David
T Kyle

The Hermitage in spring

The drive from home is only an hour to the hermitage. It is farther up the foothills leaning closer to the granite of the Sierras. It is early May and the hard rains of winter have barely stopped.

Every day the grass seems to grow by inches now that the sun warms the earth. The broken limbs of trees that crashed down in the cold winds are drying out. The rock walls of the garden are being repaired where they washed away. Yellow Jackets are dancing at the windows far to early this year. People speak now not about the continuing rain, but a hot summer.

Through the old farm gate and on to the gravel road that winds along the edge of the valley I look out in the distance at Bullard’s Bar Lake reflecting the deep blue of the sky. This road I take to the cabin will pace my life twice each day as I walk it and settle into to the quiet. Stands of giant pines, fir, oak, ceder and madrone plot the land before me.

The cabin sits up tight at the end of a ravine; hand made from wood milled from the trees it stands in. A peaked ceiling gives the one room breathing space. Wide windows on every wall let in the woods that surround me. The walk up and down to the goat pasture is almost perpendicular causing heavy breathing on every climb up.

To be alone in the woods for a period of time is both an inviting and mysterious choice. It comes for me from some deep hunger to feel something I have not touched for a long time. We give over our lives to schedules, activities, people and responsibilities forgetting how to respond from what we naturally feel. We lose the rhythm of our bodies, the softness of our heart, the many changes of light and the sounds of birds during the day, the blossoming of flowers from one day to the next and the moon coming full at two in the morning. Remember the line from Thoreau, “I went to the woods . . . and see if I could not learn what it had to teach . . . “

So I am here to learn. I get up early and sit for a while, I do yoga and take a long walk through the woods and meadows. I have things to contemplate, but mostly I try to just be with what the senses of the body give me. I read and sit and practice my circular breath on the didgeridoo. I write and inquire and look out the windows into the woods and then walk again and sit some more and go to sleep. And do it all over again each day. Sometimes the order of things gets switched around, but I don’t mind much. The day takes care of itself.

The real work if there is any is a strange mixture of watching both the inside and outside at the same time. What I most notice is gratitude. I have to jump start it sometimes to really feel it, but it is easy here with this beauty all around. Tears come easily as I think of all the good people in my life. I pray and laugh out loud like an old coot sometimes remembering how good life is to me.

o o o o

After a couple of weeks I am going back home. I won’t miss this place, although I have a deep affection for this sweet little cabin. The woods and the animals and the trees and the waterfalls and the flowers all taught me to be a little more of what I’ve always been. What follows are some reflections on that learning.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

The Doe in Morning

Through the window as I arose from sleep a young doe cautiously stepped into my view. Sitting on the edge of my bed with the sun still an hour from being up the doe slowly browsed her way across the meadow, delicately placing hoofs in a slow rhythm to the undulation of her hips.

The reaching of her neck arched and pulled gently at the spring grass, but in her motion resided her uncertainty. Her head with mouth chewing the grass would jerk up swivel from side to the side with ears tipping in and out, adjusting her body, ready for any threat.

The repetition was clear. Four or five graceful strides, stop, pull the grass, lift the head, look and listen. In my quiet she never saw me, never knew that I could be a threat. Of course, if I had made myself known she would have bounded off, not from the threat I posed, but from simply her built in anxiety of what she really feared.

Daily I step lightly into my life browsing for what food the world will give me. Pulling from this and that, and from all those things that we are told will give us comfort and relieve us from pain.

Both the doe and I confuse the fear with anxiety. The doe knows her prey and fears the Mountain Lion. Her anxiety is the paranoia that he is everywhere. I fear the approach to what the silence of my mind will show me. The anxiety is that the Silence will bust though my mind and be everywhere around me.

Like the doe, all my caution will never protect me from the final death.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

The Windowpane

Last night there was a large brown and yellow moth beating its wings
Furiously against my windowpane
Trying to get to the light of my lamp.

The longing of my own heart is like that.
I furiously try all manner of tricks
To get to the light
But the pain of my soul separates me
From seeing it is always
Shinning somewhere in my heart.

I watched for a long time as the moth crashed again and again at the windowpane.
The moth finally gave up and flew back into the darkness searching
For some other way in.

Surrender says the wise ones.
Let go of your madness says the poets.
Get drunk on love says the devotees.
Practice with patience says the teachers.
But they all say that the doorway
Is through the Silence
That lies beyond the Darkness.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

Dancing Robin

Sitting at the base of the falls with the roar of the water spilling around me and the light and the shadow dancing through the trees, a robin dove over my head and swooped up to land on a rock at the top of the falls.

The mist rising from the water flowed over him as his body moved up and down in a rhythmic dance of pleasure. For a long time this stately bird with its golden chest did not move its legs or put its beak into the water. His head slightly lifted upward his body danced in the joy of this spring morning’s beauty. Then suddenly he flew upward into the light.

I turned to look down into the pool before me and saw that same light in my own eyes.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

Spring Rains

Thunder rumbles across the eastern part of the valley like the old story of trolls rolling their bowling balls down the ravines. With this thunder there is no sudden crescendo of a brilliant crash, but it is rather like the soft, fading sound of a wave slowly washing up on a beach.

The first spring storm is moving from the Sierra Mountains into the foothills where I watch the dark clouds consume the blue of the sky. Birds have gone quiet and a stillness of the leaves in the trees awaits the first sprinkles of rain. Occasionally, a break in the clouds sends a floodlight of sun on to a patch of white lilac and they burst again into their radiance.

The wind has come up and trees lean into it testing their strength after the harsh storms of winter. As the wind whips the leaves they shimmer with the iridescent shades of green that mark their new birth.

Another low rumble and the splashing of raindrops begin their beating on the tin roof of my cabin. In these first few weeks of Spring the brilliance and warmth of the sun has brought us the promise of an easier rhythm of cloudless days and warming nights. This rain tells us that the fullness of the promise still lies ahead.

All the living things of this valley now stop, turn inward, and huddle together as the rain washes over us. Two does bound across the meadow to stand together under the trees by the woodpile as the rain comes in earnest. We all know that this is no winter storm, for the sweet rich smells tell us that the earth is alive drinking in what it needs to blossom the land.

As the gentle rain continues through the darkness of the night I stand at the doorway of the cabin and realize that the earth is a rare perfumer creating its pure fragrance from everything that is alive.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

Morning Sitting

I awoke in the night to an inky sky with a pincushion of bright points dancing in the cold of the clear air. The storm was over.

When light came I looked out at drifting clouds that had a spotlight of gold passing over them from a sun that was an hour from coming over the mountains. In between the golden white of the clouds and the pale blue patches of sky a gibbous half moon drifted like a ghost soon to be forgotten by this new day.

I will get up and begin my morning with sitting for a time attempting to look into the sky of my own mind. Like the sky of this morning, clouds of thoughts will be interspersed with patches of clear moments. A hoped for flash of insight will streak through the mind from time to time, and that convex, protruding eye of my heart will keep watch for the eternal.

I have sat in the winter storms of my mind on long retreats. This time alone in the hermitage it has been gentle spring sunshine.

For about 20 minutes at morning light there is a cacophony of birds like a bawdy chorus welcoming the new day. The sound is like a great hurrah. No melody only extended cheering. As it dies away and the birds begin their morning ritual of finding food there is a lone Robin in the ravine that sings a most complex and beautiful aria. The sustained high note on the last riff of the melody pierces your heart. It is all at once a hymn to God and an announcement of intention that life is beautiful. It is sung over and over with great resolution.

