God's Country - An Exploration of Equanimity
I was in Colorado all last week – land of tall mountains, sweeping vistas, wild forests, and gushing alpine streams. You know…, God’s country. Colorado is a place I never seem to tire of, and yet before this most recent visit I hadn’t been in years. Hmmm… By the way, that’s an interesting expression, isn’t it – calling someplace ‘God’s country’? After all, if you believe in a creator, then certainly everything must have been touched by his or her hand. And if you’re not inclined to believe in a creator, then surely your tongue must be stuck in your cheek when you use the expression – as, of course, mine is! Nonetheless, we call this place ‘God’s country’ and that place ‘Hell’s Half Acre’. This place here is the ‘Garden of the Gods’ and that over there is the ‘Devil’s Tower’. Places that move us by virtue of their exquisite and nurturing beauty we call ‘God’s country’, while places that scare us, or bore us, or are seen to be connected somehow to the earth’s mysterious interior forces are deemed to be the work of the devil – or at the very least they are ‘godforsaken’. It’s interesting how we put ourselves in the position of deciding what has been created by whom!
Equanimity – Either Way
Buddhists often talk about cultivating equanimity – about not allowing our peace, happiness, satisfaction, well-being, or contentment to be dependent upon any particular causes or conditions. So, your coffee shop’s espresso machine just broke down and they can’t make your usual tall, skinny, four-shot latte with a caramel drizzle… Well that’s okay; a brewed cup will be quite alright. So, your friend has called to say that she has to work late and that’s going to keep you from going to that art opening that you’d planned on going to... No big deal; you’ll find something fun to do together. That’s equanimity. No matter what happens, your sense of well-being is maintained.
Ah, but we seem to revel in our preferences, don’t we? If you watch situation comedies on television you see neurotic preferences elevated to existential importance. Our neurotic preferences make us who we are! Without them we’re just boring and bland and (worst of all) uncool. Sure, it can make for fun comedy if you can leave it at that, but we don’t. We go out into the world and build our unique personae by bundling together various collections of neurotic preferences. Perhaps it’s some end-stage refinement of our consumer culture or something. It’s kind of funny, though, so often at the Missouri Zen Center when someone asks our teacher his preference on something, his response is: “Either way.” Would you like to have tea in the zendo or on the porch? Either way. That is equanimity.
Something that I really appreciate about meditation retreats – sitting sesshin as we call it in the Zen tradition – is that equanimity just seems to arise all by itself as they unfold. As the hours and days pass by and all of your ideas and preferences and expectations have had a chance to dissipate, then everything that presents itself becomes interesting and “worthy” of attention. Food, no matter how simple (or perhaps because it is simple), becomes satisfying and enjoyable. Work can be attended to without any of the usual ideas about what work is “supposed” to be (work). A break in the schedule can be richly spent just sitting and watching the sunlight play on the varied shades of leafy green in the garden, or watching a butterfly fluttering past on the subtle breeze. There is nowhere you would rather be. There is nothing you would rather do.
Going to God’s Country or Staying Home – Either Way
Okay, where was I? Yes, of course, God’s country! So last week was supposed to be the week of the Great Sky Sesshin at Hokyoji, a rural practice center founded by Katagiri roshi (one of my teacher’s teachers). Now, Hokyoji may very well be in God’s country for all I know. (I hear it is beautiful up there.) I’m going to have to check it out for myself on some other occasion, though, because just as soon as I’d set aside the vacation time and sent in my check – voila! Sesshin had to be cancelled.
The first thought that popped into my head after hearing the news of the cancellation was that I really, really need to head out to Colorado and climb some fourteeners. Fourteeners, in case you’ve never heard the term, are mountain peaks that are at least 14,000 feet tall; and
(you know…, God’s country) has over fifty of them. Now, it’s not like I’m a mountaineer or anything. I possess no technical alpine climbing experience. In fact, I have a certain pesky and intermittent fear of heights. Go figure! Nonetheless, I love the mountains, and I’ve even managed to make my way to the summits of a number of them. Ah, but that was years ago… You know, I could just as easily stay home, as well. That was my second thought. I’ve certainly got enough household projects to keep me busy. Wouldn’t it be great to just spend a good, solid ten days wrapping them all up? Either way. So, tell me, when is equanimity really just a bad case of indecisiveness? Colorado
I spent the ensuing weeks mulling all of this over – exploring my intentions and motivations, and the benefits and drawbacks of each course of action. Did I have some aversion to simply wrapping up those household projects once and for all? Would the world be a better place for me having gone or having stayed? (Mind you, I was contemplating going alone, so I couldn’t even point to the bonding or relationship-building value of experiencing something new with another person.) Just why did I feel the need to go anywhere, anyway? Was I feeling that life had grown boring? Did I need to be entertained? Was I simply feeling the need to go somewhere because, um…, that’s what people do – they go places? It seems to me that we often engage in travel merely for the sake of entertainment – to see something new after having grown bored with life closer to home. It’s not just a matter of going to a new restaurant, after all; it’s a matter of going to a new restaurant, in a
, and in a new country. Yes, I know, I can appreciate the transformative potential of travel when undertaken for the right reasons. So often, though, it seems to be merely translational – a collecting of post card-like experiences, a keeping up with the Joneses, a checking off of items (like consumers in an experiential marketplace) from some “bucket list” that somehow represents our idea of a life that’s been well lived. (Please see the link regarding translation and transformation on the main blog page.) On the other hand, though, might there be something holding me back from just doing what it was that my “heart” seemed to want to do? What was I stuck about? Was I apprehensive that age might have gotten the better of me? Was I fearful of going it alone in the wild mountains of new city ? Was I worried that my car might break down in the middle of nowhere and leave me sitting in Podunk for a week waiting for it to be repaired? Hmmm…, and just why would that be so bad, anyway? After all, it would be kind of like sitting sesshin! And that is precisely how I made up my mind. I would go out to God’s country with the intention of settling into the experience as if I were settling into a sesshin – mindfully, meditatively, and with an openness to be transformed. Colorado
I know, I know, I could have done that with a paint brush in hand here at home! Oh well…, I’ll let you decide whether I made the right decision as you read subsequent blog posts inspired by my journey out to God’s country. Next up: An Alpine Stream of Consciousness.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark FrankImage of Gray's Peak is a Photoshop composite of photographs taken by the author a number of years ago.