Drifting Clouds - Hiding Sun . . Meditation as a Way to Unravel the World by Frederick Mills
Mad with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music. The hills and the sea and the earth dance. The world of man dances in laughter and tears. Why put on the robe of the monk, and live aloof from the world in lonely pride?—Kabir
At age two or three I was in the kitchen with my Mother when suddenly the outside light faded until it was almost dark. Startled, I said, “Mommy, Mommy.....it dowk! Why, Mommy?” She said “God switched off the light.“
What’s God, Mommy?” I asked. I don’t exactly remember her answer, something about an old guy who made everything happen. Then, swiftly, it became light once more. “Gowd tooned on da light, ag-eean Mommy,” I said, pointing to the window.
A year or so later, I was kneeling on the back seat of our car, watching the sky out the rear window. I loved watching clouds. Suddenly a cloud passed in front of the sun and the light rapidly faded, then came back, just like it had the year before. I remembered the previous occasion, but this time, through direct observation, I saw and understood what happens when clouds block the sun.
I’ve been practicing meditation since the early eighties. I’m not a formally trained meditator, just one among thousands of western seekers taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge becoming accessible from a variety of ancient spiritual traditions, many from Asia. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject of meditation and, 15 years ago, I began teaching myself how to meditate. I have since received instruction from teachers, but I haven’t spent any time as a traditional monk in far off lands, or even here in the States. While there’s something very appealing to me about that kind of commitment, I find I’ve chosen a less rigorous path to sainthood —at least for now. (Ha! That should get a rise out of a few folks who know me!).
Decades later the metaphor of cloud and sun remains. Thoughts and feelings are like drifting clouds that block the light of our awareness for a time, and then pass away—an ever-changing dance of light and shadow that reminds me of life’s process.
Storm Clouds - Wars and Rumors of Wars I was born in early 1941. As a kid, I grew up in a family ruled by alcohol and violence. I spent a good deal of my time trying to protect my younger sister and myself from the anger and punishments of my parents.
Throughout the first five decades of my life, wars and rumors of wars have played a prominent role. After WWII the Cold War kept the world in suspense. As a child we practiced nuclear air raid drills by diving under our desks, our faces buried against our knees. We were told that if we ever saw an instant brilliant light out in the open, or anywhere, we had about three seconds to find cover or get to an air raid shelter. Yeah, right! Methinks we’d have been nothing but a cloud of ash before we hit the ground! On a very kid level, these times were kind of fun but were also real crazy and scary.
In the early ‘50s there was the war, dubbed a “police action,” in Korea. During the Eisenhower years Marines landed in Lebanon in 1958, and after that conducted military exercises in the straights of Formosa to deter a feared Chinese invasion. During the Kennedy years, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of annihilation; then the war in Viet Nam. Since then there have been any number of crises: Johnson declared war on poverty, then escalated the war in Vietnam. Nixon declared war on cancer and further escalated the war in Vietnam, attacking Cambodia and Laos. When I came back from Vietnam, I became a police officer and found myself in yet another type of war—an urban one. President Reagan brought us Lebanon, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and others. President Bush sent troops to Somalia, then Panama; then to the Persian Gulf.
Today, the declared war on drugs is in full swing, and the list goes on. Everywhere in our world, always a new declaration of war, always a new mobilization, more suspicion, resistance, hostility, and violence.
My father was a pilot in the Air Force, and we traveled a lot. By the time I was seventeen I had attended seventeen schools (mostly Catholic) and had lived in Canada, England, and all over the United States. When I was thirteen my parents divorced. At the age of seventeen, I left home and joined the Marines.
Wind, Sun, Sea and Stars—A Voyage of Recovery “Know thyself, the unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates
The story of how I discovered meditation begins in the late summer of 1983. A few months after my second wife and I separated and decided to divorce, I accepted an invitation from long-time family friends to go on an extended sailing trip aboard their boat. My primary motivation for going was to give myself some time to try and get a handle on my life. While I held good jobs and was mostly functional, it seemed I was always in some form of emotional upheaval. I couldn’t believe I was divorcing again, and it was very painful.