After breakfast and a walk I sit again as the morning rushes toward midday. The light is warmer and more playful with the shadows through the trees. This is a time for the hurrah and the hymn to the universe. Gratitude, gratitude sings the poets and wise ones of all ages. It is what sparks my heart, floods my soul and gives juice to this day. I hold the incense stick letting my heart rise and follow the fragrant smoke as it disappears into the ephemeral. A parade of family and friends come and go in my mind with their individual concerns and hopes. Tears streak my face for their happiness and joy. Difficult people and pain filled misery through out the world get bathed in a gentler mind. Gratitude, gratitude is the resolved mantra in the face of so much pain. The Dali Lama says the only message is loving kindness. Some sittings all but overwhelm the heart.

Sittings have changed for me over the years. I noticed a shift happening this time in the cabin. One Tibetan said, “Rest, rest in natural great peace.” That has been the teaching of the hermitage. “Let the mind rest. Let it rest in its natural peace.”

Pairings

As I walk from the cabin down the hill to the goat pasture a pair of quail fly up.

Each day coming and going on the trail they rise from the same spot in the ferns and separate as they fly across the ravine into the bushes. It is the buzz in the sound of their wings that gives urgency to their flight.

Birds all over the valley are pairing up and nesting. Doves fly from hidden nests among the elm trees; Robins pick up twigs and fly off into the oaks. Finches peck in the dirt and flit from branch to branch together. Each pair cautious and secret of anyone finding the hidden precious eggs that continues their lives.

This pairing that we all do is the hidden secret in our blood. Spring is when it drives us mad with longings that we cannot explain, with urges that we can only follow.

The wild male turkeys raise their wings and pinfeathers and dance with fierce energy in front of a female. Each male pushes the other one way in a frenzy of desire to mate. These turkeys are long in coming back since the fire swept the valley a few years ago. But now they are here again to add to the madness, to the joy, to the celebration of the springtime of new life.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

Turkey Vultures

Thirty Turkey Vultures sit like a panel of black robed judges arrayed across the branches of the dead pine tree. Red baldheads move up and down examining me to determine what to do now that I have come before them. Several hop and jump from limb to limb adjusting their perch, peering down and pointing at me with their sharp red beaks.

I have ventured into a dark corner of their world. Black feathers lay strewn in random piles at the base of the tree. Their attention on me puts a knot in my stomach. A feeling of fear moves into my chest. I tense, unsure of what to do. My body does not support the words of my mind that says, “It’s okay. They won’t hurt you.” Some very old memory is stirred in my body. An ancient fear of beaks ripping flesh in a carnal field in Tibet, of black vultures standing to feed on the burned bodies in the ghats of India, of Horus’ eye looking at me out of the tombs of Egypt.

As though commanded by some invisible voice two old ones fly up and circle over me. One catches a current of wind and flies away from me riding the stream of air down the ridge. The other continues to hover over me.

Impatiently several birds jump and jocky themselves for positions on branches determining their verdict of me as I stand in the meadow dock below them. Then in a sudden motion they rise together like black angels and adjourn into the azure sky.

Gathering above the tree they begin to circle as they make their judgment and spiral upward following each other until the wind scatters them across the valley to hunt other carrion than me.

Walking this hundred-year dirt road twice a day I watch them fly in pairs and threes gliding graceful in the currents of the valley. Along the ravine where the road winds down to the valley floor they will glide close by me. I see their eyes turned on me, cold, clinical, examining how close to death am I.

They are patient these judges of death. Their job is to wait and consume the death, to remind us that life consumes death, that this body is not what is alive. That life continues seeking its nourishment in many forms. What I see in their eyes is that I am my own vulture consuming the carrion of pain and fear that so often passes for my life.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

The Goat Herds

Down the path from the cabin is the goatherd. Every morning as I begin my walk I take my compost down to the goats. There are seventeen goats and two Auchbauch Pyrenees dogs, Justin and Bear. The purpose of having the goatherd is to clear brush. Put a herd inside an enclosed area and in a matter of days they will strip all the vegetation to the ground including the bark from trees. Because of the fire four years ago blackberry bushes tend to take over the terrain. To give natural growth a chance the goats are sent in to clear out the blackberries.

