I was watching some TV earlier today, and it was mentioned that it has been ten years since Princess Diana’s death. I was immediately transported to that week ten years ago. A week that was the beginning and the end of so many things.
The week that Diana died I was in Santa Barbara at my very first Buddhist retreat. I and 900 others were at UCSB spending five days with Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen Master. It was a miracle of sorts me being there, actually a few miracles. The first being that I had not driven by myself in my car out side of a very small perimeter of Los Angeles for over five years due to a crushing case of Panic Attack Syndrome. And yet, somehow I made it to Santa Barbara without a trace of panic, to learn to meditate and do walking meditation with this Zen Master. The second miracle was that I knew no one, had never done five seconds of any kind of meditation in my life, and I had certainly never just signed up for something like this in my life. I was even sharing a room with a complete stranger. I do not know what had come over me. Well, actually that is a lie. What had come over me was that my mother had died suddenly not three months before that. And I guess that is where the third miracle begins: I was given the gift of life through the horror and unrelenting grief around my mother’s death. Suddenly all my fears, all my hesitations, all my reasons for not doing things were gone. There was just me and reality, and only so much time left on this earth to do and be who I knew that I had always wanted to be and do, but had been putting off for a time when it felt safer. Well, nothing was safe now, so now was the time to start being and doing. And that is why the fourth miracle happened.
It was on the third day of the retreat. We were invited to wake up before dawn, and meet Thay (Thich Nhat Hahn’s nick name which means teacher) and his sangha (community) on the beach for walking meditation. I hated waking up early, I hated being cold, and I was not sure how to actually do walking mediation, but I was curious and so I dragged my ass out of bed at 5AM. We all gathered as the sun was rising, and slowly as a group, we walked down the beach behind Thay and some of the nuns and monks with him. Walking meditation is an act of being fully present while moving. You feel each step as you take it, staying out of your head, and with your body the whole time. After about ten minutes I looked up and it was quite a sight to see – about four hundred of us moving at the pace of a snail en masse on the beautiful shoreline of Santa Barbara. We were like a slow moving sculpture. The sun began to fill the sky, and I began to feel a level of peace that I had imagined unattainable in my life. I was filled with joy, love and calm. The ocean was glassy, and my mind was glassy too. Thay and the group moved up a trail that lead into the nature reserve on the UCSB campus. We walked slowly, carefully, mindfully along the path. Most were looking down in front of them, which is the proper practice. But, I was looking around at the trees, the birds and then the meadow we were walking through. And that was when I saw this fox. He was about 40 feet away from us. There were hundreds of us on this trail, about two or three people wide. A stream of humanity, and yet there was this fox staring at a hole where his prey was hiding. He never looked up, flinched or even acknowledged our presence. He just did what foxes do. And I realized we had become part of the landscape. Our peace, our calm, our mindful movement blended in perfectly with the meadow. A huge welling of joy leaped into my throat. And tears began falling down my cheeks. The fox, this meadow, my body, these mindful walkers were all one, one body, one mind, one being. I did not know what to make of it all, but I figured that I had just been invited into a new realm of being.
Later that day, I saw CNN announcing Diana’s death. I was in a busy lobby of the dorms we were all staying in. Time stopped. Another mother was dead. I pictured the grief of those two young lads. But this time I had the meadow and the fox and that peaceful sea of humanity in my heart. And even though I knew those young lads’ hearts had been ripped in half, I also knew that they were now on a journey where miracles can begin to happen too.