In late October, I quit my job and hopped a train to southern California. The name of my friend’s boat was Elentari (“Queen of the Stars”), a fifty-two foot sloop which I had helped build earlier in the summer. We departed the Dana Point Marina in early November, 1983, and headed for the Caribbean.
During the voyage I had ample opportunity to begin what has proven to be a long, and sometimes bumpy, road to healing. I loved living on the sea. Clouds and sun and wind became a part of me as the boat carried us across the sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, ocean. Dolphins, whales, turtles, birds and other sea creatures became our constant companions, and I realized how much I enjoyed being so close to nature.
At night anything moving in the water left a light green glowing trail, especially the dolphins. One night as a group was playing alongside, one of them rolled slightly to the right and, with her left eye, examined me through a shimmering green dolphin-shaped glow. Our eyes met. The connection was palpable and very down to earth, as if she was saying “See, isn’t this fun? Swim, play, laugh, jump—LOVE!” And then, with a powerful push of her tail, she headed for the bow . . . just one of many mystical dolphin moments. Another time, we found ourselves sailing amidst the largest family of dolphins any of us had ever seen. From the boat they stretched almost as far as our binoculars could see in every direction. We decided to play a tape of classical music at high volume to see if they could hear it through the hull. Soon we saw a group of five dolphins, one in the lead and two on each side, leaping and swimming in time with the music. That was a magic moment. It was one of the few times in my life I felt at peace, and truly connected to everyone and everything, everywhere.
In my bunk I’d lay with my ear pressed against the wooden hull and listen for the musical chirping and clicking of dolphins. I had wonderful dreams about them. As the voyage progressed, I found myself dreading ports-of-call—it would mean having to leave the open sea.
On steering-watch one night I experienced, firsthand, the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. It was a clear, moonless, and pleasantly warm night off the coast of Central America, and I had just relieved the midnight watch. The stars were brilliant but the compass light was so bright it obscured my view of the sky, so I threw a towel over it. As my eyes adjusted I noticed the surface of the ocean was shiny dark, and slate flat—it reflected perfectly the star-filled sky above. Everywhere I looked, above and below, I could see nothing but stars, like glittering jewels hanging in the jet black of infinite space. In awe, I steered Elentari, Queen of the Stars, through her cosmic realm. As evidence of her royal presence, she left a long, shimmering green, bio-luminescent wake trailing behind her. I wanted that moment to last forever.
There are times when life at sea can get a bit tense, but one of the most precious benefits of a long voyage is having lots of time to read and to be alone. The books I read were mostly about self-help, spirituality and the search for life’s meaning. Time alone was spent in contemplation and reflection about life and my place in it. The dance of wind and water, sun, and clouds somehow helped connect me to a part of myself I hadn’t really touched before—something all inclusive, free, and accepting, something as big as the sky. Stormy nights and days reminded me of a life and a world in turmoil. On the other hand, I saw how each condition of nature, responded to in just the right manner and at just the right time, kept the boat in balance with the elements, and on a steady course—a helpful metaphor for navigating a life.
Other moments during the voyage were less idyllic. In the mounting days and nights of silence, memories kept arising. For the first time in my life, I interpreted my personal history, the “story of Fred” through the lense of insights gained by the hard work of deep contemplation. I didn’t know it at the time but my practice of meditation had begun.
I came to understand how my upbringing played a role in my perception of the world and how my life had unfolded. It was part of the problem. How reactive and warlike my life seemed! I saw that for years I’d led anything but a stable or peaceful life. My boyhood was characterized by the sensation of pain and fear, but there was also a yearning for love and recognition. On one hand I felt guilty about being such a bother to my parents, yet I sat on a powderkeg of rage at having been treated so inhumanely.
