Life, death, and a walk in the woods

On a recent walk in the woods, I was absorbing the smells of moss and the air itself, and noticing the creaking of big trees as they rocked in the wind, the swishing sound of boughs, and the soft whispering of a running river.

My heart opened and mind quieted as I moved along the trail and, in that inner space, I saw my friend whose husband had just died suddenly. I felt a stab of sorrow in the center of my chest; thoughts arose of how the next weeks and months of adjustment and grief will be for her. And into that sorrowful moment came a small fluttering moth, coming so close to my hand and then moving on. In a flash of insight, the sorrow fell away and there was peace, even joy. In the moth I could see life in its many aspects: strength, fragility, persistence, birth, growth, cocooning, metamorphosis – rebirth, and on, until finally, whatever we truly are is born out of the body.

I notice that as I age I have a deeper appreciation for all the passages that life is made from. Right now, I’m enjoying another autumn, the changing colours, leaves falling, squirrels racing about gathering winter food. I’m experiencing this autumn like an outbreath, a soft exhalation after a time of being busy. Its as though life is saying, “let’s just tidy up a bit and then take a well-deserved rest.”

I didn’t always enjoy the changing of the seasons. In fact, I could get cranky from trying to mentally dig my heels in as summer came to an end. I wanted warmth and sunshine to be permanent. There was a long list of things that I wanted to remain unchanging—and then there were those things I believed would never change.

Up until my 50th birthday I thought I would just go on and on. I often threw myself into life as though I were indestructible, walking steel beams 250 feet in the air without a safety harness, skiing over sharp drop-offs with no idea what was on the other side. Death as a personal possibility was merely theoretical. Even though both of my parents were dead and grieved by the time I was 45, their death was somehow not connected to my own mortality. And the death of those I loved seemed possible, but not in any meaningful way.

Getting older has real benefits—the first one being that I am still here, getting older, rather than the alternative. Another is being conscious that I won’t always be alive in this body and appreciating what a privilege it is to be embodied. Living brings the meaning of time’s passage into a sharper focus and proximity.

We are in an age where many people are living longer lives than our parents and grandparents expected to. And I am of an age where more and more family members, friends, and colleagues are dying. There are also a handful of people in my life who are living with either increasing physical limitations or varying degrees of cognitive decline. As always, the ISNESS of life, life as it is and not life as I might wish it, demands a response. My response is to question how present I am in this unfolding process we call life.

If I am getting near the time where I will be saying goodbye to life in this body, in this gorgeous world of form, then I want to have truly said hello and to have been intimately present with the joys and sorrows, the richness and the barrenness. intend to live in the question, “How present am I to this moment?” What life is showing me is, don’t TRY to be present, but relax and find yourself already present. The oneness that encompasses the entire span of living and dying and beyond is already and always here—looking through these eyes, listening through these ears, touching with these hands and tasting with these lips, this tongue.

I will attend the funeral of my friend’s husband and it will be all of me that attends. I will attend my life for however long and through whatever comes, and I pray that it will be all of me that attends.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How to outrun what you carry inside you? Put it down.

The meditation retreat is finished – 5 days of sitting in silence. Ahead of me is a 2400-mile drive across Nevada, Wyoming, Nebraska, and on, all the way to a little place in Tennessee, just north of Knoxville. I have always loved long road trips, never really asking myself why, assuming it was nomadic blood, new horizons, adventure. And it may have elements of those things, but this time I discovered something else, something more fundamental.

I begin driving and I’m O-P-E-N. Open the way one can be at the end of a meditation retreat, yet even by that standard I am cracked open; my heart feels as big as this wide-open country that I am crossing, tears come easily. Adyashanti, the teacher I’ve been meditating with, offers a pointer, “Rest as awareness.” Not as awareness of something, just as awareness. What he refers to as primordial awareness, the awareness that is always and already present. Okay, that sounds like it should be easy, and instead I find that I don’t know how to do or to BE this simple thing, “Rest as awareness.”

