Monday, December 1, 2008

The Silent Sunset and The Strange Symmetry of The Three Signs


I want to take you back, dear reader to a past tale from my time at the Jikoji Silent Meditation Retreat way back in June. You might remember, that we left off with me walking at a rather determined pace up a forest trail that led to the top of a ridge, diligently meditating all the while, trying to catch up with the rest of the group. I've been meaning to tell you about what happened after that for some time now but never quite got around to it. So here's the rather curious tale.

As I mentioned, I kind of ran meditatively up the trail. But partly due to the uphill climb and partly because I couldn't convince myself that running and meditating really went together, I slowed down soon enough. And as I slowed down, the silence in its varying degrees, became noticeable. There was the muted crunch of the dew-damp fallen leaves under my slippers. The whispering of a gentle, still-warm breeze as it weaved its way through the upper layers of the forest canopy that fully sheltered the trail from the setting sun. The sound of a deer's half-step - as it stopped momentarily upon spying me coming up the path and then placidly rustled its way away through the shrubbery. The sunlight only filtered through a couple of feet through the leaves - turning the upper layer an early autumnal red-brown and the lower layers a deepening, darkening shade of green. I felt the calm seep into me...even the rather meditatively-unhelpful sign warning about itinerant mountain lions only caused a momentary flutter in my pulse. My steps slowed further.

Three quarters of the way up the hill, I stepped into the sun, as the canopy gave way to knee-high sun-dried grass glowing warmly golden-brown in the sun. With another few steps I turned a corner so that the crest of the hill lay directly behind and above me. A vunderful (Yes I'm Indian and proud that I economise on my v/w sounds) vista opened up before my eyes. A grassland stretched lazily rampant across the landscape, covering rolling hills and dipping valleys - besieging the occasional clump of trees before itself being restrained in its reach by the forest that formed its irregular border. An Olympian discus-thrower's stone's throw away from the freeway - I had reached a sanctuary seemingly untouched by civilization. The quiet of the surroundings stilled my thoughts. I spied the dark-tan silhouette of a deer against the grass on the opposite slope - his antlered head turned towards me. Still. Unmoving. Which is when I saw the first sign - of civilization. A weather beaten bench just the right shade of dark brown - the kind that one would pay quite a handsome sum for in Crate n' Barrel. Placed at the center of the ridge - capable of seating up to three ( malnourished) meditators - it was placed at just the right angle for watching the sun as it set in the western sky.

I sat down and as I turned to look at the great big ball of fire in the sky - that had obligingly hung around despite my tardiness - I saw a slow-moving, red-bellied SouthWest Airline plane making its way to San Jose airport. I continued to contemplate deeply about nothing and sometimes about whether this was the wrong ridge - because I couldn't see anyone else there. Soon the rest of the group file silently into view. It seemed, I had beaten them to the top. The realization, that they must have had a short meditation session in the zen temple before starting up the path, wafted into my conciousness. There were more than 20 people in the walking meditation procession. None of them acknowledged my presence. Each one silently found a vantage point from where to see the sun finally set. Some sank into the inviting grass. Others joined me on the bench. Others still, stood scattered across the slope. Look, I wanted to say - Isn't that setting sun beautiful. But I held back. Look there, I wanted to point, at that unmoving deer - providing the relieving speck of fauna to the flora-rich landscape. My hand stayed by my side. Gathered together on that ridge - each one alone - we watched as the sun completed its descent below the distant horizon. I'm guessing some of the others saw the deer and some didn't. I'm guessing some of them saw every change in colour that the section of the sky hugging the horizon went through. While others missed some of the transitions because no one pointed them out.

Let me ask you, dear reader, is a sunset beautiful if no one watching it says it is? The answer I realized that evening is of course, a definite maybe. The twenty of us watched a beautiful, beautiful sun set without once commenting on how beautiful it was. How purple the sky was right at the end. How, the unnaturally still deer, looked more like a shadow in an Indonesian puppet show than a living, breathing being. Or how the landscape, brown grass and green trees, took on a deep cool blue hue once the sun had set. It was a bit of a strange, and strangely fulfilling, experience.

Without a word or a sign to one another, we started our way back down the trail. I felt engorged and sluggish with all the beauty I had taken in. As I savoured this new way of feeling full - I spied the third sign - a white plastic bag - caught in the upper branches of a tree - fluttering noisily in the cold breeze that had now started blowing. I hadn't truly linked the bench and the plane in my mind beyond making the connection that they were the two man-made things in that otherwise natural scene. But seeing the bag - brought me another realization. This one didn't waft through - more like rushed in and screeched to a halt in my mind. I realized that the three signs were not a coincidence. That I had gone beyond communing with nature - to communicating with nature. The signs - in their weird symmetry - contained a message. Just for me. For only I had seen all three - the Southwest flight having disappeared before the others arrived.

I understood what the elements, the powers that inhabit the ether, were trying to tell me - I was neither the well-grounded bench nor the crimson aeroplane that had already attained soaring heights. I was the plastic bag caught in a limbo - struggling to rise sky-high but in just as much danger of falling into the mud below. What finally happened to me would depend on whether I was able to figure out what the branches of the tree represented - for that was what was restraining me. And what I did to free myself. I had another day of silent meditation to do that. I was thrilled at having had Mom Nature or other higher beings take it upon herself/themselves to personally deliver a piece of zen enlightenment to me. And that she was sophisticated enough to use a riddle that needed to solving versus an akaashwani that spelled it all out. (Plus I wouldn't have understood Sanskrit anyway!)

We were back under the canopy on our way back to the lodge. The air was considerably cooler now that the sun had fully set. I saw the T-shirt clad guy ahead of me shiver slightly in the breeze. I hadn't noticed the cold myself - warmed as I was by the cloak of narcissism that had fallen lightly over my shoulders.

No comments: