Fall  2009

Selection from


Autumn’s Way: Releasing and Simplifying

And I rose
in the rainy autumn
and walked abroad in a shower of all my days.1

A shower of leaves falling on a rainy autumn day. A glory and a grieving. An exaltation of color, then a rain of leaves. See them showering down, as a quiet rain. See them falling as spray lifting off a waterfall and descending, releasing and returning to earth — to the earth that is their home and ours.

In Autumn we sense a turning of the year. The rising currents of Spring and Summer have reached their peak. The falling energy of Autumn and Winter appears. Return to an earlier question: How shall we approach this side of the cycle? Shall we see it as decline and diminution or as something else? I suggest that we approach this arc of descent under a number of descriptions:

  1. simplification and return to nature

  2. letting go and letting be — becoming aware of thoughts and feelings

  3. forgiving and being forgiven

  4. letting go and letting be — returning to the Source

We shall explore each in turn. But first a reminder. I have been taking the four stages of life from ancient India and overlaying them on the four seasons. In this picture, the stage of Forest Dweller appears in the midst of the downward and inward energy of Autumn.

We might summarize in this way: The arc of ascent from Student to Householder is about accomplishment, about doing and striving and achieving one’s place in the world. The lure of fame and fortune urge us on. The arc of descent is about something else, a different energy, a different resting. We might think of it in this way:

  • In the first half of life, we strive; in the second half we release from striving.
  • In the first half of life, we seek to be somebody; in the second half we allow ourselves to be nobody (and perhaps — since we are less attached to one way of being and may understand others better — we may become, in a sense, everyman/everywoman as well).
  • In the first half of life, we look to power, prestige, and possessions to define us; in the second half we release from identifying with power and prestige and possessions. We allow ourselves to stand in the mystery of who we are as a unique reflection of all that is, already having all we seek, already being more than we can imagine.

The Autumn dynamic is similar to how Michelangelo spoke about sculpture. He said that making a sculpture was easy. All one had to do was find a block of marble in which the figure already existed and cut away what did not belong. In our case, even the metaphor of “cutting away” is too active. Perhaps better to say that we allow to fall away whatever was never who we really were nor are.2

1. The Call to Simplify and Return to Nature

Imagine the arc of descent beginning when a man or woman retires. In ancient India when one’s work life is finished and the children leave home, a person was invited to move from Householder to Forest Dweller. The first invitation to the Forest Dweller is to reconnect with the natural world. This has always proved renewing. Think of contact with forest, with wilderness and wildness, with the great ocean, with the sky-seeking mountains, with the vast stillness of the desert. To leave the bustle of city life and retreat to the more primal setting of nature itself.

A first practice in simplifying is to open our senses and reawaken our delight in simple things. Become reacquainted with the four elements dear to our ancestors: the earth, the water, the fire, the air. Examine rocks and minerals. Touch the good earth with its plants and trees. Realize that we, human ones, are companioned by the creatures of sea and earth and sky. All our kin. Surely this sense of situating ourselves in the great web of life, in the great family of all creatures, has never been more timely.

Poet Wendell Berry speaks of the healing powers of the natural world in his poem "The Peace of Wild Things":

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.3

In the West, the gentle St. Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of the Sun, spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Mother Earth, and even Sister Death. His counterpart in the East, the beloved Japanese Zen monk, Ryōkan Taigu, loved playing with the children and delighted with all forms of life. His death poem was this: “showing their backs, then their fronts, falling maple leaves.”4

We do not have to retreat to forest or mountains or ocean to return to nature. We can awaken to the beauty of simple things around us and within us. Indeed, the call for elders who are earth elders has never been more pressing. Two monastics in our time sound similar notes. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “interbeing,” and writes:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; without trees, we cannot make paper. . . . So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.5

Thomas Berry, also a monastic, speaks of the need in our time to shift from seeing nature as a collection of objects to seeing nature as a communion of subjects.6 Thus, the Forest Dweller both returns to simple elemental things and sees these beings as fellow creatures, as part of one’s own Great Family, able to be encountered as having an interior as well as exterior life.

