Untitled, Manuel Cancel, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 47.5 inches. Courtesy of James Graham & Sons, New York
Untitled, Manuel Cancel, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 47.5 inches. Courtesy of James Graham & Sons, New York

PEOPLE OFTEN TALK about being “alone in nature.” I find that odd. On the particular summer’s day I’m thinking about, when I was nine, with nothing to do but lie on my back in a farmer’s field in southern Ontario and gaze up at the blue sky, I was in the company of one yellow-and-black caterpillar; one very busy bee; three black crows perched in a dying elm tree; a battalion of ants; a gopher who thrust a little dirt, but not his head, out of his hole; several angry wasps who made a rushed appearance and then vanished; a throng of birds moving as one; countless creatures I could not see, but sensed; trees, grasses, vines, and all sorts of other plant life; and a brilliant sun that warmed me like an embrace.

This was the place where I was happiest as a child. Only a few minutes from our conflict-ridden family cottage, it seemed many miles away, safe and timeless. When I lay there on the rough ground and stared up at the sky, I could soak in the natural world with the “beginner’s mind” of a child. On those afternoons, I felt myself—in the being-ness of my body—an oasis of stillness surrounded by nature’s busyness. The stillness within me felt deeply related to the repose of the roots of trees, the motionlessness of rocks, and the cyclical stability of the seasons.

Now I am forty-nine. In the years since then, I’ve found other fields to lie in, real and metaphorical.

There was that field in San Bernardino, California. It was the fall of 1982. I was twenty-six, and it was midnight, maybe one a.m. I didn’t have a watch—I’d given it to the red-haired shaman who was overseeing my ceremonial burial, mysteriously, from half a mile away. Here was my purpose in the field that night: to lie in the three-and-a-half-foot grave I’d dug for myself. All night. To think about my own death and listen to the night. Having been away from the farmer’s field of my childhood for many years, I had forgotten what I knew, so I was expecting silence. Instead, those dark hours were as loud as the Santa Monica freeway at rush hour. The trees began creaking and moaning, and finally howling in whirling eddies of wind. As for the other strange noises, well, from that grave I could only conjure explanations. And conjure I did. Unlike the field of my childhood, only some of the busyness was in the environment—the rest was in my head. There in the dark, I was assaulted by words, images, conversations, fears. Rabbitlike, I quivered and shook all night. But in the morning I had the stillness back in me, finally. The field had restored it to me.

Then there was that field in Kauai, Hawaii, a patch of rough right on the coast. It was 1985, and I was twenty-nine. Sitting there twirling a piece of guinea grass in my hand, I watched the waves roll in. I had a journal and a pen, but I wasn’t writing anything. That may sound pleasant, but I had been cheating on someone I loved very much with someone I thought I loved even more, and I was having the kind of chest pain that takes you to the ER. The sun was beating down hard on me, a ferocious presence, and my head was full of plans and excuses.

Gradually, the roar of the waves and wind filled up my head and emptied it out. While it may have been too noisy to think, my heartache remained, and I stared and stared at the waves, hoping for a salvation I didn’t really feel I deserved. I stared long enough to notice, finally, not just the way the waves rolled, but the way they broke. A wave rolled and rolled, and thenbroke, in less than an instant. Then I experienced a small miracle, the kind that happens to people in pain—I realized that if I followed a wave, and could be absorbed in that instant of the wave breaking, I was all right, my chest pain disappeared. After an hour or so of this, a thought ran across the roaring empty space in my mind like a ticker tape: what moment is there but this one moment? Not theoretically, but empirically, phenomenologically? Then, as I sat in that rough field, everything slowed way, way, way, down. That one moment became the only moment, the eternal moment. I experienced, so very deeply, what I’d been learning about in Buddhist practice for many years: when you got right down into it, the stillness is here, now, continuously. I stayed by the shore until the sun grew low on the horizon. When the sun set, I had the stillness in me once more. I made my way home along the lava rocks, feeling as sure-footed as my nine-year-old self. From this place of clarity, I would face my indiscretions and the choices that needed to be made.

THEN THERE WAS that field of awareness more metaphorical than literal, the field of agony in which I lay when I herniated a disk in my back. I’d been stretching, leaned sideways about five degrees, and then—well, I can only say a whole new world opened up to me. Perhaps having a tooth drilled without Novocain comes close to the feeling. But to really comprehend my experience, you must take that feeling—which is confined to the jaw—and imagine it enclosing, like a vise, the area from your nipples to your knees. I gasped and fell to the floor. I tried to move but could not, since any movement took me into more pain, made me see little flashes of light and color at the brink of passing out. I lay there for many hours waiting for someone to come home to find me and take me to the hospital.

I am so grateful now that I was a longtime knower of fields of awareness: it prepared me for that agony. Because on that day I discovered there was a place—or maybe it was a “time,” an infinitesimal shaving of a moment—where the pain did not exist. This was the eternal moment I had discovered in Kauai. In those longs hours of waiting I discovered I could find, for a moment, a place without pain and, having found it once, I could then—even as I lay—try to breathe steadily and calmly and find it again. And lose it and then find it again. As a time-bound person, I was nearly vomiting with pain; when I could be in the moment, for a moment, there was no pain—just the ever-present moment of stillness. It did occur to me, lying there, that this was really what my life was like in its entirety: pain, panic, remembering to breathe, a moment of no pain, and then around and around again.

These are some of my successes. Yet over the years, I have fled, unsuccessfully, from uncountable sufferings—as the saying goes, I ran away but I took myself with me. Luckily, pain is an unflagging teacher. And I may have learned, finally, what it teaches. We twist in the turbulence on the edges of pain; in the eye of the pain is the stillness. In good times, I cultivate this awareness so it will be available when things get difficult. Meditation is invaluable but, for me, nature is an unfailing and gentle guide into the perfect stillness. Today I’ll go in search of another field on the daily walk I take with my dog. I think I’ll sit down there for a while.


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