Stumbling into Worship on a Silent Buddhist Retreat

I’m eight weeks into a three-month silence. For many days now, my inner world has been sweet and calm: mind quiet, concentration strong, access to compassion readily available. The wordless, ephemeral beauty of being alive saturates my waking awareness, colored by gratitude and a tolerable, even welcome, hint of melancholy. Access to this tender state is one of the reasons I enter these long silent immersions.

Although still winter, it is warm enough today to meditate outside. There is one bench off a trail deep in the woods that surround the Forest Refuge, beneath a moss-covered, jagged promontory. I seek this out for an afternoon sit.

As I meditate, the silence of the forest heightens the few sounds that register. Water melts off the icicles that hang from the craggy promontory, each drop hitting the rocks below with a soft, rhythmic “plop.” Breezes rustle the leaves on the ground near my feet, setting them aswirl. Farther afield, trees creak as they sway in the episodic winds. Tuning in carefully, I can track the wind from afar as it gets closer or moves away; I try to catch it as soon as possible, and stay with it until the last reverberation. These sounds root my awareness over and over in the now… now… now… of the present moment.

As is my practice, I have been meditating with my eyes closed. When I am ready to bring this sit to an end (why this particular moment? What, or who, decides?), I open my eyes to orient myself to the world around me, and to the world within.

I am tranquil, though a bit unfocused. I gently steer inner awareness toward greater clarity. I am curious to hone in on exactly what this current emotional/energetic state is, as if fine-tuning a radio dial to just the right frequency, or tilting a boat’s rudder just enough to maximize the wind.  What is my experience in this moment? 

The inner fog disperses, and an unexpected vista comes into view: Worship.

As soon as it registers, my body softens and releases into the ah, yes! ease of recognition, like tumblers of a lock falling into place so the safe door can naturally glide open.

This is the energy of worship, as precise an emotional presence as worry or joy.

Every state in the human realm has its own texture or coloration. When the clamor of the everyday mind quiets, as it does during a long silence, recognizing and delineating these specific states gets easier; there is less static interference. Am “I” generating these states, or instead am I receiving (and perhaps transmitting) them? This is a marvel of human consciousness that no philosophy, theology, or science has yet to answer with certainty.

Regardless, I look out at the specific trees in front of me and there it is: Worship. I gaze up at the soft-hued beauty of the late afternoon sky and the spark leaps undimmed: Worship. I listen to the icicles melt; I take in the broad forest swaths of brown and grey, shadow and light; I watch the tops of the trees undulate like wind-borne dancers in a cosmic ballet that may or may not be random, a performance that may or may not be the stagecraft of some divine choreographer: Worship.

I remove my gloves. I bring my hands to my face and examine them. It’s been years since I’ve looked at them so closely. Knuckles, fingernails, veins, tendons, wrinkles. I scan down to my torso, my legs, my feet. I touch the skin of my face, stroke my beard, hold my hand to my mouth and feel the exhalation of my breath: Worship, worship, worship.

I do not know exactly to what, or whom, I offer this obeisance. I do not know if this is “Buddhist” or not. It does not matter. Over the next days, this awareness – the energetic/emotional presence of worship – lingers in the background, or dominates the foreground, of waking experience. It arises any time of the day, in tandem with any commonplace activity: Walking, sitting, eating, looking, sweeping, pissing, defecating, bathing, stretching, thinking, flossing.

When present, it outshines whatever else co-arises in the field of consciousness. When present, it offers a framework, a roadmap for being alive. It is like having stumbled across a key that unlocks doors into an otherwise unchartered domain, where opposites are unified and transcended, and vexing questions have an obvious answer.

Modern western thought emphasizes the brain as the source of consciousness. Ancient Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, tilt instead towards the idea that consciousness is all pervasive, an inescapable field that is the mother, the matrix, of all that is, was, and ever can be.

When the energy of worship is present for me, the debate is irrelevant. Everything falls into place.

And then this, too, fades away, like everything else.

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).

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