By Jahnavi Newsom
I notice when I’m tired after we’ve hosted a retreat, and we are having lazy days, my mind is more doubtful. While during the retreat I may have been feeling a lot of good energy and inspiration, when I find myself practicing on my own for a few days before our regular schedule begins again, I wonder if I can sustain monastic life. I do walking meditation and breathe with feelings of separateness, sadness, and a pain in my heart that makes me ask: where did this pain come from? How long has it been rising and falling away? Did it begin with me? Or did my ancestors pass it down to me? Did my grandmother feel like this sometimes? My dad?
When I am rested, feeling solid, I can have a sense of deep purpose, commitment and confidence that I can do this, and I will do this for the rest of my life. Whatever “this” is. I’m only an aspirant, not a nun yet.
I’ve also noticed over the last year that I have been learning to be with myself in a way that I didn’t know how to before. Before, when painful feelings came up, it sometimes felt as though they were rising lava in a volcano, and I felt desperate to talk to someone and find relief from the pain. But these days I feel less of a need to share my suffering with others. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to befriend my feelings rather than being afraid of them.
Yesterday I was doing walking meditation in the oak grove, embracing the familiar pain in my chest, and felt curiosity mixed with compassion as I took one careful step after the other. The grass waving and leaning along the path was a brilliant spring green, each tuft so fine and delicate, like kitten tails and luna moth wings all at once. Part of my brain was wondering what to do with so much beauty. Another part of me was looking at the suffering that walks with me and wondering if this mindful walking is enough.
But then I remember that I’m not walking with my pain to get rid of it. I’m walking with my pain so that I can be present and not overwhelmed by it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m aware that I won’t always feel this way, and that I am planting wholesome seeds in my consciousness here in the oak grove. For 36 years I lived out in the world in a certain way, and many thousands of millions of seeds were planted in my consciousness. I have brought with me habits that won’t disappear simply because I live at a Buddhist monastery now. But if I can be truly present for my pain and my joy, for each step and for the sight and sounds of wind moving the new spring leaves on the oaks, transformation will happen. Transformation has happened. I know it and feel it and just need to read journal entries from a year ago to be reminded that I am more at ease in my mind and body every day.
Each mindful step presses a wholesome seed into the earth. The next time I come back to do walking meditation, perhaps I will find flowers and a mind that is lighter, more still, a body that is more at ease.
Later, as I walked out onto the road to leave the grove, the earth was tilting in such a way that the sun was being lowered behind a magnificent live oak, and the rays were spilling across the field, and there just happened to be the most perfect stump lying on its side, front row and center in this theater of life.
Whatever I thought I was going to do next fell away, and I found myself settled on the stump, breathing in time with life. Tiny beings, glowing with evening sunlight, danced just above the willows that grow along the stream bed. It may have been the stream laughing, or it may have been the voices of tiny fairies I heard. But I looked at them and I thought, “Surely these are fairies.” And I watched them dance and swirl higher and higher until they seemed to merge into the branches and sky and leaves.
One of the sisters (who is very much a fairy herself) passed by me on her evening walk. She began to sing, “Awaken spirit of the earth…” and I joined her, “I feel you, grow in me…”
“Awaken spirt of the sun…”
“I feel you shine in me…”
Together we sang, “I am home, I am home…”
I sat until dusk, where the light seemed to withdraw along with many of the vibrant colors I had witnessed just before. And at last, I got up and continued on my way.
Today I observed the pain in my chest melt away by the end of breakfast clean-up and made sure to make a note of it: “Breathing in, I’m aware that I don’t have pain in me right now. Breathing out, I enjoy a feeling of ease.” Maybe today I’ll do walking meditation in the oak grove just for the fun of it.