The Things that Open the Heart
The talk was on When Hard Things Open the Heart. Spirit Rock Meditation Center is WAY out in the hills of Marin, outside of San Rafael, CA. As I drove, twisting and turning through the unfamiliar neighborhoods, opening out into a stretch of rural road nestled between soft, rolling, green hills, I was shivering from the cold and the wet and from ending a relationship I had hoped would last. Wet grey felt lay across the land that day, dripping and primordial. I didn’t want to leave the house, but in the interests of “moving on” and my sanity, I decided to get up at 7:30 am on a rainy Sunday and go. I had paid $50 for this event, after all, and had never been to Spirit Rock before, though I’d heard about it for years.
Settling in to the meeting hall, listening to the teachers and audience members talk, I heard stories of dead wives, of fathers who had suffered strokes, of losing 401(k)’s to Ponzi schemes, of traumatic brain injuries that crippled a budding career. My problems seemed so trivial in comparison, but, in keeping with the spirit of the talk, I tried not to judge myself for feeling so lonely, lost, and bereft. Sadness was a comfortable old coat I wore, and that was OK. As another teacher put it once, sadness is a teacher, too, and my job was to welcome it in, to talk to it and learn from it.
After lunch, tired from not sleeping well the night before, I decided to leave the talk. I had heard it all before, and though at first I had been comforted by hearing the same information I already knew, now I noticed I was falling asleep during the meditation exercises. So, I snuck out, walked out into the dewy wetness that surrounded me in a strangely comfortable embrace. The world was muffled and resting, drinking in the water that seemed like it would never run out.
I walked, bundled up in my coat the color of the clouds. Up into the Spirit Rock complex, past the dining hall and the dorms, where I found a creek rushing under a tiny wooden footbridge. Stayed on the footbridge for awhile watching the water churn muddily. The water that flowed and eddied around any obstacle without complaint, but slowly, irrevocably changing the landscape as it did so.
Walking back to the parking lot, I passed a serene stone Buddha and made an offering of a quarter, wishing peace and happiness for all beings.
Approaching my car, I felt balanced and almost as serene as the Buddha, though still sad and longing to for home and sleep. I was heading to a friend’s music performance that night, and wanted to get some sleep before heading out. But my car was blocked in, another car – a Honda hybrid - parked behind it, and surrounded by cars so no fancy driving would be able to extricate it. Shit. I couldn’t believe it. In a minute all of my equilibrium collapsed and I shouted angrily at the trees. Wondered : should go back to the meeting hall and ask the staff to make an announcement? The car had a pair of crutches in it; I couldn’t see myself asking someone to come out of the talk, get on their shoes and coat, and walk all the way down here to move their car, especially if they had mobility problems. And besides, everyone would know I was cutting out early. I swore. Should I go back in and sit out the rest of the talk? No, I didn’t want to do that. The smell of wet leaves was calling me. I couldn’t go back inside.
I realized after a few choice comments about whoever designed double parking spaces for a place like this, that getting pissed off at a Buddhist retreat center was missing the point. The universe, I decided, was telling me something. So, reluctantly, I walked some more. Heading down the long winding driveway, past the sign that read “Yield to the Present”, my shoes getting wet from the grass and mud, I walked.
The clouds were doing a dance with the sinking sun – dark grey was interspersed with the most delicate gold that lit up the green hills with some previously unknown color. Clouds were caught up in the hilltops like seaweed, the light grey showing up in stark contrast to the dark green of the pines. I felt like I was in a cinematographer’s dream. I walked down to the highway, watched some nearby horses for awhile, then turned back and climbed into the hills. My feet were getting wetter and wetter – squish, squish. I jumped over a small pond that had formed in a hollow in the grass, and clambered up granite laced with pale green lichen. There was an old moldering bench placed under a crooked, wizened tree. The view was immense and green and rolling. The sky dripped. A damp breeze blew. Hawks circled above, while in the trees, crows hopped from branch to branch, gossiping with one another.
My sadness and my wet feet and the grey sky and the gold-lit hilltops and the crows and the hawks and I sat and watched the world for awhile. There were no problems or solutions, no dashed hopes, jealousy, or angry “should have beens”. There was only this moment. And below me, people sat around in a room and talked about opening the heart. I realized for the millionth time that for me, my heart only opens in a place like this. The only place where I know viscerally how it feels to be interconnected with all beings and the planet: outside, surrounded by teeming life and light and wind.
After that, I trudged down the hill, me and my sadness, and eventually I got out of that parking lot and drove home.