Martin LeFevre: The afternoon is hazy, probably from the huge wildfires in Canada, and Sentinel Rock in the canyon beyond town is partially obscured. The reasoning mind chooses not to drive to Upper Park, but when upon reaching the deciding point, I continue driving from a deeper place without choosing to do so.
I arrive at the end of the grated but undulating gravel road after driving a few miles through thick stands of oak and sycamore. The canyon opens up in the last mile, and a great escarpment of volcanic rocks looms to my left. One is enveloped in semi-wilderness, which is always a surprise so close to town.
Even more surprising, as I exit the car in the small parking area next to the gate, is the profusion of lavender and purple wildflowers of the same species (elegant brodiaea). I assumed the wildflowers would all be gone by now. They line the rocky path to the meditation spot overlooking the narrow gorge, clustered in colorful clumps of one shade or another in the tall, browning grass.
The walls of the canyon rise a few hundred meters to a precipitous cliff on one side, and a dark, gnarly crust of rock on the other. There’s no detectable haze.
I stop frequently on the half-mile walk into the gorge, halted by the delicacy and exquisite beauty of the brodiaea, and shocked into stillness and wonder by glistening slabs of black volcanic rock just above the creek hundreds of feet below.
At the lip of the gorge, the sense of solitude is intense. The only sign of man is a barely discernible string of telephone wire on the ridge high above, over a mile away. And the only others are two college-age couples barely visible in the creek as they frolic upstream below.
After an hour of delighting in the sounds, sights, smells and feel (there’s a cool, light breeze), there’s a spontaneous heightening of sensory awareness. It’s accompanied by growing non-directed attention engendered by passive watchfulness.
The rockfaces above and volcanic slabs below suddenly feel alive. Thought and self are shattered against them, and the ‘me’ dissolves.
In neuroscientific vernacular, the construct of the self fades away. Thought is put in its place not by any effort or intention, by beauty, solitude and unguided attentiveness.
At one point the solitude is so intense that one imagines, from some previously unconscious place of need and social conditioning, the sound of music drifting up the vertical walls of the gorge. It’s followed by the smell of meat cooking, the sensory memory from a neighbor’s billowing BBQ yesterday.
The tricks of thought, activated by a primal fear of being alone in a wild place, pass. One comes into direct contact with the actuality of death. Not ‘my death,’ but its actuality, which in fact is inseparable from life, present within and around us every moment.
When solitude in nature is immense and immeasurable, immanence comes. If one seeks the sacred however, it cannot come. But if one lets go of the ‘me’ and self-concern, and watches memories and imagination as they arise, all separation ceases in deepening stillness, and a benediction comes.
I would not say, as Li Po, an 8th century Chinese poet wrote:
You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest,
and I smile, and am silent,
and even my soul remains quiet:
it lives in the other world,
which no one owns.
For me the return to town from meditations in the mountains, or even in the parkland in town, means returning to psychological thought. Why does the brain revert and return to the old, dead consciousness based on the symbols and memories of thought?
Very few have resolved this question within themselves by irrevocably leaving the stream of thought-based consciousness. Legend has it that Li Po drowned after drunkenly leaning out of a boat to embrace the moon’s reflection! It seems the perils of contemplative life are many, though I would not and could not take any other path.
Why does the brain retain the self? Clearly it isn’t necessary to function, even as an organizing principle for thought. Thought can be put in order without recourse to the illusory ‘me.’
The self is the ultimate source of man’s division, fragmentation and conflict. So why is negation and stillness of meditation the exception rather than the rule, even for long-time meditators?
Is it because, from our primal past as humans, we separate death from life, and therefore fear it and cling to the illusory permanence and control of the self?
Clearly the continuity of thought, whether as the self or ‘the next thing to do,’ is the destruction of the essential space for the growth of insight in the brain. (Even if man manages to create “artificial general intelligence” — that is, thought in our image with its construct of a self — AI can never have insight and communion with immanent intelligence; only an awakened mind/brain can.)
Directly experiencing the inseparable actuality of death while fully and vibrantly alive opens the door to creation and love, and perhaps immortality.
Ending unnecessary, psychological thought happens not through any kind of effort, but by effortlessly and non-judgmentally remaining with labels, memories and associations as they arise. It’s the quality of effortless attention that allows thought to flower and fall silent.
That still leaves the question why the brain reverts to thought-based consciousness, not to mention why we as humans are stuck in the disorder of thought-based consciousness long past its expiration date.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.