Then I remembered Vietnam and realized the profound effect it had on me over the years since.
Sailing on, I saw a trend in my life of either running from, or chasing after something. Whenever I thought I had “the answer,” it disappeared. I was either regretting or trying to recapture something from the past, or worrying how the future was going to turn out. Nothing ever seemed to stay the same, everything seemed so...well, impermanent. Just like living on the sea, everything was always changing.
As the personal voyage deepened, time and introspection led to more profound insights. Although I had an outgoing personality and enjoyed a lot about life, there was this underlying angry, sad, and painful part of me that nothing I tried could reach. I began to admit that close relationships were difficult for me. I saw how, like my parents, alcohol was involved in most if not all of my social activities and I drank to “take the edge off” my inner pain and turmoil. I saw that, in spite of a lot of helpful counseling, I hadn’t found anyone, or anything, that gave me the answers I was looking for. In fact I couldn’t even describe for myself what it was I sought. Yet I was being driven by this seemingly relentless need. I wanted to know, to resolve. I yearned for an imagined peaceful life, and had tried lots of things to attain it. I looked for just the right counselor; I changed locations; I married and remarried; I changed jobs; I traveled. It didn’t matter how much money, how many awards, how much or how good the sex was, how nice I tried to be, or how much I had learned—there might be relief for a time, but something was always missing. Permanent happiness seemed hopelessly elusive. I realized that even in those times when I did feel happy, soon I would start worrying about how long it was going to last. I was my own worst enemy.
As we closed with Ft. Lauderdale, I knew it was time for me leave the boat and return to Oregon. For the first time I knew that the focus of my personal work had to be just that—work on myself. Blaming wasn’t the way to freedom. Expecting others to change wasn’t going to work, either. Life at sea, though brief, had taught me more than I had bargained for—the human spirit is vast, and the only answers to be found are not outside of one’s own experience, but inside it.
When I arrived back in Salem I found a small apartment, got a job, and settled in. I decided to teach myself to meditate, while continuing with counseling and studying. A spiritual path was born.
Allies and Inner Work “We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us.” Thomas Merton, Catholic Monk
Throughout my life, when I looked for answers, I looked everywhere but inside myself. I had read quite a lot, including several books on meditation. Many books by Ram Dass and others helped in my early explorations. One book however, A Gradual Awakening, by Stephen Levine, has proven to be the most valuable (and dog-eared) contributor to my learning. The method described is called Vipassana (Insight) meditation, and is derived from the Theravadan Buddhist lineage. Theravada means Way of the Elders.
Let’s begin with the question: what is meditation? The definition of “aware/awareness” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary seems most accurate: “...knowing or realizing; conscious; ... having knowledge of something through alertness in observing what one sees, hears, feels, etc.; ... awareness of a sensation, feeling, fact, condition, etc., ... mere recognition or a focusing of attention.”
In A Gradual Awakening, Levine gives several examples of where to focus one’s attention. I settled on the technique of bringing my attention to the sensation of the breath at the nostrils as a point of focus, and began to try to gently hold my concentration there. I sat cross-legged, my buttocks slightly elevated on the edge of a firm pillow(s), back straight, hands on my knees, and eyes closed. As Stephen instructs, whenever I noticed thoughts straying from that point of concentration I noted ‘thinking, thinking,’ then gently returned to focus on the sensation of the breath at the front edge of my nostrils.
As I meditated more regularly I noticed how hard it was to be with myself. I strayed from the breath, again and again, finding myself lost in thought. I became fidgety and agitated. I saw how easily I was pulled from focusing on my breath to some thought or attendant feeling. I saw how being lost in thought was somehow related to being lost in life. But each time I became aware of being lost I’d note “thinking, thinking” and return to the sensation of the breath again.
