Friday, November 28, 2014

Zen Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is a good time to talk about pilgrims, right? But if I am being honest, as much as Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday--for recognizing gratitude, for spending time with family, for eating great food and falling asleep watching football--I don't give a rat's ass about the Mayflower pilgrims.

The pilgrims who are my spiritual kin are a more solitary folk. The live their pilgrimages and are astounded daily by life around them. They are people like Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen.

1973 was an epic year for pilgrimages. I was born in 1972, so I am going to say that was a cooler year, but let's stay on topic here. 1973 was the year Matthiessen and George Schaller went to Nepal, which is the story of "The Snow Leopard." We've been over that here. 1973 was also the year that Annie Dillard began to write "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," which takes place outside Roanoke, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have read Tinker Creek, loved it, and for some reason it called to me yesterday, to grab it from the bookshelf. Maybe it was the play on pilgrim and Thanksgiving.

This is what Dillard set out to do with writing her book:

I propose to keep here what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind," telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.

One of the things I particularly dig about reading Tinker Creek and The Snow Leopard alongside one another, is looking at the nature of the journeys. You can't get a lot more epic than Matthiessen--looking for the exotic, rare snow leopard, traveling across the world, sherpas and porters, a lifetime adventure. Dillard on the other hand, stays put. She goes for depth, not breadth. She dials in detail. She gets the rhythms of the place and internalizes them. She becomes part of the landscape.

It's the most beautiful day of the year. At four o'clock the eastern sky is a dead stratus black flecked with low white clouds. The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer's negative of a landscape. The air and the ground are dry; the mountains are going on and off like neon signs. Clouds slide east as if pulled from the horizon, like a tablecloth whipped off a table. The hemlocks by the barbed-wire fence are flinging themselves east as though their backs would break. Purple shadows are racing east

The thing about pilgrimages, in my mind, is it is the pilgrim that is transformed. The journey, whether around the world or walking around the creek, is a means for the exploration of self and the world.

While Matthiessen and his crew are camped in the mountains at 9,000 feet, he is thinking about his son Alex, who he had to leave home to make the journey. He talks about how Alex as a toddler would stand in his sandbox in an orchard, rapt, almost in a trance.

The child was not observing, he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through. Ecstasy is identity with all existence,..

There is something striking that in all our wandering, in all our activity, in all our busyness, that what we are all after is stillness. It's unity. Peace. "Ecstasy is identity with all existence..."

Matthiessen and Dillard are founding members of my Pilgrim Hall of Fame. They recognize the infinite in the everyday. The see that it is the mind that needs to be set in motion, as much as the body. And that there are different ways to go about each.

They explore themselves, their minds, their souls and the world around them. Not Thanksgiving pilrgims, but zen pilgrims.

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