I spent much of last week in the wilderness on the Canadian border, as part of a great group of guys who have been traveling boundary waters each summer for nearly 30 years.
Mid-trip, I took a day of solo retreat on a high bluff overlooking a majestic expanse of big water and picturesque islands.
At one overlook, I sat for an hour watching a spider, who clung to pine needles and waved with the breeze as he advanced from various directions, trying in vain to poach a dead mosquito from what appeared to be another spider's web. All this action took place maybe three feet in front of my face. Still sitting in that delightful spot, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate – with no more success than the spider trying to navigate the wind and nab a dead mosquito.
Letting go of formal practice, I sat for another two hours reading the second volume in a science fiction fantasy series. A recurring theme in the book is that if you try too hard to grasp something, you won't discover its true nature.
Butt-sore by now and tired of focusing on a book when surrounded by such beauty, I dug out my ipod (something I rarely use) and, over the next couple or three hours, found a number of nearby places to stand and lean and sway and gaze, while I listened to the music of Leonard Cohen. For me, this was a very sweet, multi-sensory immersion in beauty.
At one point, as I looked across the water toward a rocky cliff face I'd probably glanced at dozens of times, I was suddenly jolted by its beauty and the awe-filled sense that I was seeing it for the first time. Greedily, I tried to grab the experience and hang on to the awe I felt. I searched for words to describe it, so I could keep it with me. And, of course, it vanished. And, of course, even though I felt as if it had left me, I knew I was the one who'd left it.
I re-remembered an old lesson – how grasping never leads to having – and resolved to do better next time.
Next time arrived about a half-hour later, as I noticed puffs of clouds on the low horizon and was flooded once more with awe. Again, it was like the first sight of an amazing beauty never before seen. Again, I was graced. And again, automatically, I grasped, vainly trying to control what can only be freely and spaciously received. Awe gone, I tightened in defeat and then smiled, as humor and humble appreciation of my human condition replaced embarrassment over experience lost.
I see how uncomfortable ego is with the grace of unexpected awe, which arrives and departs by its own rhythms, heedless of ego's efforts to predict it, call it, hold it or control it.
"Soften," I say to myself. "Soften to grace. Practice softening every day, practice receiving, practice staying present in the body – soft belly, soft heart, soft eyes. Soften, James. Make ready. Make room for unexpected awe."
Maybe next time awe arrives, I'll have more space for it.