Walking along the Hudson River mid-day, it was unusually hot and humid in the city and I was feeling particularly sensitive and uprooted.
I walk daily and that day was different because I found myself taking an unfamiliar path, which I had been wanting to do for awhile. Somehow the lowness of my mood was the perfect prompt to just get off my usual route and drop into something unexpected. It can be that way in my practice sometimes, as well. There is a movement, internally, a kind of waking up from the sleepiness of habit that literally pulls, tugs, sometimes even propels me into what I like to call the shimmering space of spontaneity. I might suddenly take a different course—have the courage to depart from the plan and find myself almost giddy that I did not have to stay in that same familiar groove, no matter how much stability or comfort I found, or imagined I found, in it.
So I left the sidewalk that runs high along Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and descended into the depths of the park. Riverside Park is a long and lovely terraced space of green comprising many layers and levels that cascade down to the walking and biking paths that run along the Hudson River. Sometimes in New York, the concrete lines of the landscape feel somehow flat and predictable. The rectangular world of rigid steel and glass, though beautiful, can have a limiting effect on the mind. "The mind takes the shape of that which it rests upon" is a traditional saying (Buddhist, I think) that is apt in this context.
And though I love the city, and cities in general, there are times when I deeply long for the curvatures and irregular shapes of nature. So I left my usual path along Riverside drive, and walked down the arcing stairways into the forested park. I felt like I was stepping out of the NYC grid-time. The layers of park—some of which had been allowed to grow wild—felt more like a body, and a round and uneven one at that. And looking around at all the many shades of green leaves, I found myself tearing up.
Dropping still further down and under the highway I found myself on the banks of the Hudson River. I stopped and squatted down by the rocks and watched the water as it lapped up and collected into little mini rock pools, one of which would have been a perfect imaginary mountain lake for my dolls to swim in when I was a little girl. I remembered how easy and fun it used to be to let the mind and imagination run wild with whatever was available. Possibility abounds when the eyes and mind are open, as they often are with children, when through a leap of cognition a whole new reality could unfold at any moment. Most of the time these were little quiet imaginings—like how neat it would be to be miniaturized and be able to swim out into the middle of that clear little rock lake and float in the cool sparkling water under the warmth of the sunlight with no one around except my doll—and maybe a close friend.
That day along the banks of the Hudson with the sounds of cars along the West Side Highway, I felt a deep and familiar connection to the rocks and the water, to the shimmer of light that appears when I allow myself to merge into the world of nature before me, and within me. Why is it that we humans try and separate ourselves (if we do) from this nature, our nature? Why do we (if we do) long for a God, or a world, that is not this? Isn't this enough?
There are small placards or signs that dot the slope of Riverside Park that say "forever wild." I always smile mischievously when I see those signs. Something in me spreads out and opens its arms in recognition: "Yes! Forever Wild!"
This is one of the reasons I love the movie '"Buck" so much. Buck Brannaman doesn't try and break the horses he works with. He doesn't try and break their spirit. And I am equating spirit with nature here—an inner wild. Buck gains the particular animal's trust through profound respect. And in doing so finds his way into a unique dance where he says he becomes one with the horse—as if he and the horse are now one body, one organism.
Buck's approach was a radical departure from the accepted notion of how these animals were to be trained, or more commonly described as "broken." He did not want to break the horse or sever it from its horse nature. He gained the animal’s trust, and that made the dance possible. To break it would have been another thing altogether.
I have heard this term "break" used in reference to the teaching and practice of yoga, too. And I have personally experienced this type of pedagogy. Once a teacher actually said to me "I am waiting for you to get over your jet lag so I can break you." And I have witnessed (while studying in India) a beloved teacher of yoga demand that we "break our fear" and a student subsequently fell and broke her arm. Her fall might have happened anyway—we can and do fall—it is a part of the learning process and sometimes we do get hurt. That is art and that is life. But is there another way to work with fear, or resistance, that doesn't require such a "breaking?" I realize there are many perspectives and metaphors we can work with and there may even be times when a certain approach is effective. But can we work in a way that trusts and respects nature, and even the wild within us? Can we learn to dance with this wild, this spirit, and its many manifestations rather than desperately trying to sever ourselves from it? As if we actually could?
When I say the word spirit, I mean exactly that which is deep and natural within us—that which comes from and includes the wild. I know that this is not the way many people would define the word spirit. But I am describing something like what the Greeks might have called our daemon. For others it is the spark, the life flicker or shining inner light. And it may be unpredictable, ephemeral, and appear in forms that the photographer Sally Mann once described as that which is "as unrepeatable as a cloud."
"When I stand alone with the earth and sky a feeling of something in me going off in every direction into the unknown of infinity means more to me than anything any organized religion gives me." —Georgia O’Keeffe
(See below for the official trailer for the film "Buck.")