Autumn, with its initial warmth and vibrancy, is the steady fall back into the cocoon of darkness and the fertile soil of regeneration.
The sun sinks, leaves begin to fall, the land takes on the brown, ruddy hues of harvest, and animals prepare to hunker down or embark upon arduous migrations to warmer regions.
For us, autumn is a time to celebrate the fruits of labor and appreciate the soft lighting against the scenery of the world. But it’s also a time to pay our respects to the darker part of the great cyclical process of existence, the necessary sacrificial descent and decomposition of the living for new life in spring.
From this viewpoint, the light warmth of October clings but a little longer and we’re reminded of the natural cycles of the earth as well as the mind. Patiently sitting with the dying and feeling the first cool rains, there’s a great deal for our minds to digest and quietly devour underneath the quietly transforming branches of foliage.
Mindfulness is witnessing the present moment both internally and externally. And it is this witnessing that leads to the uncovering of an innate wisdom buried within each human being. As seconds tick and events pass through time, how we greet and move with the flotsam and jetsam of life affects our relationship with the world and the quality of our experience.
Being open to what comes into our lives—whether it’s an apparent misfortune or the passing of summer’s bright warmth into the transformative belly of autumn—connotes a certain degree of patience and a deep sense of trust in the unknowable ways of vastness. In patiently losing ourselves, our color and our leaves, we can sit with the source of giving and taking, and wade into the depths of equanimity.
While we go about our days and live through the seasons, massive tectonic plates inch across the earth and stoic peaks slowly erode toward the ground on which we walk. Majestic redwoods with their concentric stump rings grow into towering monoliths that sway with passing storms and soak in the rays of the sun. Throughout the growth and decay, there’s a steady, patient flow onward.
Even the lighter accoutrements of our human existence—a good oak barreled Rhone wine, the wood intermingling and seeping into the chemical composition of the harvested crushed grapes, or a slow cooked rosemary tinged roast—take time to reach their perfected, ripened states.
Tapping into patience—the natural savory flavor of things—could allow for a cultivated sense of understanding capable of opening our hearts to the natural process of living and dying, flying and descending.
The cycles of the seasons and the ways in which sun and storm intermingle above us, sustaining the balance all the while, might be interesting to examine and bring into our experience.
The prolific nineteenth century poet, John Keats, admired the qualities of autumn—the moments of “thusness” that could only appear during these final months when the sun hung low over the “last oozings” of the year and the townspeople engaged in the final reaping of nourishing crops.
Wrapped within the beauty of the sights and the nutrients of a lush harvest, Keats acknowledged the keeper of death, waiting along the edge of a poppy infused perception: As if, within the warmth and the bounty, there was a lulling into a final sleep, one that was so precious and necessary for the continuation of existence. Ups and downs recycle, life fluctuates, and the seasons continue to change:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
~ To Autumn (1820)
After taking in our fill of bounty, winter comes to bring the earth back to slumber.
Patiently, steadily, autumn persists and slides onward into the rumbles of rain and cold—the elements which hold their own necessity. Keats, who was also near the end of his short life, sat with the descent and relished the qualities of nature that went hand-in-hand with the coming darkness. We can see this in the lines, “Where are the songs of spring?… Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.”
In all its grandeur and rustling leaves, autumn heralds the lulling sleep before transformation—not unlike our fall into the dreamworld of the night—to bring about the rise of a new day hidden somewhere beyond a thin veil of darkness.
Autumn implies twilight and change, and thus an intimate encounter with the notion of death or loss. If witnessing and remaining present are the principle activities of mindfulness practice, then this means delving into what is here, even if that “here” signifies losing something precious. A Japanese poet and Zen practitioner, Shiki, described his encounter with the changing season as well as his advanced age when he wrote:
Autumn wind is blowing
We are alive and can see each other,
You and I.
In this poem, rather than back away, Shiki moves toward what’s occurring in his life. There’s a meeting between autumn and him that feels as though two old friends are embracing one another in the cold moonlight. I enjoy this interaction because it shows the mindful, vibrant mind as it faces something dense and rough—the prospect of cessation and the cold winds blown down from the north. Taking in the present moment with vigor and patience while relishing the experience of what is, the poet embraces the life that is here.
I see Shiki reverently acknowledging the vastness, but I also see him with a little smirk and a slight chuckle, as if he is saying, “We are alive and can see each other, you and I. I see you because you and I are both perfectly here.” That sense of humor and connection stems from a real intimacy with the present: something we might wish to cultivate in our lives.
The autumn wind isn’t just age, it can also represent the times when things are being stripped away from us: our egos, cars, a lifestyle, money or a partner. It’s much easier to sit with spring. So the question is, how are we when the autumn wind is blowing? And what about when objects and interests are ripped away from our clutched hands? This is something to examine each day: How are we when the autumn wind is blowing?
Life is cyclical, just look around.
It’s best to be with what is here because that experience is all we ever have in this “saha” world of ours as Buddha referred to it.[i] Each moment, each encounter with demons, laughing children, or the changing seasons is part of one existence. If we are to inhabit the present moment then this implies being able to relish the life that is here even when autumn gives way to the grip of winter. Patience is a virtue in this sense because it allows us to understand the place of autumn in the context of the seasonal cycle. Through patience, we just might live our way into openness… then any season could be a good one for us.[ii]
Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing
scene of autumn.
I have said enough about moonlight,
Ask no more.
Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no
~ The Zen Buddhist nun, Ryonen
When the movements of life and the silent voice of the redwoods—the energy behind the manifestations—sustains you, then you might see the world through Ryonen’s eyes and walk upon the ground with her feet.
Nature is our greatest teacher if we wish to uncover wisdom.
[i] The line comments on the dreamlike, fleeting, or illusory nature of the manifestations of the earth, which leads to suffering for the mind that is ignorant to the oneness of life. The term doesn’t mean that what is here isn’t real, rather it emphasizes the utter “quickness” of life and that in the end, we’re all manifestations of the one background—the one energy.
[ii] A reference to one of my favorite Zen poems:
Spring comes with its flowers, autumn with the moon,
summer with breezes, winter with snow;
when useless things don’t stick in the mind,
that is your best season.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger
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