My curiosity about driving and being and awareness is awakened. I am aware – of course I am. I realize that I operate from within awareness, only it’s largely filtered through this whirling maze of thought. The miles slip by and I am paying close attention, endeavouring to “lean back” into natural awareness. And I notice things. Some are not new, many are, and they are all showing up differently, perhaps more clearly.

I notice that driving is an activity where I tend to be very present and where awareness is front and center. The stream of awareness notes sounds of wind, humming tires, the great bowl of blue sky/gray sky, huge white clouds, grassy slopes, sage brush, a knot in one shoulder, a cramping leg, bird on a fence post, and of course, cars, trucks, and trailers in front, beside, behind, and all the oncoming, and sensations in hands and feet, the breath, feelings of joy, sadness, anxiety – all noticed – all accepted – all of the time, without let-up.

Out of noticing, reflection happens. “What am I?” “Why do I believe what I believe?” “Where did this particular judgement or opinion come from?” Memories arise and with them, insights. I have used day dreams and fantasies to comfort the anxious ego. I recall how, as kids, my brother and I would create imaginary worlds where we were pirates or cowboys, heroes of some sort. For me this helped ease the fears about my parents’ fighting – my father’s rage, my mother’s tears. I could go to a world where I was strong and safe. And I notice that I drive and walk and even meditate as though I must get to “That Place” where I will be safe.

Seventy years old and I have never outrun that anxious frightened ego. How do you outrun what you carry inside you? Put it down. What a gift of awareness, to see clearly and with complete acceptance.

Photo by Nuno Antunes on Unsplash

Through these eyes

Have you ever had the experience where you’re sitting somewhere or maybe out walking, and you look up, expecting to see something familiar, and what you see instead startles you?

One day this summer I was sitting in the living room of our townhouse and heard the front door open and close. I knew that my wife, Kate, was due to stop by between meetings. I got up and walked into our hallway and saw her familiar figure. We walked toward each other for a hug and a kiss, but when I met her eye to eye, something unexpected happened. What flashed through this consciousness was, “Oh it’s me!” That which was looking through these eyes saw Itself – no Evan, no Kate, no Other, just Self.

For the hour before Kate arrived home I had moved in and out of meditative states and had settled deeper and deeper into an inner stillness. At one point, lying on the couch, it felt that “I” was slipping out of the body, as though I was falling asleep while still very aware. At that exact moment our cat leapt onto my chest with a yowl, something she never does. I sat up quickly and the cat bolted out of the room. I was recovering from the suddenness of that transition when I heard Kate opening the front door.

After that brief hug in the hallway, Kate kept moving, time-pressed and unaware of what I had just experienced. I was startled into silence. We shared another hug as she headed out the door and I went back upstairs and onto our little sun deck.

To be startled means to be shocked, disturbed, or unsettled, and all three meanings applied to me. I was in an altered state, standing in the sunshine, open, silent, both me as separate self and not me. The presence looking through these eyes saw the trees, the breeze moving the branches, the sky, a butterfly, a crow – and saw everything as Self. “Evan” would ask questions and try to understand, while the Self simply was everything.

The experience continued with some strength for about an hour before fading into the background. What has persisted is this sense of being startled and disturbed. For one thing, the glimpse of everything as oneness has amplified the longing to live as an expression of oneness to a point where it is an ache in my heart center. There’s this feeling of, “I got so close, why can’t I stay there.”

At the same time, I have been shown a TRUTH: that oneness is what is. Oneness is what I am, what we are; the I and the we always express the one. My analytical mind says that truth should put an end to the longing. Instead, I am in an odd kind of limbo. I walk around in the world seeing everything through an interface of separate self, unable to shake that identity.

I can see that the identity is an overlay. I can know intellectually that I am the one, I have these glimpses and these tastes to confirm that truth.

What I want is to live in and from the complete knowing of I AM THAT.

