Autumn Walk in the Forest: Looking into the Face of Reality

The long, hot summer I anxiously awaited for never came, despite all the forecasts and predictions suggesting that it would. This aroused in me fairly deep disappointment as I had planned to soak up this season of warm, sunny days. But I should have known better. I have lived in this country long enough to know that it is somewhat foolish to raise too many expectations about its weather. Now the season has turned undetectably into autumn and I start to mourn that which did not exist……

My walk today leaves behind the urban landscape of my home in east London and penetrates the open woodlands of Epping Forest. This ancient landscape – that once supported settlements in Mesolithic times some 10,000 years ago – has been an enduring backdrop to my life and an endearing place of inspiration for me over the years. As a child I would explore this ancient terrain with keen adventure and endless fascination, for the forest provided a wonderful setting for my imaginative mind to grow and expand. But alas, in the throes of encroaching adulthood, with the duty of responsibility, I had to leave. However, I never forgot the presence it made in my life, the memories that it offered up, the enriching pleasures it gave me…..

The day is slightly overcast, with moderate rain clouds looming in the distance, but I’m not too concerned about the possibility of rainfall as I continue my walking. Over a culvert, through a coppice, and further into the forest I tread, leaving behind the last vestige of traffic noise. Pausing for a while, quite still and relaxed, my awareness starts to drift into my breathing and I suddenly realize its full presence within me. Staying with its full rhythm, and mindful not to disturb its calming effect, I gently start on my walk again but at a slower pace. Too often in my life I have walked around on auto – pilot unaware of my breathing, my body, all the physicality that constitutes ‘ me ‘ but now I recognize and honour these gifts, as I mindfully journey on…..

Eventually, after covering a good distance, I notice that the light level – which had started to fade as I entered the woodlands – now begins to show signs of life again bringing welcomed brightness to that which lay ahead. The forest trees (a rich variety of oak, hornbeam, ash, silver birch, beech and elm ) are more dispersed now making way for clumps of gorse bushes to take hold. I carefully make my way down a fairly steep, muddy bank to the edge of a small lake where I rest awhile on a broken bough. Taking a cursory glance around I can see that I’m alone – abandoned to myself and nature which is now clearly starting to fall back into winter hibernation. A pair of swans majestically settle-down in a reedy inlet, leaving the stillness of the lake to the mallards, moorhens and coots. Sitting here in meditative mood the cherished thoughts of Thoreau start to resonate within me and for a brief moment the lake transforms into Walden…..
How I enjoyed reading Thoreau all those years ago – the pantheism and transcendentalism of Thoreau that touched a deep romantic, spiritual cord within me. The naturalism of Thoreau, that offered up such insights on the changing vistas of nature and its seasons. The mysticism of Thoreau that always sought to uncover spiritual truths in the hidden, undisclosed reality of nature that others quite simply could not see, or chose to ignore. Yes, I celebrate Thoreau but I also know, deep within me, that we too can also become observer travellers like him. But we must be prepared to leave behind our embedded values of sophisticated, urban existence and journey into nature with an open heart and a keen eye – into a magical landscape that can reveal such depth and clarity.
A few years ago I had a strange experience here in this woodland. I recall standing near this very spot observing the bird life when I decided to count all the different species – in this particular habitat – that I could identify. I clearly remember thinking, initially that my count would be limited to about four or five different species but I soon surpassed that figure. In no real time at all I counted, in total, fourteen different species of bird. This really startled me and I soon came to the strange conclusion that THE MORE I LOOKED THE MORE I COULD SEE. There just wasn’t a finite world available to me out there somewhere which my perception could fix in its sight, far from it. The size and complexity of my world was fixed by the very perception I brought to it. And when I opened up to the world around me, when I started to engage and participate in further investigation ( osarana ), when I took an expansive view of my world, that very world took a corresponding shift.

” If by patience, if by watching, the world which was dead prose to me

became living and divine, shall I not watch forever? Shall I not be a

watchman henceforth? “

Thoreau

Our world can become vibrantly alive when we decide to be fully present, fully attending. But so often we allow ourselves to be distracted, unable to be here and now in any engaged, committed way. Being a watchman like Thoreau involves us in going beyond the cliche, the pastiche to allow magical moments of insight to surface – fleeting moments of impregnated wonder, where we go beyond the superficial appearances of everyday life to gaze at something quite extraordinary.

The rustle of leaves – now turning brown, red and dull yellow in the autumnal light – are trying to cling on to the branches with little success, and this awakens within me the thought of the transitory reality of the world…
Although I try to tread the Dharma path carefully and mindfully, my life still brings within its wake an eventual death raising so many questions, for which I have no answers. Death will track me down, seek me out and yet I feel so totally unprepared. Even after many years of extended study, reflection and meditation I still fall short of any real, substantial insight into this last, supremely individual act. All I really know is that I’m just a very minute part of a vast mysterious process of continuous creation -  nimmana.  But despite ( or because of ) my lack of insight, I still retain faith in this universal process. I still trust this enormous life force that surges through the cosmos and my very veins. I also recognize, because of the reality of impermanence, the challenge placed on me to live my life passionately and creatively in the now moment before it is too late. I view my life – along with all other forms of existence – as a precious gift that needs to be respected and honoured. That needs to be nurtured and nourished for its physical, intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. There is no other option for me so this is my mantra, this is my practice until the very end….

“ To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Thoreau

A bitter wind gathers up pace and rips away leaves from the treetops. Whirling them around on a current of indifference, they are cast down on the forest floor to die. But what the wind and leaves are unaware of, what they have never been told is a secret – ALL IS HARVEST. Then raising up my vision to gaze at the magnificent setting of a crimson, evening sky I’m swept away, momentarily, from all notions of a central, permanent ‘ important me ’ to accept the larger picture of existence…..

The dark starts to fall on the forestland and so I take flight from its depths. Trying to stay securely enclosed within my contemplative mood I quicken my pace, and before long I’m making my way through the forest clearing and onwards towards the noise of the busy, urban traffic in the distance. Soon I will leave behind these natural contours, colours, textures and smells that define this forest, and enter into the sharp-edged geometrics of the urban landscape. But even there, concealed in its tower blocks, supermarkets and back street alleys, is the language of the Dharma that is ready to burst forth, at any time, giving expression and meaning to our lives – if only we are prepared to stop, look and listen….

“ To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who
was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

Thoreau

JOURNEY WELL, JOURNEY THOUGHTFULLY…..