I see two herds everyday; the one here below me in the pasture and the neighbor’s herd down the road. The herd below has plenty of feed with grasses high and is content most of the day to lie around in the field. The herd down the road is more interesting. They are a larger herd with about thirty goats. The pasture herd doesn’t have lambs, but this herd does. They romp and play with each other and bother the older goats by running and bumping them and then running away. The younger goats without horns challenge each other with head butting. They stand a couple feet apart from each other; rise up on their back legs and then lunge to butt heads. They do this over and over with seeming delight. This herd roams a wide area and has bells on their necks. Their two dogs seem more interested in moving the herd from place to place. Even when you can’t see where they are the bells tell you the direction. The bells themselves are discordant and off tune, but the sound still has its own charm. They have a tinny, metallic tinkling sound but the rhythm of the bells will tell you how slow or fast the herd is moving. Evening time when they are moving down the ridge in a single file they look like a miniature camel train.

What most interest me are the dogs that stay with the herds. They are beautiful animals. They were bred in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain to live 24 hours a day with a goatherd. They are large, weighing 150 pounds or more. They have a wide broad head with yellow and brown eyes like the goats they tend. They have a very light tan fur that can run to very heavy and long in the winter. From a puppy they are pared with a grown dog and put into a herd of goats to bond with the herd. The older dog trains the younger dog how to be with the herd. They will live with the herd all their lives. Their job is to protect the herd. In this terrain it is to protect them from mountain lions and bear. To see their fierceness when a predator threatens the herd is to see them turn from gentle herder to protecting killer. These beautiful dogs will live outside in any weather for the rest of their lives devoted to the herd they’ve been given.

Justin is the younger of the two dogs in the pasture below me. He will greet me when I come up to the fence now. At first when I approached he would rise up and bark powerfully at me. Once he got use to me coming and going I was no longer a concern to him. Bear is the older dog that Justin was pared with as a puppy. She whines when I approach her at the fence. Or, if she sees me in the distance coming down the road she will lift her head and whine. The whine is a kind of whimpering sound that says, "Give me some attention." When she was hurt and sent to the vet for a few days she whimpered continuously until they brought a goat to stay in the cage with her. After having the goat with her she didn’t whine anymore.

The feeling around these dogs is “aware” attention. They seem to lie around just like the goats, often some distance from the herd in the shade on a hot day. However, if there is any movement, any approach, they are immediately up and either rushing to the herd or to the intrusion.

All pet dogs were bred to do some specific work particularly when we lived in agricultural environments. I know few dogs these days that are trained to work other than sniffer dogs, police dogs or the Australian Sheppard. It seems the job of the animals I’ve had is to love and be devoted to me, and to be my companion, but more importantly to mirror me. Pets seem all too willing to be bonded to my neurosis. They take on my mental and emotional pain, my emotional quirks and easily sacrifice themselves for me. In the course of this great gift giving of themselves they to often lose themselves. It is wonderful to see the independence of these great goatherd dogs. They seem to stand at the threshold of the wild and domesticated animal, unwilling to give up either part of themselves.

Skyline Hermitage May, 06

Walking

I walk twice a day. I walk once in the early morning and late in the afternoon or early evening. My main walk is the mile or so down the road to the gate. This walk passes by the goat pasture, through the woods and down the great meadow that looks across the valley past Bullard’s Bar Lake and farther down the foothill range to the south. Sometimes I go out the gate and turn and go up the broken old asphalt road for another mile or two that lets me wander back into the tall firs and pines. My favorite walk is through the goat pasture and down into the canyon where the waterfall spills into a set of cascading pools. Mostly I walk the road.

I’ve noticed that the purpose of walking is walking. It can be for exercise, and I do it for that reason being in the cabin most of the day. I found, however, that I do it mainly to get out of my mind. I do it to ground myself back to my body to the here and now. A wise man once said that to look within is to see the vast emptiness of one’s being. To look without is to see that everything is being. To look within is to cultivate wisdom. To look without is to cultivate love. That has been the objective of my time in the hermitage. Both seem impossible at times.