This practice revealed to me for the first time how strongly I identified with my thoughts about who I imagined myself to be. I saw how judgmental I was, even with my loved ones. I saw how often I negated the basic humanness of individuals or groups whom I categorized as “them” or “they:” people I called “dopers,” “draft dodgers,” the “bad guys.” For the first time I began to really see how thoughts and attendant feelings come and go. Some are random, some return regularly or have a pattern. Yet, they come, they go, just like the breath.
In practicing meditation, I’ve discovered for myself an ancient truth: my thoughts and feelings are related to previous mind states, going back to the time I was first conceived and began to relate to the environment. From this observation I reasoned that, if thoughts are mostly the expression of past conditioning, it follows to ask the question, who am I, really? What am I? Meditation helps me to explore these questions, and it’s good practice in being here now.
When I watch my thoughts from the standpoint of an interested observer, as a scientist with heart, I can see how easy it is to be convinced that thoughts and feelings are real. Meditation reveals that they are not, but are rather an expression of earlier conditioning—nothing to hold on to, or do about them, just watch them arise and pass away, like clouds passing across the sun.
Over time this observation of thought patterns and attendant sensations in the body can tend to dissipate the grip of old conditioned patterns of unconscious behavior. What remains is the energy to emerge as the authentic person that has for years been residing under the veil of the imagined “me.” I began to make friends with myself, to put my arms around the whole me, nothing excluded. This process is the fertile ground from which we can grow, anew.
In his book, The Myth of Freedom, Chogyam Trungpa states: “....a person always finds when he begins to practice meditation that all sorts of problems are brought out. Any hidden aspects of your personality are brought out into the open, for the simple reason that for the first time you are allowing yourself to see your state of mind as it is.”
It’s been hard for my ego to accept letting go of the person I’ve always thought I was: The hardened Marine Sergeant; the hardened, suspicious street cop; the daring pilot, the sailboat builder and deep water sailor, the imagined kick-ass and take names hard guy, or the injured Vietnam veteran. When I first started meditating I noted feelings of embarrassment as the “macho” me had difficulty accepting this new “weirdo” kind of behavior. Even now I notice I have less trouble identifying with the spiritual warrior image than that of other, less flattering, titles. I’m still the same person, only the old image is giving way to something much broader, lighter, compassionate and open—like the sky. While it can be difficult at times, meditation reveals a great deal about oneself, much of it unflattering. As Trungpa Rinpoche reminds us, “meditation is just one insult after another!”
On the other hand, meditation practice has also been a jewel of a gift. It has helped me get some insight into the inner workings and heart of this being called Fred. I’ve become more aware of the space that embraces the all of me, without terms or conditions. Meditation connects me with the infinite space within which we all do the dance of existence—like happy dolphins. When I’m in that place, there is no need for a you or a me, a this or a that. I know, even beyond my bones, the truth of the matter.
To me, meditation is a dynamic process of self-exploration on every level. I’m learning about my edges, those mental and physical states I particularly like to hold on to, run away from, and avoid altogether. But understand this: meditation hasn’t been a quick fix. I stumble a lot. It takes commitment and faith that the process, over time, will grow the flower and yield the fruit of self knowing. As my practice has grown I’ve watched old patterns slowly lose their importance and I don’t get so caught up in them. Like the bow of a sail boat slicing through a wave, with sails well trimmed, the boat and rudder rightly tended, life flows a lot smoother, even through the stormy parts.
While I’ve had a stormy life I nonetheless find myself here sharing this part of it with you and feeling a little lighter. The skies of mind are less cloudy all day. Internal storms are kinder.
Seeing my life as it is, I have an image of myself as cloud and sun together, not separate. Both need each other to be fully in this world, to drift and dance together in the sky; and to play with the minds of children who muse in wonder about such things while peering out of windows, riding in the backs of cars. Sweet blessings upon them all—and upon you. May you find health and happiness on your path to awareness!
“We love. That is why human life is beautiful!” Rumi
Fred Mills lives in Salem. His phone number is 503-371-8407. He can also be reached by email.