Stages

The Wisdom of Fall

A circle has no beginning and no end. It is ceaseless motion, an endless orbit around the still-point of the center. As the earth spins around the sun and shifts on its axis, shadows lengthen and the halcyon glow of summer grows dim. One by one the seasons take their turn, bringing us here again to the season of surrender. All the hallmarks of fall are upon us – school, football, and the turning of the leaves. With the certainty of death, things that once seemed so invincible – bright fields of ripening corn, hot July sun, the flush of summer love – fade away and lose their luster. It is time to settle down into the wisdom of fall.

Let go. “All forms arise and all forms fade,” taught the Buddha. Embracing the inherent impermanence of forms is the work of all who would be wise. Autumn wastes no time on subtlety, loosening the dry leaves from the trees with callous abandon, tossing them to the street where they flow in long rivers of red, gold, and amber, clattering like bones, gathering in eddies against walls where they slowly turn to dust and slip back into the soil. We see the sky anew through the bare branches and feel in our gut its infinite reach. We come to know that in our lives too everything we have built, cultivated, nurtured, and grown will come to an end and be taken from us – a slow fade followed by a sudden gust. Renunciation or letting go is the hardest lesson to learn. We understand it intellectually, but to actually do it? Nothing requires more courage. But in the low light of autumn, we see from a fresh angle the inevitability of change and loss, and we choose to say yes.

Be Grateful. Fall helps us shift away from the agitation of grief and toward the serenity of gratitude. We see how graciously the earth releases its grasp on the forms of summer and allows the withering to begin. We know that we don’t own any of this, all of it is borrowed, and the tighter we cling and grasp, the more painful the separation. Loss is certain. Our only choice is to grasp or release. We set the tone. Will our losses be graceful or wrenching? Instead of clinging and craving, we choose the consciousness of gratitude, the open-hearted joy that we even got to touch any of it, that we had these hands to hold, these eyes to see, this beautiful laughter, that afternoon when we walked on the beach and finally had the chance to say those important things to each other, these sweet late summer peaches, the blue moon of August rising through the pines, all of it a gift, none of it ours to keep. In the face of this great and ongoing loss, the only sane stance is deep and boundless gratitude for the infinite generosity of our lives.

This is beauty too. Beauty isn’t just the flowers of spring or the green fields of summer. This tawny grass and the brown ferns and the bare trees of autumn hold their own beauty – empty, clear, simple, provocative, pure in form, and deep as the ocean. Holding the spotted, wrinkled hands of our elders, wiping the drool away from the mouths of the dying, carrying our old dogs that can no longer walk out to the car for that last ride to the vet, the pale distance in the eyes that no longer see us or know our voice, this is beauty, too. One of my favorite memories of my father, the last time I saw him at his house, was the day I shaved him out on the patio. He sat quietly in a chair and jutted out his chin as I ran the electric razor over his sunken cheeks and the loose skin of his neck. At 90 he no longer fit the youthful stereotype of beauty. But I saw an amazing man there behind the fog of his Alzheimer’s and the veil of his grizzled face and wrinkled skin. Autumn shows us that there is beauty in every stage of form, from conception to dissolution. Why should one moment be more valuable than any other? Every moment is a window into the infinite, and the infinite is the source of all beauty.

Nothing ends. “There never was a time when you did not exist, nor will there ever be a time when you cease to exist,” said Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. In the perennial philosophy there is a deep and unshakable conviction that while outer forms come and go our essential nature is timeless. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in Stillness Speaks, “Death is not the opposite of life. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” And Joseph Campbell asks, “Are we the light bulb? Or are we the light, of which the bulb is a vehicle?” All around us the Grim Reaper takes his harvest, but Life itself is unharmed and is in fact served by the pruning, just as a rose bush blooms best in spring if last year’s dead wood is removed. Flowers blossom and fade, but the rose goes on.

Returning to our roots. As the brash colors of summer seep from the world leaving a hundred hues of beige and grey, life’s essence slips beneath the surface. Plants and trees withdraw their energy and settle down into their roots. No longer outward turned, we too go within and touch that sacred center from which we and all things come. Tending to the source means leaving aside our busy lives and growing quiet, trusting the world to carry on without us – we won’t be missed as much as our egos think we’ll be. This is the paradox inherent in the deep realization that we are at once nothing and everything. The quiet music of our eternal nature is easily drowned out by the noise of the world. But inward turned, we gradually hear the one song of the universe playing in us, through us, as us. To be liberated and returned to one’s essential nature is the yearning of every soul, and only in the stillness of autumn can we feel in our hearts this ancient longing, and heed its gentle pull. As we learn to be still, we return to our authentic being, what Zen Buddhism calls our Original Self. It is a sacred homecoming of healing and restitution.

The joy of surrendering. Autumn is commonly met with melancholy. This needn’t be. Only from the perspective of spring and summer does autumn seem sad. From the still point at the center of the circle, each season has its place in the great turning, and is in itself a celebration of the whole. Autumn is a time of freedom. It is joyful to be free of the old forms that encased us. It is delightful to walk on unencumbered, beholden only to the yearning in our heart for what’s next. So insidious is the process of attachment that we never realize how heavy our load is until it is taken from us. As the Zen saying goes, “How refreshing, the whinny of a packhorse unburdened of everything.” With open hands and open hearts we walk on, grateful for the blossoming of spring, the bounty of summer, the liberation of fall and the restoration of winter, knowing in our bones that each season is a stage in a great and infinite unfolding. This is the wisdom that each of the seasons gives us. This is the secret for which we have so long toiled. These are the best days of our lives. These are the hours of our amazement. This is the moment of our awakening. We are grateful, and head over heels in love with every drop of rain, every budding branch, every falling leaf and every flake of snow. We stand in the center of it all and say yes.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterhbolland), or write to him at peterbolland@cox.net

  • September 2016

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