Weathering the rapids

People I meet almost invariably remark, sometimes with a hint of wistfulness, how quiet and peaceful it must be to live at a Buddhist monastery. Not at all, I assure them—on the contrary!

Our practice is to cultivate a peaceful state of mind in the midst of chaos, and opportunities abound. We have a tiny staff and a great deal of activity, and though we do have some kind volunteers to help us out, the bulk of the work, from teaching, chanting, and huge events to shopping, cooking, and garbage collection, is done by PTC’s monastic and lay residents. There are days when it’s a challenge to remember to slow down and take a few mindful breaths.

People also sometimes comment how lucky I am to lead such a fulfilling and meaningful life. This I readily agree with. There’s really no better problem to have in life than overfulfillment.

I’ve spent the last few weeks in Richmond, Virginia, helping my mother, who is in her fourth year of Alzheimer’s and nearly blind. This is a very difficult combination of challenges for both her and her caregivers, and right now it’s a full time job helping her navigate a still undefined transition to the next phase of her life. The relentless suffering of old age is on daily display, as her options for the future range from dismaying to dreadful, and we can only hope that the least bad options turn out to be viable.

In the midst of all this, I found a few minutes one afternoon to take a walk along the James River in Richmond, near where I’m staying with my Buddhist bodhisattva friends Jean and Bruce. Thanks to recent rain and snow, the river is unusually high, and the currents were raging, swirling, crashing and foaming at the Pony Pasture rapids where I sat for awhile to meditate. My favorite low rock was underwater, so I found one higher up along the riverbank. It was about 4:00 p.m. (first day of Daylight Saving Time) and the sun was slowly descending toward the horizon directly behind me.

As I sat relaxing into the mesmerizing din and drama of the rapids, I suddenly noticed my shadow on the river’s surface, an anonymous meditator’s silhouette—still and unchanging, steadfast and unperturbed within the crashing and swirling of wave after wave. I found myself wishing I had brought my phone so I could capture a video of this perfect metaphor of the relationship between life and practice. Lacking the means to preserve and solidify it for future reference, I just immersed myself in the flow.

The river may be endless, but with practice as our ground, we won’t be swept away. And….if a pair of ducks happens to swim through your shadow, as happened to mine, it’s a reminder that even the four great rivers of suffering have their moments.

Postscript: OK, a few days later, I went back to the river with my phone to see if I could recreate the silhouette. (Caution: don’t try this in meditation.) The river wasn’t as wild as the other day, but here’s the idea:

James River meditator

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