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A Way of Freedom

From the beginning of the retreat, space surrounded and permeated my experience but I had been unable to relate to it. I had been completely caught up in trying to control my experience. Now I stopped ignoring it and just stared into space. My relationship with the emotional turmoil changed, subtly.

Space, I realized, has many dimensions. In front of me was the vast space of the sky. It didn’t depend on anything and nothing depended on it. I watched the play of light and colors as the day passed. When the sun set and the sky lit up with shades of rose and yellow and blue, the space that let me see the sunset didn’t take on any color, yet it was not something apart. At night, it became an empty blackness, punctuated by a thousand points of light, but the panorama of stars was not separate from space. Likewise, thoughts, feelings, and sensations are not different from the space that is mind.

Silence is another kind of space. When everything is quiet and suddenly, there is a noise, we ordinarily say the silence was shattered. But it’s more accurate to say that we forget the silence and listen only to the sound. I started to listen to the silence, around me and inside me.

Time is another dimension. Kant once said that time is the medium in which we perceive thoughts, just as space is the medium in which we perceive objects. Hopes and fears, projections into the future, regrets and joys are all thoughts that come and go in time. Because there was nothing to do with any of them, I began to experience them as comings and goings, like the mists that rose from the ground in the early morning, only to vanish as the day progressed. Some days, what arose was more of a thunderstorm, but, like the thunderstorms in the mountains, the turmoil came and went on its own, leaving space as it was before, and the ground and trees refreshed and rich with life.

I became aware of another dimension, an infinite internal space that had to do with my ability to experience my body. This dimension had more the quality of depth: it seemed to go down forever. There was no bottom. There was no me there. It was like looking into a bottomless abyss, except that sometimes, I became the abyss. Years later, when discussing this experience with an aging teacher, he used the Tibetan phrase zhi mé tsa tral, or no ground, no root.

Two young boys were playing together. One asked the other, “We stand on the ground and the ground holds us up. What does the ground stand on?”

“Oh, my father explained that to me,” the second boy said, “the ground is supported by four giant elephants.”

“What do the elephants stand on, then?”

“They stand on the shell of a huge turtle.”

“What does the turtle stand on?

The second boy thought for a long time, and then said, “I think it’s turtles all the way down.”

Like the woman in the chair who waited for someone to knock on her door, I had been waiting for something to happen, some experience or insight that made sense of everything, put all the ghosts to rest and silenced the “thousand voices in the night.” For decades, I had held the belief, deeply embedded in our culture: know ye the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

“You have to be kidding,” I thought, “I have to let go of belief in truth?” Slowly, it was becoming clear to me that there is no truth out there — or in there, for that matter. There is only the way we experience things. To let go of this belief required a very different effort. Again, from Eliot:

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Here is where faith and devotion come into the picture. Devotion, whether to a tradition, a practice, a teacher or an ideal, is the fuel for faith. I had practiced with devotion before, in the form of guru yoga, or union with the teacher. It’s a powerful practice, greatly valued in the Tibetan tradition, where there are numerous prayers with titles such as “Devotion Pierces the Heart”. The teacher at this retreat exemplified this. He felt such devotion for his own teacher that he could not talk about him without crying.

Faith and devotion do not come easily to me. Now, here, at this retreat, I felt a different kind of devotion for my teachers and, with that, understood that there was nothing to do but to experience whatever came through the door.

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