I was going to say that I am impatient and that waiting is hard. What comes, though, is the realization that waiting implies “not now but in some imaginary future.” Everything my monkey mind kicks up brings me back to the question of trust. Do I trust that what I am, the true essential nature of what I am, can never be separate? Do I trust that this essence is the one essence in ALL?

I know that any attempt to hang on to an experience or state is not only futile but an almost sure-fire way to create suffering. Life is change! That is a statement of deep truth. So, do I trust that even though, in this moment, I am not directly experiencing oneness, I am that oneness?

In this moment, I’m going with Yes!

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Situational vs. foundational trust

We’re often advised to “trust,” as if trust were a monolithic thing that we all approach the same way. It isn’t. Trust can be situational or foundational, as well as immature or profound.

Most of us don’t need to think too long or hard to find personal examples of both immature trust and earned situational trust. This learning requires life experience; we make mistakes and we may never feel fully confident of our ability to trust wisely.

The wisdom of foundational trust says that life itself is trustworthy. Cultivating foundational trust begins with our attitude or stance toward life. The moment we are open to the idea that life is essentially kind and nurturing, we begin growing our foundational trust.

Living from a place of foundational trust affects every aspect of life. It means that we meet life’s circumstances and challenges with our hearts, minds, and eyes open for the blessings and possibilities. If this comes with any desire to pretend that what is happening is not happening or to change what is happening because it’s something we don’t like, it misses the point. Foundational trust is not a Pollyanna approach to life. Far from it.

Foundational trust meets life where it is. “Ah, here is what is happening. I don’t love this and yet I trust that there is something that wants to happen that is ultimately going to serve.” Meeting life from this place means that we are not in opposition to whatever is happening in the moment.

Who we are really – that place at the very center – equals how we show up in life. Cultivating foundational trust moves us from the surface of our self, from roles and reactions, into our depth, our strength and our authenticity. When our actions in life arise from this depth they have an entirely different order of impact. And perhaps best of all, life tends to deliver very different lessons to one who trusts.

A big shift in my life was when I stopped trying to manage it. I gave up all my strategies for getting what I wanted and avoiding what I didn’t want. I clearly remember my decision to live life differently, my fear of letting go of the ways I knew, and the moment I opened to not knowing.

I was out for a morning run along a beach near where I lived, and really in my head. “How do I let go, how do I change,” kept repeating in my mind. Then out of nowhere I noticed the wind off the sea as it brushed my skin and heard the gulls and bird song and the sound of waves. A quiet settled over my mind, and it became this recognition: “I can’t control any of this, the wind, waves, sounds, I can’t control any of this.” And that was it, really. That’s when I began to shift from a life driven by will to one based more and more on trust.

That happened in 1983. I had an inkling that everything would be on a different footing from then on, but I had no idea how completely and profoundly the moment on the beach would change my life. New career opportunities were given to me, and I said yes. The chance to go out into the world in an experiment of trust came, and I said yes. New people with unfamiliar perspectives showed up again and again, each inviting me to question my beloved viewpoints and opinions. Every opening and encounter took me naturally on to the next.

In 1989, I landed at The Findhorn Foundation (an intentional spiritual community in Northern Scotland). There I was challenged to let go of lingering victimhood and step more fully into leadership. That’s also where I met the woman I have been married with for the past 27.5 years. And believe me when I say that this relationship has called for ever deepening trust – to trust that I am safe, to trust that I am loved, and to trust that I know how to love without holding back.

When I tell this story, some people listen hungrily, and others listen with a degree of skeptical reserve. That’s okay. The hungry ones will find their own ways to connect with deep trust in life and the skeptics will find whatever path best suits them. There are many paths; some are less direct, but none are wrong.

Editor’s note: This is TEZ team member Evan Renaert’s first post for The Enlightenment Zone blog. Thank you, Evan!

Photo by Purnomo Capunk on Unsplash