Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Beach at Otter Rock

We go to a narrow, protected beach in the summer, between two promontories. A little waterfall drops down to a pile of giant pick-up-sticks dirftwood, and then meanders as a stream down to the sea. Its course is always different, shifting from day to day as the tide remakes the beach. Sometimes it swoops sixty yards south, sometimes sixty yards north, on its way down to an outcropping of rock where the gulls gather and the surf pounds.

The kids and I love to try to change the course of the stream. Often we see evidence of others having tried, usually by damming it up with the head-sized rocks that are plentiful in its bed. They haven't often succeeded.

We do it more cleverly. We pick our place carefully, and begin digging an alternate course. The water washes into it, stirring the sand and making digging the next bit easier. We dig the next bit, which makes the bit beyond it easier. Soon we have a little trickle taking an alternate course down the beach. Now it's digging its own way. And now it makes sense to start dropping rocks into the main channel -- the water has a different way to go, now. Every obstruction in the main channel diverts more water into our channel, and digs our channel deeper. We never even try to block off the main channel. But we come back in the evening and the main channel is dry. The stream's in its new course.

That, really, is what practice is like. There's no way to just change the course of our mindstreams by brute force, by trying to shut our old habits down. And there's no way to just pick it up and put it someplace else. When we start digging the new course it looks like an impossible task -- who could dig that streambed out all the way to the ocean? But that's to forget two things. One is that the stream wants to get to the ocean. Its tendency is always oceanward. The second is that once the smallest channel is begun, the water begins fretting it and enlarging it. It's just the nature of water, and it's the nature of mind, too.

I said earlier that what turned my mind one way or another was the accumulated weight of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. But that's not true, really. It's the force of the mindstream that's been skillfully nudged toward a new bed by those practices. It's not the practices themselves. They're just little scratches in the sand.

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