Walking blends the inside and outside for me. Each requires an attention to be aware of my experience. Both require the access to the silence within the mind. Both require me to pay attention. It is easy for me to be lost in my thoughts when I am walking and not experience the walking or what is around me.

To help me pay attention I carry a mala in my right hand. A mala is a small rosary of beads that traditions have used with their prayers, chants and mantras. Mine is a hand mala. It has twenty-nine small beads and a large one. As I walk I slip the beads through my fingers. The purpose of my mala is to remind me as I walk to be moment to moment. The remembrance is to see everything from the trees to the ants. It is to remember to feel the breeze or the heat of the sun on my body. It is to smell the lilac and hear the birds. It is first to let my senses be full, but then to let my felt sense move out and feel the space I am passing through, touch the beauty with my heart, open to the glory that is more than my senses can perceive. Sometimes it happens in moments. The practice is to feel the feet touching the ground and reminding myself with the beads to be moment to moment. The big bead in the mala helps. If my mind is drifting into some cul-de- sac when my fingers bump into that big bead it brings back my attention of remembering: moment-to-moment.

One good thing about walking the same path everyday is that you can notice the subtle changes that are happening in the world around you. On a stump that I walk by everyday I’ve noticed a white bulbous growth against the black of the charred wood. It caught my eye the first time I walked past it because of the contrast between the white and the black. For several days it remained the same, but then one day I noticed that the bulb of white beginning to split and open from the middle. Today when I walked by most of it had broken off and mostly withered away. That is the story of spring here. Things bloom, flower quickly and then wither away to give itself to the next part of the cycle of life. One of the most dramatic and sudden appearances was the wild lilac that covers this part of the foothills. One day on my walk the bushes were shimmering in their new leaves. The very next day they had all burst out with their intense white flowers. The hillsides have been splashed now with a sheen of white. With the lilacs blooming the evening walks are wonderful. After the warmth of the day the light fragrance of the lilac floats on the breezes sweeping up the valley from the lake.

The morning walk takes me down near the gate where the next farm is. The sounds coming up from below are of the roosters announcing over and over that the morning has come, of the sheep braying and the tinkle of the goat bells as they head for pasture. There is something in these sounds that invites in me a longing for something outside my normal experience. I notice this longing as I walk. It is a pain in me of too many cars and plane trips, of a rushed and stressed out pace of life, and lack of daily quiet. When I hear these simple sounds from the farm animals they set off within me a resonance to the cord of joy in my heart that I long for.

A couple of times I’ve taken photographs on my walks. I like to do the photos because it sharpens my perception. It takes me deeper into the world by forcing me to see it from different angles as well as from a wide or narrow focus. The problem after a while of doing this is that I am more interested in the photographing than what I am seeing. I lose the feeling of what is around me with the camera in between myself and the world. I’ve played with that thought and realize that my eyes are nothing more than cameras. In some way I’ve distorted seeing what is really here before me. It gets filtered through whatever conditions my mind is holding that day. Many traditions say that we are living in a dream and that the work of our lives is to wake up from it. This is the problem I’ve been up against all my life.

The real mystery that has captivated me on my daily walks is the sense that the immensity of Awareness could actually be looking and feeling through me. This has been the work of these days in the hermitage. It has been the focus of my contemplation and inquiry into the patterns of my life and of my sitting. It has taken me many years to accept that it is not some mystical experience. The closest I’ve come to direct experience of this Awareness is a moment in which I hear the silence from which sound is emanating. Or it is a feeling that everything spreads out from me to infinity moving from me in all directions simultaneously. But most of all it is a remembering to be consciously open to what is happening all at once. The practice as I walk is to simultaneously be conscious of the volume of my body and the space all around it, at the same time to hear the birds, be aware of the sun on my face, the thoughts moving through the mind, the wind touching my skin and the state of my emotion. After a period of this practice I came back to what releases the effort and is very simple and remembering: walking is walking.

