It is early spring and I drive to Kripalu, a Center for Yoga and Health, in the Birshire Mountains. I arrive in a depressing, dismal cold rain, but after a couple of days in retreat, the storm in the sky and the one in my mind are beginning to clear. The chronic depression I’d hoped to get a handle on, all the hopelessness, anxiety and fear, are seeming to be no more than a prank I’m playing on myself.
It is the evening of my last supper here, which has threatened to make me a vegetarian by deliciousness alone. The clear air, gold of late afternoon sun, green of new grass, and budding trees anticipating foliage, compel me to take a meditative walk around the campus. Coming upon a freshly cut tree stump brings to mind the sixty foot blue spruce behind our house, recently brought down by a nor’easter. I count the rings. Sixty-five. This tree, as well as our deceased blue spruce, would have been a seedling the year I was born.
Once a large estate, this landscape is terraced lawns with occasional steps of New England granite leading from one level to another. At the edge of an embankment I look down to see a fantastic tree, umbrella shaped with branches gnarled and twisted. I can think only of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha was supposed to have become enlightened and, approaching this arboreal magnificence I see that there is a bench at its base, icons scattered around the roots. I consider that if I sit under this tree I’ll become enlightened, as did Siddhārtha Gautama—consider that to sit long enough through the night, I’d likely freeze to death.
But I do sit – relaxed and without expectation. Sudden cool breezes slap my cheek, as of a Zen master shocking a student out of lethargy. There are occasional sounds—a truck? an airplane? No interest in an answer. They are just sounds—without origin—nameless as distant music. There are the cries of crows, strangely mystical. My Mom is a crow. After her funeral, we would sit at the picture window every evening, watching hundreds of crows fly home to their roost, at precisely the same time each night. Dad said that he and Mom had made a routine of this and one evening, counting crows, logged over five hundred.
I feel more and more at one—with the breeze, the sounds, the crows—with every sensation. But the illusion of being Me persists. Suddenly, a voice in the head—deep, loud, insistant. “You cannot achieve enlightenment, because You don’t exist. How can that which does not exist achieve anything?” I laugh, get up and walk to the top of granite steps and suddenly, loud caw-cawing. I look up to see two crows wheeling, diving, dancing a few feet over my head. I greet them as I would an ancestor arriving from an almost forgotten past. But Mom is not a crow, she is all crows. And Uncle Dick lives in the blue spruce behind the house. Whenever I climb that great tree—with tools given me by my wife’s Uncle before he died—I feel him there, guiding my pruning hand. It is gone, and I remember my one regret: that I was not there to see it fall. But with the tree fallen and now cut up for firewood, where is Uncle Dick?
Reaching the bottom of the steps, I turn to see the setting sun stretching my shadow out toward that commanding stonework. I must take a photograph, and decide to call it “The Path to Enlightenment.”
I Take out the camera, frame the shot, but just as finger touches shutter, to my right there is loud wooden crackling. I turn just in time to watch a tall oak tree fall and crash to the ground. I am for a moment frozen—shocked, delighted, confounded, and just a bit frightened.
I will walk into the woods to prove to myself that there is a fallen tree there. I will spend weeks trying to get my head around this, and fail. We trick ourselves into thinking we know how things are, but the truth is we don’t know Jack Shit! What a gift it is just to know that.
Next Clue: What’s Up with Trees and Crows?