The Dark Does Not Descend on Us. It Emerges from Inside Where Eyes Meet Others
My wife and I took a long walk late in the afternoon. The sky was mostly dark grey. It had rained earlier, with a touch of snow. With the dropping temperature, the rain turned to ice, which coated all the bushes, tree branches, and electric lines. There was just a hint of the setting sun, but that hint was reflected and augmented by the ice, so everywhere we looked there were individual hands and fingers of light, thousands of them.
As the light disappeared further, instead of the dark descending on us from above, it was as if it emerged directly from inside everything we noticed⎼ from each tree or bush my eyes met or from the road itself. Details and colors, and the remnants of light icing the branches seemed to be sitting on darkness and winking out.
In previous years, during the winter I did not often go outside to exercise. It takes heavier clothes and boots, mittens, and hats, and the road and paths are often slippery. I used to work out in the gym or martial arts dojo. My wife did yoga classes. Now, due to the coronavirus, especially with new and more virulent strains⎼ and the vaccine so close yet not widely available⎼ our home is our gym and we hike steep hills in almost all sorts of weather. An added benefit is we also see our neighbors more than we used to, or at least the ones who walk.
Walking has become a stable part of our day, not only a way of getting out of the house and getting exercise, but a classroom and a way to constructively structure time. As we walk, we study how the light plays with the road and trees, and how the trees play with sound. By paying careful, mindful attention, we better understand and feel more at home wherever we are.
It’s usually so quiet we can hear the other residents of the road. Three ravens live in the pine forest and often fly over us, speaking with their hoarse cry. The trees speak with unexpected voices. The pine forest occasionally makes sounds like a cat calling out. When I first heard the sounds, I responded, shouted out the names of my cats to see if one of them was in there. But no cat emerged. Other times, especially when it was windy, the pines sounded like windchimes. Further up the road, a very different voice. Oak, maple and ash trees leaned into each other, speaking in groans, sighs or whispers. Each tree or pair of trees had its own voice.
When we arrived home today, the mail was waiting for us. It was not just ads but a package. A new book, or actually an old one I had to search for, a translation of The Four Chinese Classics, by David Hinton. I took off my coat and gloves and sat down, excited to see what the book would offer.
I opened to a random page. It was in the Chuang Tzu, one of the two most important books of Taoism, and read the following passage spoken by an adept named Piebald: “In the awesome beauty of mountain forests, it’s all huge trees a hundred feet around, and they’re full of wailing hollows and holes⎼ like noses, like mouths, like ears, like posts and beams, like cups and bowls, like empty ditches and puddles… When the wind’s light, the harmony’s gentle; but when the storm wails, it’s a mighty chorus.”
Another adept asks Piebald: “Could I ask you to explain the music of heaven for me?’
“Sounding the ten thousand things differently, so each becomes itself according to itself alone…” was the response. (148)
The synchronicity was wonderful. The trees speaking, the book reflecting.
One night recently, I awoke about 5:00 am. Tired. The world around me dark. And I started to wonder if I was doing enough. At 5:00 am. Am I doing enough, my share, to shape the world in a positive direction? Am I doing enough to shape myself in a positive direction?
I firmly agree with one interpretation of the Buddhist teaching on Karma, that our actions (and intentions), our responses to what happens to us, not just the events themselves, shape who we are and will be. “What we are now is what we have done. What we will be is what we do now.” This night, I was concerned about aging and suffering. What could I do right now, so I would suffer less later?
I could go to sleep.
I could listen to the trees like I listen to my own feelings. When the wind shakes branches into windchimes, I could hear the music of my own breath. When the pines make cat sounds, I could speak to them like they’re known and loved just as they are. When other people speak, I could listen as best I can, and hear their voice as a unique way the world tells me about itself and myself.
That would be heaven.
This post has been republished on Medium.