Posted by: Piyadassi | October 7, 2012

Crossing Over

I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding. ~ John O’Donohue

A week has passed since I returned to my noisy city life after spending 10 days in tranquil silence at Birken Forest Monastery. I’ve written before about the transcendence I feel when I dip my mindful toes into meditation retreats at Birken. This time once more I feel my practice has tapped into deeper pools of wise waters, the roots of my understanding of the Dhamma stretching into the bedrock of holistic commitment.

When I think back to my first sits four years ago when following my breath felt akin to watching my mind play pinball with every entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, I marvel at the menu of meditation practices that I now choose from with avid curiosity. Besides the breath and its myriad of variations, I found myself at the retreat savouring with serene concentration my beloved metta (loving kindness) practice, as well sampling some new contemplative entrees including the Five Subjects of Frequent Recollections (aging, illness, loss, death and kamma), Paṭikkūlamanasikāra practice encompassing the Contemplation of the 32 Parts of the Body and cemetery contemplations (yes, more death), and the Three Universal Characteristics: anicca (impermanence), dukkha  (suffering) and anatta (non-self).

Another less grim meditation practice was proposed by Ajahn Sona, my teacher and the abbot at Birken. He suggested I review my life as if it were a movie, backwards and forwards, time and time again to witness the events where I did a good job and those instances where, well, I could use a bit of improvement. Commending myself for the positive actions and re-writing the scripts on the negative ones helped me to see where in my past I would have perhaps taken another road and also how I would like my future life to unfold. Seeing another way to be in the face of anger, agitation, fear, doubt, greed or any number of not so wholesome emotions opens up life to more positive outcomes and an easier journey along the noble path.

Although I waded back into the deep end of life and living with some trepidation this past week, I’ve been noticing that I’m aware of my arising emotions earlier in their ascent than in the past. Here’s where the script re-writes of past encounters comes into play. When shame (or anger or anxiety) started to sneak into my day, I gave myself a humungous bear-hug of metta, a couple of noogies on the noggin and reminded myself that I didn’t need to carry that feeling around. A quick switcharoo of joy for the unsavory emotion and I was well on my way again like a toddler’s owie kissed miraculously away.

This morning, a perfect matcha latte in hand, balmy global warming-induced temperatures greeting my every step, I headed blissfully down the street for my Sunday walk along the ocean. For the preceding hour or so hundreds of runners had been sprinting past my apartment window as part of a citywide marathon. I hadn’t given that much thought to the route of the race until I reached the corner where I normally cross and was greeted by an impasse of runners in full competition vigor surging in both directions on either side of the street. As I waited and waited for an opening to cross over, I felt irritation start to seep into my body. Across the street the ocean crinkled under the sun’s caress and the peace of the walking path, abandoned due to the race, beckoned me to its contented side.

The Buddha’s parable of the man and the raft came to my mind. A man was once trapped on the side of a river where chaos and danger surrounded him. On the other shore he could see there was safety and peace. Gathering up branches, leaves, and rope the man fashioned a raft and with great effort using his feet and arms he crossed the river and made it to the side where he found peace and contentment. Once accomplishing that, what would be the need for the raft? Would he continue to carry it around on his head out of some sense of gratitude since the raft had carried him to safety? The Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, are like the raft; once we have reached the other side and know the Dhamma, there is no need to hold onto it any longer.

Slipping away from the chaos of my mind I immersed myself in loving kindness and set down the irritation I had been carrying. A sweeping sense of calm soon pervaded my body. A few minutes later a gap opened on both sides of the stream of runners and I crossed the street with ease.

I walked for a bit along the ocean, the peace I felt in my heart, the perfect companion against the backdrop of runners and water stations and the shouts of well-wishers urging their loved ones on to the finish line. I stopped for a bit to look out at the ocean and the mountains in the distance, their snow nearly gone and hungry for replenishment. I wanted to bask in the joy and contentment I was feeling and didn’t want to let go of the raft that had brought me this far. Perhaps this Dhamma thing will stick this time, I thought.

Just then I turned and saw a handmade sign across the street tucked into a traffic barricade.

Go Tess.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Thanks, Dhamma Cheerleader, wherever you are.

In Blackwater Woods
By Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

“Fluent” by John O’Donohue, from Conamara Blues. © Harper Collins, 2004.

Image credit: Sailing up the Padma River by joiseyshowaa – Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.


  1. Go Tess! Thank you for coming back from your retreat with a basket full of metta to share with us. I love dipping my toe into your pondering pool.

    • A belated, but heartfelt thanks for your cheer, Mizz M. The pool is ever widening.

  2. […] into everyday life after returning from my recent meditation retreat, I was pretty confident that I had this whole Dhamma thing worked out. Impermanence – check. […]

  3. […] Since I started down the Buddhist path I’ve seen pieces of me change and morph into new semblances of what I define as this being called Tess. I’ve witnessed some parts fall away with mindful gratitude and other times the transition leaves me with a sense of amnesia, trying to remember when the shift occurred and tracing my steps back to the last time I recall being my old non-self. […]


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