Mind Like an Empty Nest

Are you a student of the mind? That’s not really such a strange question, is it? You have one, of course, and you’re intensely aware of its workings from time to time at least. But do you ever really observe it for the sake of better understanding it, as you might observe the world around you?

Certainly you’ve enjoyed mind’s capacity for single-pointed concentration – while focusing on one of your very favorite tasks, perhaps. You might also appreciate its incredible expansiveness – the way it seems possible to hold all of life and time and space at once within its gentle grasp. Hopefully you can also relate to the stillness of mind that’s possible – the way mind can be as quiet and receptive as an empty nest in winter, patiently waiting for whatever phenomena might “choose” to light within.

BirdNest

Mind has been compared to clear light, luminous and bright, or water, whether cloudy or clear, flowing or still. Mind is referred to as open or closed, gentle or hard, big or small. Yes, mind has been called a lot of things, but not even scientists know with certainty what it is, despite the fact that you can watch it for yourself anytime you wish. Until such time, that is, when mind wanders off with your intention and finds itself lost in a jungle of thoughts that weren’t there in its meadow just a moment ago.

I came to be pondering such things of late (for the umpteenth time) after becoming aware that my mind had shrunk to encapsulate a rather small world that I’d stumbled into. You see, I recently took on the task of leveling the floor in our kitchen and family room – a task that, without getting too lost in the weeds trying to describe it, had no obviously good solution. For weeks I researched methods and considered possibilities. For weeks more I toiled bringing the decided on course of action to a suitable conclusion. And all the while the pressure continued to mount related to the nonnegotiable requirement that the whole project be wrapped up in time for an upcoming family visit over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mind can constrict around such circumstances and make it seem as though nothing else exists, or ever will exist.

What I was able to notice was that, in addition to its many fine attributes, mind can also be like shrink wrap growing tighter and tighter around us and our less than desirable circumstances as the heat, the pressure of the situation, increases. Our entire world becomes reduced to only that which is contained within our narrowed field of vision. In my case I was able to alleviate that pressure a little bit by reminding myself that I could always use some vacation time to finish up the project, or hire a contractor friend to come in and help if need be. Thankfully, the occasional flash of joyful anticipation of the upcoming family gathering served as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as well.

As I write this, however, I’m reminded of times of great loss and hopelessness, when options seemed few or nonexistent, and light seemed nowhere in sight. Mind can constrict around such circumstances and make it seem as though nothing else exists, or ever will exist. It’s important to know how to find stillness in such times. Whether you find it in prayer, meditation, or in communion with nature, the ability to tap into the inherent stillness behind all phenomena can be, quite literally, a lifesaver. A glimpse of stillness can pierce the shrink wrap of constricted mind and transform it into one that is more spacious and open, and patiently waiting for life to nest within it once again.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Seasons of the Self

I suppose some know all too well when they’ve just lived their final summer day. Others can only sift through hazy memories for one that might stand out in retrospect. For me, it was the process of reflecting on the changing of the seasons and the changing of the self that caused this summer walk of not so long ago to become indelibly stamped upon my mind.

It was a day on which the heat and residual fatigue from my morning labor combined to leave me walking the final miles home from my afternoon run. Yet again I’d bitten off more than I could chew! All was well, though. That backroad was quiet in a reassuringly familiar way, with nothing much happening down those lonely miles save for a gentle breeze rustling in the dry brush of a fencerow, or the occasional rasping sound of a grasshopper taking brief flight, or maybe a solitary bird trying to start up a conversation. The stillness invited in me reflection and introspection and, as with so many other end-of-summer days in years gone by, a faint sense of melancholy on account of something beautiful slipping inexorably away.

GoldenrodBee

Autumn then was only a week away, and though a recent spell of cool weather had already put us all on notice, at times it felt as though those summer days might just go on and on. Ah, but I knew that those were silly thoughts. Despite the fact that scant few leaves had yet begun to fall, other not so subtle clues foretold that change would soon be taking place more quickly. The soybean plants and cornstalks had for some time been taking on a hue somewhere between that of the dry earth and the golden sun. Yes, and combines had already begun to crisscross the first of the fields to be planted this past spring, stopping every so often to belch dusty grain into the back of a trailer steered into position.

Life seemed on the verge of passing away; and of course it was and it wasn’t all at the same time. The passing away part, however, was tugging at my heartstrings and making me long to burrow ever deeper into the stillness that I knew was all around me, even as it seemed just out of reach. Was I trying to hang onto life more tightly, or was I simply trying to savor it that much more deeply as it passed? Either way, my efforts left me just this side of stillness, walking the backroads with a longing stretching from one side of the valley to the other, from the upper reaches of the watershed through which I walked to as far downstream as I could see.

As it turned out, though, I would only need to drift downstream for a little over a month in such a state of mind before coming to rest (at least for a little while) in the meditation hall of a Zen temple where I practice from time to time. There, after settling once again into waters still and deep, I could easily recognize where my thinking had gone astray. Actually allowing myself to return to stillness reminded me that “hanging onto life more tightly” and “savoring it that much more deeply” both serve to perpetuate the illusion of our separateness – thereby prompting us to yearn for that which already resides within. We cling to experience for the way it bolsters the experiencer – us. The passing away of life “out there” holds a mirror to the passing away of the self “in here.”

LateSummerBerries

But life is always on the verge of passing away. Life is always on the verge of being born anew. Like a dewdrop condensing on a blade of grass at daybreak only to boil away by midday, we arise and pass away based on what causes and conditions flow and ebb. When I get out of the way and simply watch this as it happens instead of “savoring it that much more deeply,” I can actually be the depth of stillness instead of one who merely longs for the experience of it.

In stillness there is only the beauty of that which is…

A cold front passed over the zendo late that afternoon. Wind rushed through the trees, setting branches to pitching and bending, and leaves to swirling and gusting against the windows. Yes, autumn too was fading, and winter would be coming soon. Light flashed from this direction and that as golden leaves from all around the temple directed the sun to where I sat with eyes barely open. Shadows of my form were cast upon the wall before me. On the left and on the right, and right in front of me – alternating, and in collections of twos and threes – the shadows flashed and disappeared, only to reappear and disappear once more. When things happen, time passes. When nothing happens, there is no time.

In time, the wind died down. The light began to fade, and the wall became a field of gray growing darker. Time and stillness merged until, at last, only stillness remained. It’s a peaceful place. In stillness there is nothing that I am, and nothing to hang onto. In stillness there is nothing that I’m not, and nothing to be savored. In stillness there is no “I” to become melancholy on account of beauty slipping inexorably away. In stillness there is only the beauty of that which is, in all its ever-changing glory.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.