I am here at Rose Apple in central Vermont. It is early Sunday morning and I am sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking the pond. It is cool and overcast and the birds are singing their morning symphony. Winter has had its finale and there is just a small mound of snow under the trees at the forest’s edge. The various plants are just starting to send up their shoots. The leaves on the some of the trees are are just starting to unfurl. Some are still just buds. It is a time of transition.
We often use the phrase “I am in transition,” when referring to going from one aspect of our lives to another. Usually, they are large aspects that seem to make the stuff in between not as significant. It could be said that due to the impermanent, ever changing nature of life, we are in a constant state of transition. However, it really doesn’t convey our perspective on the specific events that mark our lives, or that are turning points in our lives. We transition from job to another. We transition from an apartment to a house, perhaps moving from one city or state to another. Perhaps “transition” means a change in a relationships, such as a break up, a divorce or separation or transitioning into a new relationship. I remember years ago a news magazine, yes, the printed kind, used to put the obituaries of predominate people in a section called “Transitions.”
Sometime transitions are short in duration sometime they are long, taking what seems an entire lifetime to get there, whatever there is for us. Sometimes transitions are difficult, taking everything we have to “make” that transitions, such as a coming off an addictive drug or how some struggle to leave an abusive relationship. Sometime transitions are smooth and seemingly effortless. I remember the process of deciding to be come a monk. When people ask me about my experience I usually start out by saying that there was no big event, no great suffering, no great vision. I did not see Avalokita in a dream telling me in some cryptic words to go forth, and I did not promise my mother on her deathbed. I’m sure it has disappointed some. No, it actually seemed like putting on a comfortable pair of sneakers. It all seemed to fit, somehow.
I’d like to say that that taking up the seemingly seamless path of transition is due to following our own heart, which usually knows better than our intellect. Perhaps it is true in some cases. But we cannot dismiss our inner voice when it seems to take us on a difficult path or a path of great uncertainty. In either case, the important transitions in our lives, it seems, are the ones where we listen to our hearts, our inner voice, and this is something I feel that I haven’t done lately. It is just as easy to get caught up in life at the monastery as it is “out” in the world. It is also easy for us human beings to go on automatic, ignoring the things of the heart, and there is a price to pay. Perhaps we are not as motivated as we used to be, perhaps we become more frustrated with life, not as fulfilled, and so on. We all have our own expressions of a half-filled life.
All this having been said, I have recently decided to take a year-long sabbatical from my life at Deer Park. This is why I am writing from Rose Apple here in Vermont. I have been here for the past few months. For those who might remember, Rose Apple is the former Maple Forest Monastery. In 2007 the community decided to close up shop in Vermont to establish a larger monastery in New York State, Blue Cliff Monastery. The couple that actually ownes the property of Maple Forest, Pritim and Ann, decided to keep the buildings available to the monastics. So here I am. The reason for my sabbatical? To rest, to cook, to eat, to walk, to sit, to listen to the birds, the crickets, the frogs, to watch the snow melt and the leaves open, to find clarity about my life – to listen to myself.
After nineteen Dharma years in this fifty-eight year old body I have decided to take up the advice of the late Joseph Campbell, to “follow your bliss.” There is something that I have been wanting to do for quite some time now, an aspiration so to speak. The monasteries are a great thing. Many people come to practice and I have constantly over the years listen to people share about how much they gained from the experience. I hope the community in the monasteries will always be there to help those along their path in life. However, as many know, the monasteries are not accessible to a great many people, for one reason or another.
As I have toured the US in the past what really struck me was how so many practitioners, even long -term community practitioners never have and probably never will go to one of the monasteries. For many, I was their only connection with the our monastic tradition. Following my bliss, in this case is to spend a good portion of this year and beyond to visit the local sanghas. I don’t necessarily mean to go to a community give a talk, lead a retreat, perhaps a day of mindfulness, although these things would be good, but to really spend the time to connect with people. So instead of flying in, supporting an event or two and flying out, how about spending a few weeks to be there for the community. This of course is solely dependent upon the various sanghas and what they would like, this monk is just offering.
As I’ve mulled around the idea of this new direction, the thought of this new direction excites me, sometimes to the point, OK, I will admit this, of being rather giddy. A new adventure. But with this new direction I have also encountered the abyss of uncertainty. It reminds me of the old koan: You are on the top of a hundred foot pole and you have to take a step. We all like certainty in our lives. We desire to know the end game, the final destination, that everything will work out they way we dream it to be. In my case, when a monastic leaves the monastery for a sabbatical, or decides their life in the community no is no longer working for them, it is a bit like leaving the safety and security of a mother’s womb. The community takes care of all one’s needs: Food, clothing, medical needs, medicine and so forth. Once you leave the womb you are pretty much on your own. Those things are not so readily available and one needs to come up with their own resources. So here I am, on my extended sabbatical, on the one hundred foot pole and ready to take that step. At the same time I am looking into the abyss of uncertainty. Regardless of how excited and certain about this new direction there looms underneath the uncertainty of it all, with its manifestations of doubt, worry, questioning one’s motives, one’s self worth and so on. What happens if…?
I tend to believe that life is mostly about the practicalities. When I look at the mindfulness practice I think it is pretty much about the practicalities, tending to one thing and then another, and then another, and then another, being mindful, being present in our daily lives to whatever unfolds, to whatever we encounter. No abstraction, no underlying idealism, no type of psychological or philosophical system. Just you and thus. Now I can do one of three things. One, I can continue on my sabbatical and not travel and visit the sanghas, two, I can forget about both and go back to the monastery, or three, I can follow my bliss, with all the things that go with it, whatever it may be, to embrace the knowing and uncertainty of it all, and go forward. This is the duality I need to come to terms with, to embrace the duality is to put down the duality. In the end, however, as it manifests in this life of mine, it comes down to a choice – a choice of living a comfortable half life or the uncertainty of a full life. I think today is a good day to step from the pole. Today, I think I will chose the full life.
Perhaps I will see you on the road.
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