My mother Nancy Wertheimer (most of us called her “Ma”) was the most kind, loving, generous, perceptive, compassionate and brilliant soul I have ever known.
She was on one hand a Harvard PhD psychologist and internationally renowned epidemiologist who uncovered the link between high-current electric wires and childhood cancer, on another a fantastically gifted painter, stained-glass artist and sculptor, and on yet another, a powerful and fiery woman who built several cabins herself from the ground up in the Colorado mountains.
And, with all this, she was also the very best friend I could ever have prayed for, with a ready ear for anything and everything, with great wisdom to share as life threw all of its crazy twists and turns at me.
About a month and a half after she passed, I felt her spirit come to me one more time to show me the blessing of the Infinite to which she had returned …
In the midst of recovering from a nasty bug that ambushed me in much the same way as my grief has in recent weeks, I went to the nearby woods of Maricara Park with Barkley to enjoy an extended “sucker hole” sunbreak (Northwest-speak for a short break in the clouds that lures unsuspecting victims out for a stroll just before the rains start again) in the late morning. As I made my way up the street, I saw that two of my dog-walking friends were also heading toward the park.
We joined each other and, as has so often been the case since Ma passed, our conversation turned toward Ma, what a great being she was, the unfortunate and seemingly unnecessary circumstances of her death from blood sepsis, and more. I noticed with some sadness that sharing my story about Ma’s passing (which I have done on SO many occasions in the past month and a half) has become almost a matter of rote. It was very difficult to see that one of the most significant events of my life seemed to be morphing into a verbatim synopsis of a series of events that had lost its power – at least in my telling of it.
After one quick circuit around the park, the other two humans and their dogs headed out of the park and back to their homes. I was going to head back home as well, but heard a strong voice inside calling me back to the park, even though my “prudent mind” was telling me to go back home and rest. Since I was still feeling uniquely energized and Barkley clearly had a lot more squirrel management on his agenda, I returned to the forest.
Coming back into the family of trees that have become such beloved friends and the clearest sign of being at home in Oregon, I noticed a special sort of inner luminescence in all of my surroundings. Mr. B was running around in his usual unswervingly cute way, and was experiencing a great deal of success in his trolling for squirrels – clearly the sunshine was urging them to engage the brightness of the day as well.
As we came around the bend by the creek running through the center of the park, I was quietly yet clearly called to turn left and back over onto a short trail that I had rarely explored before. Just after jumping over the creek, I saw a clearly lit moss-covered seat (made of a small section of a curled tree trunk) that beckoned me to it … no, it insisted firmly but with the utmost kindness and gentleness (as Ma would have) that I enjoy the sunbeams that warmed and illuminated this green cushion. As I sat down, I looked around and found (much to my joy) that I could not see any of the houses surrounding the park – I was fully absorbed into these natural surroundings, embraced by them and the unaccustomed warmth of the sun.
I fell instantly into one of the most powerful meditative states I can recall, feeling an absolute oneness with the grace, beauty and power of all that enfolded me in that moment. All colors took on a new vibrancy, and, for a moment, Ma’s words about her fascination with the differences in perceived colors following her cataract surgery went through my mind. All this and peace, peace, peace beyond all words, characterizations, concepts …
Slowly and with unprecedented mindfulness, I looked off to my right, with an inner knowing that I was about to drink deeply of unending beauty and love. And in a moment that was not a moment, I saw the glinting of a tiny bead of water in the forest soil – a bead that had within itself all of the colors of the rainbow, all of the depth of the universe, and, most powerful of all, the absolute essence of the light of Ma’s loving smile. In that miniscule jewel of water was the entirety of creation, held gently and sweetly by a Love that could no more be measured, defined or understood than it could be ignored by my heart. The seemingly bottomless blackness of the hole left in my breast since Ma died became an equally limitless vessel for receiving this Love.
As this Love poured into me, a squirrel chattering at the top of a nearby tree called Barkley to his true squirrel-herding purpose, bringing Barkley a level of joy and fulfillment seemingly commensurate with my own. With a smile as big as his face could contain, Barkley ran off to work …and I … I dived ever more deeply into this tiny water universe that continued to shine with the force of a thousand suns from the edge of a blade of grass embedded in the musty humus, mud and leaves.