The Giant Oak

Down in the great meadow there is a giant oak. It stands just off the road with no other trees or bushes around it. It is probably 200 years old. It would take four or five people holding their arms and hands out touching each other to surround the tree. Its height is a hundred or more feet and the branches extend outward the same distance.

This oak reminds me of a gnarled old Zen priest in the drawings from Japan. Ancient, strong, rooted in life, sending out the reach of his wisdom in all directions. Every time I pass the tree I stop and bow to it. My eyes tear up and I thank it for all that it has seen and remembered over its long life. And I ask it to bless me. I don’t know if the tree hears me. Its presence is what commands my respect and my tears. Having been in old growth forests several times over the years I am immediately confronted by the feeling they give me. The largeness of the trees themselves are impressive, but it is the feeling of what they are, their presence, that they seem uncannily to communicate. The Druids of our ancestors worshiped these oak trees for this reason and believed the trees could communicate directly to them. I can believe it when I stand in the presence of this oak.

So, I bow to this aged oak in respect. I speak to it my thanks, and I salute the other trees across the road from it for their good fortune of being so close to it.

I don’t know why I bow to it. It is something that feels right to do. It is a form of lowering myself, humbling my body to know the truth of what I truly feel. In Soto Zen practice there is much bowing. One bows going though doors, before shrines, to ones meditation cushion, to fellow priests and students. In Soto Zen the attention to the form of the action is that it will take one to no form – to the emptiness of form. In bowing we seem to bow to ourselves as well as the other.

I realize now in writing this that it is the presence in me that I bow to when I feel the great presence of that old Zen oak. It is his great emptiness that I must feel in myself when I bow with tears of gratitude.

The Long View

The pounding of the rain on the roof woke me well before light. The rain played on the metal like a fine jazz drummer with all cymbal and wire brush. I lay awake listening for a while and then drifted back to sleep. Out of a dream that I can’t remember I became aware of the pounding of the rain again and saw that it was light. I got up for my morning sit wrapped in my shawl looking into the gray rain as it ran down the roof in front of me. Mist had sunk down into the ravine with the rain and the cocoon for me was complete.

After cleaning up the cabin, having tea and dressing I took the compost down to the goats for the last time. I would leave later in the morning, but wanted to take my last walk in the rain or not. Luckily, the rain had stopped and the clouds had lifted, but mist still hung in the ravines and valleys out to the horizon. When I got to the pasture the goats and the dogs were at the far end near where the road climbs up through the woods toward the big meadow. All the goats and dogs were huddled together under a cedar tree. When they saw me with the bucket the goats as well as the dogs came to the fence. I had put some treats from last night’s dinner in the bucket for the dogs and they immediately smelled it and the goats stood back while they ate.

I had decided not to walk all the way to the gate, but just up into the big meadow where I could see the full range of mountains to the south. On the walk last night I had stopped and gave my last bow to the old oak. I hadn’t planned to go that far, but the clouds and the mist and the occasional flashes of sunlight breaking through the clouds made the vistas spectacular. My feet seemed to just keep taking me forward. And there I was once again before the giant oak.

I did my thanks and bow once again, and then turned with my back to the tree looking out over the lake, and down range over the valleys and mountains shrouded in clouds with streaks of sunlight touching down here and there. I realized looking at this view that this is what the great oak has held through all the changes of nature’s storms and fires, winter snows and rains, animals being born and dying, and humans nurturing and destroying the land. As I looked south I realized there were millions of people stretched out before me on these lands that extended into the distant horizon. Like the tree behind me with its out stretched branches I stretched out my arms and prayed that all these beings would find happiness, that whatever pain and suffering they had would be healed, and that somehow in the midst of all the doubt, confusion and heart ache before me I would keep in my heart the long view of the great oak and be of service in some small way to the needs of the land and to the people.

Source: David T. Kyle

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