I was fairly certain that I wasn’t dead. Upright and walking along the banks of the Arkansas River, feeling the sun’s penetrating, prickly heat on the back of my neck, breathing normally; it seemed I was still among the living. But a couple vultures insistently circled overhead as if they were clued in to something I wasn’t. So for fun I actually played with the idea that I had died in some mysterious way and was now experiencing life as a phantom. Could my breathless body be lying among the nearby trees, attracting the vultures? Can a phantom walk upright and breathe?
I sat on a nearby boulder next to the river, pausing to enjoy the beauty of this natural setting. Can a phantom enjoy beauty? If the vultures were correct in their assessment of my status then maybe phantoms could. I gazed at the river. The jewels of sunlight dancing on the surface and the music of it’s flowing motion eased the game of questioning whether I was alive or dead. More than easing the game, the setting actually eased any thinking altogether, quieting my normally restless mind.
Satori, a Buddhist term, is a sudden flash of awakening that temporarily obstructs the mind’s ongoing creation of an individual identity, leaving behind only a vast silence and spaciousness in identity’s passing shadow. In that silent flash of insight, what can be called Oneness with the ground of all being and all it’s countless forms, including any vultures who may be circling above, is said to be experienced.
I still wanted to play. Was Satori the first step in the afterlife journey? Instead of the Arkansas, could this be the River Styx whose banks I was resting on? Joining with the river, my mind at ease, thoughts were now more like passing gnats, easily discarded. Whatever was happening in that moment, life or death, seemed totally fine. Another mind gnat buzzed by, “Life and death are always happening, and it is always totally fine.”
I was falling into Oneness. But, like an unsuspecting river trout biting down on some fisherman’s bait, I was suddenly hooked out of the bliss of oneness and firmly pulled back into the groove of my usual identity as me, an individualized self, separate from everything else. The game abruptly ended. Yes, I was still very much alive. But what had pulled me from fully entering satori? The answer came quick. In the midst of bliss my eyes had landed on a couple discarded beer cans jammed into a crevice of the boulder. “How can people be so ignorant!” I angrily asked the vultures. Anger is a powerful force that keeps one’s individualized identity intact. I guess you can’t be pissed off and awake at the same time.
So there I was, me angry at, and therefore separated from the ignorant person or persons who had unthinkingly left behind their garbage in this beautiful place. The question that had yanked me back from whatever heaven I had been enjoying kept demanding attention. “How can people be so ignorant?” And then I got an answer. Though I’m not sure of its source. Perhaps it came from the vultures. “They share the belief that they have dominion over all things of the earth.” Of course. The Book of Genesis, a manmade, Bronze Age God’s instructions to man, so often used to justify the infliction of horrific ecological destruction in the name of maintaining the hierarchy, amen. It’s OK to leave some cans behind because we rule over the earth. God up there, us on the ground, God’s Word in our hand, bound in genuine leather if we can afford it, wielding our dominion over the rest of the planet. Separation, separation, separation.
I looked up and saw the vultures still circling above me. Another question entered my consciousness, one that I had actually been asked some years before and was now repeated, “Are you nature?” That’s one hell of a question. All the evidence of interdependence, connection, the fact that I need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and so on, would seem to indicate that I am dependent on, and therefore a part of nature. But the prevailing belief is that there is a God up there who tells me I am not that which I am destined to have dominion over. And, since I am the boss of this place, it’s OK to litter, to fill the air with filth, to drive the noble orangutan into extinction because palm oil works so well in my processed foods, and so on. God will take care of things. That manmade image of God is the supreme servant of the hierarchy.
I realized that this was some pretty heavy musing over just a couple of discarded beer cans. But still, I wager this idea of mans dominion is at the root of our careless actions that are destroying our lovely home bit by bit. It’s how we roll. “God will take care of things,” is the most profound statement of denial ever uttered.
I returned my gaze to the river, releasing the anger, allowing my attention to empower the river as the river empowered me. The vultures continued to wait patiently for their meal.
“Are you nature?” is a very silly question if you really inquire into it. “Is the sky blue?”, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”. As nature, I knew that the vultures would enjoy their meal sooner or later, whenever that particular wind of my death found me, and that is a good thing, a natural thing. In the meantime I will endeavor to avoid ignorance, which only empowers the perverse idea of dominion over life by an individualized identity believing itself to be separate. And I will also endeavor not to get so pissed off, which is just ignorance celebrating itself.
The vultures didn’t seem to have a thought on the subject one way or another and just continued circling above.