watched the sun come up every day it did not rain for, say, six-months straight? Or, when is the last time you watched the sun come up? I certainly hadn't, for many years before this. Indeed, all of this was a little suspicious, and even I eventually caught on. Something was happening here and, as the Dylan song says, I didn't know what it was… at first.

I began to notice that my daily early-morning trips into nature brought greater and greater clarity into my life. After a time, if I wanted a crystal-clear mind, I had to get my camera and go out and photograph nature. Otherwise, the clarity was missing. And I became addicted to the process, if only because of that clarity. To say I liked a clear mind would be an understatement. It was the best mind that I ever experienced.

Yet that clarity was not just being clear-minded. It was vivid, startlingly clear, and each day I could not rest until I managed to get out there and get clear again. This must be how heroin addicts feel, only in my case I was addicted to the intense clarity of mind that my photography enabled. I had to get straight.

This went on for many months, from late May until late fall when the cold weather drove me inside for the winter, and even then I continued photographing in a small studio. Gradually I became aware that something was happening here that WAS very dharmic. In fact I was realizing through photography the kind of results that I had attempted to achieve for many years with my dharma practice. Now this was a total surprise!

And the key to all this clarity (and this is why I am sharing all of this here) was the joy I was finding in practicing photography in nature, something I am sorry to say had been missing from my dharma practice for decades. I just naturally loved nature, and any effort involved was transparent (effortless) in the arduous process of nature photography. I loved it. Finally I was naturally doing what it actually takes to practice Tranquility meditation properly (joy and mindfulness) and, with that stability, Insight meditation became possible and began to spontaneously happen as well. I finally was practicing Mahamudra Meditation.

By this point I had become aware that what I was doing was more dharma than what I had done up to that point through many years of dharma practice. But these dharma results were completely entangled and interdependent with this very complex photography process. Instead of sitting on a cushion and and trying to meditate, I finally was meditating properly, but the technique was very complicated, involving cameras, lenses, nature, and time. And I had no idea how to separate that baby from the bathwater, the clarity from the photography. It reminded me of the Zen Buddhist tradition of mixing your mind with everything you do, in my case it was "Zen and the Art of Photography." Go figure.

All I knew was that mentally I was very, very happy and satisfied with whatever you want to call it, my new practice, and all of this right in the midst of my personal financial struggles. Prior to this, I had been working with and practicing Insight meditation daily for something like three years, but mostly intellectually, with some moments of experience, but these six months or so of intensive nature practice catalyzed my practice to the point of some kind of spontaneous combustion. I was, finally on fire, dharmically speaking. And it never went away, and that was years ago. It is still right there.

And there is more. When all this came down I saw right through all of the dharma practice I had done up to that point, saw that much of the rote effort and misplaced emphasis was beside the point. I suddenly had no doubt what I had to do as far as dharma practice from that time onward. There was no need for more instructions because at last I was responding on my own, like a baby taking his first breath. I finally got it, and it was enough.

Gone were my expectations, my thoughts and ideas about enlightenment, the whole mass of whatever I had accumulated in my mind over all those years that I thought was the dharma. All of that was eclipsed by the simple satisfaction and confidence I now had. I knew what to do on my own. I could never relapse or go back because I was no longer just having experience that came and went. I had recognized something about how the mind works.

I had a glimpse of what is called "recognition," a long way from enlightenment, but also entirely separate from the endless practice I had been doing all those years. I had finally seen something about how the mind works and, more important, I had seen that I could work it, just as I am. I lacked nothing but just doing it.

The brittle mold of my earlier practicing was now shattered, and all that scaffolding just blew away -- gone. Most of it was pure hyperbole anyway, something that I held up as what I thought was dharma. In fact, all that time I had no idea what was true when it came to the results of meditation. I just didn't know. And now I did, and didn't care what others thought because I could not do anything but what I was now doing anyway. A cord had been cut. My eyes were open and I could now see for myself. And I looked around too.

This is not to disparage all of the years and many dharma practices that I had done. I am sure that all of them were purifying and good for me. What I am trying to communicate here is the need to find joy in whatever practices we do to train in the dharma. If you cannot be joyful in your current practice, please consider finding something that is naturally joyful for you and bring your dharma practice to bear on that.

And don't misunderstand this story as my claiming to have any sort of enlightenment, whatsoever. I don't. What I did get out of this is to finally see how to practice with joy, so that my actual meditation training can begin. Some of you might want to take note of this.