Siddhartha on the prairie

The American midwest is the last place I expected to find Buddha. It’s too pragmatic, too meat-and-potatoes for a spiritual practice whose ultimate goal is elimination of the self. The people here are friendly, solid, circumspect, sincere. For nearly twenty years I have lived like an expatriate, shrouded in my New England cynicism and snark. Letting go of that has been like feeling my ego dissolve. I think I belong to the prairie now.

I never could begin to understand the Four Noble Truths until putting down roots here. Nothing teaches that “Life is suffering” like a Wisconsin winter, though, and here’s how I learned it: by walking. During the worst of winter, it was too nasty to take my dog out on the salted sidewalks, so in the mornings we got in the car and went to the dog park, an 11-acre high-prairie expanse a few minutes away. Being outside at all required wool socks, boots, long johns, hat, gloves, muffler⎯the works. Cold like a punch in the face. You could feel the moisture on the surface of your eyeballs freeze within seconds of stepping out the door.

The perimeter of the park had a footpath that took about fifteen minutes to cover, and on a good day we made it three times around. You had to be careful because it was icy, and still dark⎯the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour or more. Step by step, focusing on the path, placing each foot, listening to the crunch of snow underfoot and the wind in the bare trees. Slow going. This is how I discovered walking meditation for myself.

The marvel was that I never asked myself, “Do I want to be here?” Before there was even a chance to think about it⎯before I’d had so much as a cup of coffee!⎯I was out walking. At first, it was only for the sake of the dog, who needed her exercise before being left alone all day. Then it became simply a fact of our lives, even when the temperature was five or ten below.

You can imagine those early-morning meditations, even appreciate their transformative potential in the abstract, but there is no way to learn what the practice of slow walking has to teach without actually doing it, day in and day out. There’s no breakthrough, no high-stakes, lightning-bolt epiphany in the Christian sense. Just a gradual dawning of comprehension somehow gathered from the intense, selfless focus of putting one foot in front of the other, moving in a circle.

It’s difficult to put into words what this comprehension entails, but it has to do with gaining patience and compassion for all living things⎯even yourself. Some of you have studied Buddhism much more extensively than I have, and can doubtless describe the sensation with more ability. Help me out here?

Now that spring has arrived, I find myself working on the second and third of the Four Noble Truths: “Suffering arises from attachment to desires” and “Suffering ceases when attachment to desires ceases.” Midwesterners, farmers in particular, are great at these two. They can labor for weeks and months on a crop that represents their entire livelihood, only to see it wiped out in a ten-minute hailstorm. They can wake up one morning to find their plants annihilated by insects or blight. They watch the approach of a tornado. They rejoice and sorrow with one another, but maintain a philosophical distance and continue with as much resolve as ever.

Even just maintaining my little patch of ground⎯the vegetables and flowers I worry over like a hypochondriac mother⎯exhausts every bit of physical and mental energy I have. Sometimes I get frustrated and walk away. But I come back, because without this cyclical heartbreak gardens give us, civilization would not exist.

‘It’s all a bit overwrought,’ you may be thinking. ‘She walked around and dug in the dirt. Big deal.’ But words like “humility” and “wonder” can be tricky to use without sounding either ironic or pompous. I mean them matter-of-factly. That’s the midwestern way.

7 responses to “Siddhartha on the prairie”

  1. lane says:

    wow those images are so striking, i want to screen capture and repost on FB… which i just might do.

  2. lane says:

    and i’m just saying this to the word side of the blog. that image and that fist paragraph! perfection!

    sometimes i just stop reading cause type is ugly. all that gray. nice rachel, you summed it up and hit it home!

    … american mandalas, … and so forth.

  3. LP says:

    I’ve heard a lot of dog owners sing the praises of the morning walk, whether it’s solitary meditation or getting to know your neighbors and neighborhood. I always thought it would be a pain in the butt to have to take a dog out first thing every morning, but I’m starting to see the appeal…

  4. F. P. Smearcase says:

    My first midwestern winter (3 feet of snow on November 1 if memory serves) occasioned what you might term a dramatic yearlong decline in functioning or a tiny nervous breakdown, depending on how you take your understatement/overstatement. Well, there were other factors, but darkness at 4:15 seemed more than a backdrop. So I certainly get the relation to the first noble truth.

  5. Rachel says:

    Well, F.P., one learns to enjoy hot drinks and the value of dry feet. All you Slavic-language folks should understand cold-weather worldview pretty well from all those depressing 19th-century novels!

    And yes, having a dog is great way to experience nature and make friends. Also, the dog’s optimism tends to rub off on you.

  6. Dave says:

    I’m impressed you were able to deal with the cold morning walks, Rachel. As the Russian experience reminds us, there are other responses to the cold and dark than Buddhism.

    Like Lane, I really love the photo collage.

  7. swells says:

    I don’t know if any amount of zennity could help me not to dread daily walks in that cold darkness, but the mindfulness you describe here is so appealing–and the post and your incredible photos, deeply meditative and wonderful–thank you.