Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of the oceans bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
— Thomas Gray
These lines from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” have haunted me ever since I read them. I could see those flowers in my mind’s eye, tiny, brilliantly hued and exquisitely beautiful. I could smell their sweet intoxicating fragrance, and the thought of them fading unseen and unappreciated in some desert expanse filled me with an inexplicable anguish. That the flowers were not having my experience didn’t dawn on me until recently. Who was it that was feeling the pain of being unacknowledged? Why anguish? And what unexamined assumptions lurking behind being “unseen” were producing this suffering?
As I explored this “strain of thinking” with a recorder, the jumbled layers of conditioned beliefs that collated as “anguish” began to reveal themselves. I realized I was identified with a child trying to make sense of an indifference to its existence. Mixed in was an existential fear that not being seen by “another” was equivalent to non-existence. There was pain at not being accepted as I was, colored by bewilderment at not understanding the reason behind the rejection. All of that confused thinking was buried behind a more general frustration at the nature of human beings. So many radiant expressions of intrinsic purity are utterly ignored. How is it that we are unmoved by beauty? Why is it that we so often discount the rare, the different, the original? What prevents us from joyfully embracing all that life so freely offers? Why don’t we value the precious expressions of life that surround us? What happens when we are indifferent? Will those forms of life that bring us joy, desert flowers and rare gems, vanish from the earth because we don’t pay attention to them?
The insight that transformed this knot of suffering occurred when I stumbled across anguish in another setting: evening group with the Guide. The topic under discussion was the original Mountain View Center. Cheri was explaining that in those early days it was not uncommon for her to be the only person at evening meditation. As I listened to her talk, I conjured up the Meditation Hall. The polished floorboards, the black zabutons and plump zafus arranged with precision along the walls, the spring flowers, a vivid splash of color caressing the serene face of a Buddha. The Guide bows, walks the perimeter of the room and takes a seat on the cushion, a dignified presence in perfect meditation posture, waiting in the soft silence. The clock ticks towards the seven o’clock hour. No one else arrives. Another bow…the bells are rung, the recitation is said, the period begins… and ends. Just one person, one flower in the vast desert expanse of the Hall, deep in meditation…practicing.
There it was again, that suffocating experience of anguish! Is a sit which no one attends a waste of sweetness? Fortunately, the Guide’s voice summoned the attention before it was sucked into a familiar whirlpool of suffering. Very matter-of-factly, Cheri indicated how offering practice was her practice. She did not offer meditation in the hope that someone else would come. The schedule merely assisted her to show up for herself.
In a blinding flash of insight, the anguish dissolved. Only an identification with the illusion of separation would discount the fact that everything in the Universe was present in that silent Meditation Hall. The desert flowers were not unwitnessed. The practice offering was not unattended. The only “problem,” if there was one, was the limitation in how “I” was seeing, a perspective that could acknowledge Form but not Emptiness.
Moreover, this perspective of “I” is not just limited, it is negating. It discounted the existence of the one person who was there for the sit, Cheri! She hadn’t discounted herself, it had! That’s what self-hate does. It negates existence itself. Identified with it, we don’t count the importance of our own existence. It doesn’t matter if there is no one else in that Meditation Hall with the Guide, no one else in the desert with those flowers, no one else witnessing me or my life. Because I am there. I am thisherenow, not the small “I” of ego but the Intelligence animating All, animating this form. Acknowledging one’s own presence is to identify with All That Is in an affirmative act of recognition. Life gets counted while self-hate gets discounted.
Like many conditioned human beings, I struggle with a lack of acknowledgement because identification with an illusion of separation is an experience of insufficiency. From an ego perspective, mere existence is not enough! Something external needs to signal the facticity of my existence. The desire to be seen, the need to have “my” existence acknowledged is a desperate cry of egocentricity. But when attention is on awareness and awareness is aware of being part of all that is, aware of All that is expressing as this part, being witnessed is unnecessary. Existence is sufficiency.
As we allow ourselves to deepen in this perspective of non-separation, we can perhaps glimpse the totality of Presence in each moment. The Guide was there in that Hall, as everyone, meditating everywhere. The mind shudders at that notion. It resists this expansiveness. It clings to its smallness, its boundaries, its definitions. But awareness is aware of its capacity to register the totality of True Nature. As we sit on the cushion, can we allow ourselves to attend to that awareness, and in so doing experience with each breath all of being, all of existence coming into existence as us?
Lately, tiny, brilliant, exquisitely beautiful flowers tend to make me smile. My heart opens as I identify with them, completely content to be themselves, offering their fragrance to the desert air. I rejoice in their transience, their blooming and fading. They are, after all, also participating in the eternal cycle of life coming in and going out of existence. Now we need a poet who can capture that experience of anguished Joy…and Basho’s words come to mind.
On the white poppy
A torn butterfly’s wing
Is a keepsake.
A side note: This article is not advocating an absence of participation in practice offerings. A Meditation Hall with one expression of Life has much to teach us, as does one that has an expression of Life seated on every one of its cushions. But more about that in a future Musings perhaps….
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,