As I softened my gaze, everything around me moved in closer, holding my shoulders, my feet and hands, ultimately my every cell with a motherly embrace, which I returned with utter surrender. All that ever was, is, or will be was brought together in that endless moment – still clearly totally centered on this immeasurably small rainbow sphere before me in the dirt. I was being pulled inexorably into its core even as my physical boundaries seemed to evaporate outward beyond my forest surroundings, the water in the creek below, the city, state, country, continent, the oceans … all of our world suddenly was no larger than this tiny water gem that had called me into it – all that I could possibly perceive in a lifetime was no different from this one sweet pearl of wisdom, water and Love that endlessly filled my heart and mercifully quieted my mind.
On one level, I thought that this moment too would pass, and that I would again be visited by sorrow, loss, the inevitability of change and endings … but I was able to witness myself clearly and lovingly in the same instant as I had this thought. I had been given the gift of the Timeless even as my mind latched onto the ephemeral. I was home.
I don’t know how long someone watching me would say I sat there … perhaps fifteen minutes, perhaps more. Certainly I was in no position to judge the passage of time. I would play with shifting my focus from my newfound water world to the trail, the trees, the ferns, to Barkley’s blissful countenance as he looked for his next dharma instruction from the surrounding woods. Then I would return to the jeweled globe on the forest floor, reveling in its subtle shifts in color and emphasis as the sun arced above the firs.
A few times I moved closer to this miraculous water orb, trying to measure its size or see how much the color would shift as I moved my head. All of these were as games of a child who feels utterly safe in the loving arms of his Ma – and all would fall back into the microscopic ocean before me, shining with the brightness of Sri that could never be denied, even as I was reunited in an endless instant with that macro ocean of creation that surrounded me, that WAS me …
This was the moment of my first real understanding of the first sutra of the Pratyabhijna Hrdayam (“The Splendor Of Recognition”), an eleventh-century Tantric text:
citih svatantra visva siddhi hetuh
“Absolute consciousness, in her essential nature as blissful freedom, brings about the attainment [existence] of the universe.”
(Note: I have taken some small liberties in my translation, but mostly to expand the literal definitions to clarify the meaning it holds for me)
This aphorism shares its roots with some interpretations that many now say are at the core of quantum physics as well, perhaps most succinctly stated by the sage Abhinavagupta (also of the 10th and 11th century):
“Nothing perceived is independent of perception, and perception differs not from the perceiver; therefore the [perceived] universe is nothing but the perceiver.”
Heavy stuff. Especially when I try to understand it with my mind.
But this is the essence of the gift I received – I FELT it. What happened in my thoughts and mind was only a distraction. And at the heart of all was love … the love of Ma, the love I feel for Heather, the love Barkley showers so abundantly on us, the aching love I feel for all of my family as Ma left our midst … the love that is fueled by no less an energy than that which brought all creation into being – the very Heart of God.
But back to the forest…
After whatever time had passed, I gratefully said goodbye to the tiny water world I’d been in, and Barkley and I joyously made our way around Maricara Park for a short time longer … all the while with a sense of fullness, gratitude, love and connectedness that still shines in me as I write this hours later. I was still feeling a little tired, a little sick from the bug that hammered me just as we returned home – but there was still this incredible luster to everything I was taking in through my senses. What TREMENDOUS joy! I began to believe that I was now coming to know the kind of pleasure that Ma would often get from seeing some small wonder of nature and allowing herself to experience it to her core; AHA! So THAT’S where the incredible light of her smile came from, I said to myself.
As Barkley and I finally reached the exit to the park, I paused for a moment to look around and see if there were more water worlds that would reveal themselves to me. Perhaps because of my expectation of finding such worlds in every branch, leaf, and pine needle around me, I could see none. Clipping Barkley’s leash on his collar seemed emblematic of going back to the world of limitation – a place or maybe a state of mind to which I was choosing to return. Once again, though, I witnessed myself as I made this choice, coming back to the realm that Ma so often would call the “low nirvana” – and a world that she professed was far more nourishing and sustaining in the long run than the “high nirvana” states we tend to yearn for.
As we made our way down the street again on the way home, now firmly re-established in the so-called “real world,” I started feeling sadness that I was no longer swimming in that tiny yet infinite water world. I looked ahead toward the crest of the hill and smiled as a car passed by, and the old woman in the car flashed me a grin that I hoped mirrored my own. It was as bright as this unexpectedly beautiful day in the midst of Oregon’s drippy gray winter. As I turned my head to follow the car as it turned left in front of me, my eyes were greeted by thousands of tiny water worlds glinting in the sunlight on the lawn of a neighbor I don’t yet know. And Ma was dancing with a joy that surpasses all understanding in every single one of them.