When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.
— Mary Oliver
In this part of the world, it is the muscled manzanita or the delicate Japanese maple, the friendly oak, or the towering pine that herald the simplicity of Being. When one heeds their message to “stay awhile,” which translates into dropping the busyness of the mind, we are indeed rewarded by glimpses of gladness. It IS that simple; all it requires is a redirect of attention.
We don’t have to settle for just glimpses of gladness, or so we’re told. Mystics speak to us with euphoric sagacity from a world ablaze with sparkling happiness. Here the Beloved is a friend, every stranger is Goddess incarnate, birds and flowers and frogs are envoys of mischief and delight, and Love radiantly illumines All. Here, it is easy to walk slowly and bow because we’re not distant from ourself; we’re at one with what we are. Unalloyed enjoyment and serene contentment flow from the realization that Lightness is our inherent nature.
But “I” doesn’t inhabit this luminous world. Identified with ego, the spiritual narrative can become one of seeking joy and not finding it, of feeling trapped in the tortuous whirlpools of the mind. The spiritual path gets painted as a miserable journey with no guarantees of ever arriving at Bliss. Practitioners are destined to navigate shadows of doubt, blasts of negativity, roadblocks of resistance, byways of avoidance, valleys of despair, roiling seas of resentment and anxiety, dark abysses of fear, and vast plateaus of bleak monotony. Even if we become skilled in traversing difficult terrain, we are told, we may never be truly free of the lackluster prison that is our karmic landscape. We have to be satisfied with glimpses of gladness, distant from the hope of our goodness and discernment, condemned forever to be seekers.
In those extremes of identification, the trees come to our rescue once again as David Wagoner reminds us:
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
It is glorious that the light within guides us even in those places where we are blinded by darkness. This is the lesson in the doldrums of identification. The Stillness IS what IS “me.” It is in this enforced “staying awhile” that we get in touch with Being Goodness that is never overshadowed. The doldrums then are not a mistake; they are the harbingers of Faith.
The Guide often talks of her love of practice, her fascination with the process of awakening. If sparkling happiness becomes an objective to be attained, we lose sight of where joy IS. Joy is in making the journey; it is not the destination. When we learn to see all of it as All of It, every valley and abyss is a gift. Then practice ceases to be repeated failed attempts to exit a conditioned world. It becomes inhabiting a magical world of Awareness from which we can enjoy a detour into the shadows. The key to this shift in perspective is to practice enjoying every step along the way.
At the Monastery, we’re training with an assignment to stop hourly to Notice Joy. Like all Zen practices, the way the assignment is worded is instructive in itself. There is no prescription to be joyful. There isn’t a directive to look for what makes one feel joy. There is no elaboration of what Joy is. There is a singular stated focus of attention, within which is the implicit injunction not to attend to a lack of joy. This remarkable assignment of directing attention cuts through the noisy chatter of the mind and trains us to cultivate a totality of awareness. We move from referencing what “I” feels (which is never joyful) to attention on where Joy IS. Joy is in Noticing Joy. Noticing Joy becomes an exit ramp out of the illusory world of ego. We can train to make that pathway available to us whenever we need to get HERE, to get home. No one who is paying attention, who is Noticing Joy, can remain in a story of joylessness. The gravitational pull of the most deeply conditioned narrative will dissolve if we don’t give it ANY attention.
As we continue to train to Notice Joy, we realize that what marvels at the iridescent color of a bluejay’s coat, what is amused by the antics of the squirrel, what is enchanted by the meadow lark’s song IS the eternal presence of a perpetual forest of lightness. That’s why we speak and understand the language of the trees. That’s why we recognize ourselves in the stirring of their leaves.
When I am among the trees,