A solitary walk in the woods can deliver any of us to the hushed, enlivened experience of wonder — bare wonder, free from elaboration. As our feet step atop the thick carpet of sheddings returning to the earth, our face registers the warmth as slim rays of sunlight filter their way down through the leafy canopy. We become more present. Attention increasingly attends — to the chatter of a squirrel, the snap of a twig underfoot, the scent of moss and native flowers, the refreshment of the ionized air around a nearby stream.
I have been blessed many times to have walked through woods on this beautiful planet of ours. These hours of wonder, gratitude, and peace gave rise to a spontaneous meditation, one that led to some understanding. It’s one I’ve contemplated often since, letting the imagery wash over me, time and time again.
Let me share this contemplation.
Imagine, if you will, a small woodland stream, fresh and freely flowing. The atmosphere around it is moist and clean and aerated. The stream’s waves bubble and crisscross, rising and falling, and the rises and the falls make lively, lovely babbling sounds. The stream flows along, past the boulders and exposed roots on its banks, over the stones on its uneven bed — the deposits of a passing glacier a million years ago.
A rock ledge juts out a bit from the water, just enough to create a little waterfall as the stream drops over it.
As the water rushes over the ledge, it pushes water over to the side in the stream level below. It gives rise to a small eddy in an indentation of the bank. The eddy circles, around and around, remaining fixed in its position. It becomes backwater; the rest of the stream flows by.
We can imagine that, inside the eddy, the circular movement continues its swirl — its rounds — over and over and over. Inside the eddy, momentum concentrates and turns inward to the pattern of circling. Attention turns away from the fresh and freely flowing stream and is drawn into the circular pattern. The eddy is defined by that pattern. We can imagine that it identifies inside its circled boundary as something and as something separate from the freely flowing stream.
We can imagine, with this identification, that the eddy checks its circular motion well and often, monitoring it carefully so as to circle well, to remain in the comfort of the familiar. It compares itself to neighboring eddies, judging and evaluating. It imputes itself as separate, independent, protective of its own circularity. It comes to cherish its swirling — the dynamic that creates its tiny universe. It comes to cherish all the debris caught within the swirls, with a sense of personal reference about each of the particles trapped inside its muddied orbit.
Its view becomes myopic. It forgets all about the rounded, ancient mountain down which the stream flows. It forgets the centuries of melting snows and summer rains that create the stream, the mass of tree roots and the tiny, rutted animal paths that determine the course of the stream as it flows down the sloped terrain and through the woods. It forgets all about the small ledge of stone that creates the waterfall above it. It forgets all the immeasurable causes and conditions that give rise to its appearance.
Not looking — ignoring — the eddy assumes itself according to its ignorance. It ignores that it never for a moment holds the same water. It does not look and it does not see that, in each new moment, new water is recruited into the familiar circling pattern by virtue of its momentum and the unquestioned assumption of that momentum.
Holding itself as eddy only — as an isolated phenomenon — it remains ignorant of the fact that nothing exists independently of the conditions giving rise to it, that all of life leads to each arising. It loses sight of its inseparability from stream and squirrel and mountain and cloud and wind and planet and galaxy, a snapshot of a moment in cosmic time.
Unaware, not looking, it ignores its fragile impermanence. A small rabbit, a frog, could cross upstream at any moment, dislodging a water-logged twig at the crestline of the fall, ever so slightly changing the course of the stream. The eddy would be gone in an instant, leaving no trace in the water, as if it were never there.
Unaware, not looking, the eddy clings to the circled fabrication. It ignores its essential nature, never realizing that its separation from the living water is only imagined, that all is of One Taste beyond assumed identities and limitations, already interconnected in all aspects.
It’s certainly not difficult — is it? — to recognize ourselves in the metaphor, to recognize ourselves as eddies in the stream. It’s not difficult to recognize two similar cases of mistaken identity.
Just as our own fleeting appearance, an eddy is a temporarily stable pattern of continually changing elements. It sustains itself through constant definition — in the eddy’s case through its circularity, in our case through our equally circular inner dialogues. Just as in our own fleeting appearance, the eddy is released from self-limitation when it recognizes it is of the same nature as the stream.
Attention trapped in a self-only, form-only paradigm becomes constricted. In that constriction, it becomes dense. The density of ten thousand colliding thoughts blocks the revelation of the sacred. This is our uncomfortable, congested, and confusing experience when attention is trapped in and confined to egoic consciousness, blocked from essence. On the other hand, grace — the sacred — is unconfined, an endless continuum. It does not exclude self and form; it does not hold them as other. It recognizes everything as of the same nature. This is our experience when attention is liberated into the spaciousness of awareness
Believing our egoic self-sense to be the final statement of who we are, we cling to it. We fixate in it and perpetuate it, limiting our experience of being. It is not, let’s be clear, that “I” don’t exist at all. Clearly, we exist, but — until awakening — we exist ignorant of our true nature. Even after releasing our attachment to our perceived selves, we have an awareness of existing as an individual manifestation of grace. We still brush our teeth. A sense of our individual manifestation remains necessary not just to survive but to be an offering to others, an agency of kindness and compassion. This is our humanity. The capacity to respect, appreciate, and live our full humanity spontaneously arises when attention is released from confinement within the “I”-illusion.
We are sleepwalking when the attention of awareness is trapped within a “self,” a single point of egoic reference. An awareness of existing as an individual manifestation of grace is an awakened view. Awakening is a growing illumination. Grace increasingly shines in and through us as the fog of who we had believed ourselves to be dissipates, as the congested density thins into clear spaciousness.
Awareness is an endless continuum. It extends from trapped to free, from confusion to clarity, from bound to unbound. Our clinging to an egoic self-sense keeps us in a limited point of reference on that endless continuum. We misunderstand who we are. As we free our fixated self-reference, as we unbind ourselves from ignorance, ego’s functional capacities remain, but attention is liberated into the far greater being of our essential nature — more subtle, more spacious, more expansive, and more inclusive. May we all become “stream-enterers,” may we all allow the eddies we’ve imagined ourselves to be to merge into the divine flow.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Stay a While and Listen to the Stream,” by Jakob Lawitzki. It is used under a Creative Commons-Attribution license.