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A dead fox has been dredged from Regent’s Canal. I too might die like that, in the flush of health by some slight accident. Will death be like that? Humiliating, unexpected? Both, I suppose. It has been raining and there are two drunks up ahead. One calls out to me: ‘Watch out for the snails, Miss’. He is bending over, moving the snails off the path. Sympathy for the downtrodden.
Spring is hard: it is relentlessly blithe, and I am quite the opposite. In winter there is licence to feel melancholy, it is the most appropriate emotion for the season. But sadness still grips me even as the lambs skip and the small birds sing and the incongruence is acute and hard to bear. As the season gets fully underway the tussle ends and I too am happy, but suspiciously so. The scent of blossom, the sun’s light through new leaves, the promise of I don’t know what, have me enchanted. I surrender! Spring casts her spell, optimism no longer seems such a dangerous lie.
One night when I am away from home, for no apparent reason the feeling comes once again, stronger than ever. I wake in the night in the midst of a profound pleasure. It is as though a blazing bonfire has been lit some distance away and I am able to bask in its heat. I neither see the bonfire nor know about it – all I know is that the warmth I enjoy is coming from somewhere else.
Back in London I am attempting to paint the cherry blossom, third day in a row. As soon as I open my watercolours and begin to concentrate, a gang of kids, mostly girls, whirl in and begin to pull at the branches, shaking the blossom down in torrents. They run from tree to tree, filling the air and covering the ground with petals. The tree I am sitting under doesn’t escape their grasp. I feel like I am in some daemonic snow dome. Shouts drift out of the throng: ‘It’s breaking!’ (exultant). ‘Shake this one.’ ‘I don’t care!’ There is some tentative swearing – they are testing their wings. ‘That’s actually nature’ (a lone protest). One girl comes up to me, breathless. ‘Sorry for destroying your artwork.’ Someone gets pinched and cries.
I am encountering the familiar problem of over-working my pictures. Intent on showing the difference between the evening-sun-lit petals and the rich shadows around them, I put too much paint in the dark areas and the pictures become heavy-handed. Too much focus makes the beauty become ponderous. How to restrain myself and keep a light touch? The question is relevant beyond painting, and both the children and I need to learn the same lessons.
After an hour, the kids are still around. ‘Are you an artist?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do people know you?’ I am puzzled until the question is rephrased: ‘Are you famous?’ No. ‘Still, it’s a nice way to earn a living.’ If only. The next day the rain comes, straight down and heavy, decimating the blossoms, spearing petals to the ground.
At the Monday night class at the centre, Jnanavaca is demonstrating that all experience is mind-made. What we think is ‘out there’, the world beyond our body, is actually just a creation of the mind in response to certain stimuli. It’s not that nothing is happening out there, but that it isn’t as we believe it is. We divide the world up into things that are mine, things that are not, things we want and things we don’t want. We do this to protect ourselves against the precarious nature of our own existence, and it has its uses. But fundamentally it is a delusion which doesn’t protect us at all (see drowned fox, cherry blossoms).
What does this mean? Implications flicker in and out of my awareness and I feel like I am teetering on the edge of something wonderful. The class reminds me of what first excited me about Buddhism. Walking home I remember those early encounters and the discussions I had with my boyfriend of the time about the mind’s deceptive nature. If I took over his head (he didn’t like that idea), maybe I would discover a whole world of experience that is totally different from mine. Maybe we even experience colours differently? How would we know?
He wasn’t having any of it: ‘You aren’t going to tell me that red isn’t red.’ Almost accusatory. His gut instinct was that there would be repercussions to this kind of questioning and that it wasn’t safe. My method of self-preservation was harder to spot. I did what Jnanavaca and others warn against, which is to crystallise this sort of exploration into a satisfying conceptual framework which then becomes a block to deeper insight. These thoughts emerge during my four-minute walk home from the Buddhist Centre. Funny to think of those days, me then, that boyfriend, the time we spent together.
At home all is quiet and dark. I live in a Buddhist community of twelve, all women. We have had a few changes recently and I am not yet certain of everyone’s rhythm, of who I am likely to run into and when. One thing I can rely on is that there is always dinner waiting on the side. I eat quickly, as I always do when I am alone, and go to bed.
I am travelling back from a solitary retreat in the foothills of the Pyrenees and have a few hours until my train. The day started with a change of pace from the timelessness of the preceding days: hurried packing and a hurried goodbye to the place I have become so intimate with.
My French is not very good but I have learned some new words: ‘loir’, the squirrel-like dormice that would visit my room each night on my retreat. Also ‘grève’ – strike. This word I picked up on my way to the retreat, when on the first day I only got as far as Paris. I texted my friend Vassika, hoping she was in town. She replied immediately: ‘Yes of course you can stay, come to the Buddhist Centre.’ So after Sangha night at the Paris Buddhist Centre I found myself eating sorbet in Montmartre with Vassika and her other guests. The tiny flat was busy that night and I shared a bed with Barbara from Spain, en route to her ordination in England. She was travelling with her preceptor and both were dressed symbolically in blue. We said our goodbyes at bed-time and just a few hours later I crept out into the dark morning to catch my train.
Now I am sitting on the grassy slopes surrounding the fortress of Carcassonne, looking west over the roofs and treetops, adjusting back to the world of people. The retreat has done its work and for now, at least, I am happy, not a hint of suspicion! Late that evening I catch the night train back up to Paris. People are already asleep in their berths, it is dark and there is no space to move, so I climb into the bed in my clothes. And so, lying awake for most of the short warm night, I go from forest to town. ■