First, a simplification. A return to the present and the presence of mystery at each moment. As the poet    e. e. cummings says, “Now the eyes of my eyes are open, now the ears of my ears awake.” Opening the senses in the present moment — this is one invitation to become Forest Dweller.

Second, a release that allows expansion. As we become less attached to roles and duties, ideologies and identities, the canvas of who we are can expand to include all our brothers and sisters and all our kin. This is a first paradox of releasing. The more I let go of specific definitions, the more freely and deeply I can participate with all beings. As we shed roles and identities to enter the zero point, we find we are already in a great communion or community. The Roman playwright Terence said: “I am a human being and nothing that is human is alien to me.” This is a beautiful embrace of the entire human family. The Forest Dweller can say more: “I am a unique participant in the web of all life and nothing in this circle is alien to me.” Willing to become nobody, I find I have become, in a certain sense, everybody.

2. Letting Go and Letting Be:
Becoming Aware of Thoughts and Feelings

Two Zen stories from among my favorites emphasize letting go.

A Western professor comes to visit a Japanese Zen master. The Zen master pours him tea. The tea begins to spill over the top of the cup and onto the table. Finally, the professor can stand it no longer. “Can’t you see it’s full?” he cries.

The Zen master pauses — and with the hint of a twinkle in his eye says: “That is the way you are. So full of your own opinions, beliefs, certainties. How can I teach you Zen?”

The invitation: Empty the cup. And the image here of emptiness is a central one to the Buddhist tradition. Let us explore it step by step. What needs emptying? The mind and heart. Emptying of what? From the mind: old ideas, beliefs, opinions, certainties, identities. From the heart: clinging, condemning, and identifying (identifying with our attachments and our aversions).

A second Zen story goes like this:

Once upon a time, two Zen monks were returning to their monastery after a long journey. As they came upon a swift running stream, a lovely young woman came toward them from a grove of trees where she had been waiting. “Noble sirs,” she said, “I am traveling to aid my mother who has fallen ill. She lives across the stream and to the south. But the stream is so swollen that I cannot cross for fear I shall be swept away. Will you help me cross, good   sirs?”

The elder of the two monks nodded graciously, picked up the young woman and carried her across the raging stream. On the other side, he lowered her gently to the ground. The young woman expressed her thanks and continued on her way toward the south. The two monks wished her well and turned to the north to continue their journey home. Neither spoke for an hour. Then the younger of the two said to his companion: “I have been wondering: Do you think that it is right and proper for us who are monks to touch a young lady, especially one so beautiful as she?” The elder monk smiled and said: “I lifted her up and put her down an hour ago. You are still carrying her.”

In all inner work, we can distinguish between (1) what is happening and (2) how we are relating to what is happening. We relate to something in two main ways:

  • through our intellectual meaning-making (how we understand, interpret, “language” life)

  • through our emotional value-creating (our liking or disliking, our attachments or aversions, our desires and fears, greed and anger)

Then, alas, we lock in our meaning-making and our value-creating by telling ourselves, “That’s just the way I am (or he/she is, or they are, or the situation is).”

Yet, we can learn to observe our language and observe our emotional responses — how we name things and how we generate desire and fear, allure and anger. We are meaning-makers and value-creators. On each of these poles, we can become fixed and fixated.

Still, there is hope. If we create the conversations in which we live, we can alter those conversations. We can let go of small-minded conversations and replace them with larger-minded conversations. If we generate our emotional responses to people and situations, we can alter those emotional responses. We can let go of small-minded, suffering-causing responses and substitute larger-minded, more beneficial responses.

In the story of the two monks and the beautiful woman, the elder monk represents the larger-minded possibilities in us. The younger monk represents the smaller-minded possibilities in us. Constricted thought forms, larger thought forms. Ego-centered emotional projections or compassionate empathy. If we are awake and alert, we can choose. Opening the mind and opening the heart gives everyone more room to be.

3. Forgiving and Being Forgiven — With More Room to Be

Letting go — as the waterfall releases the water, allowing it to fall joyously — airborne now, and still on its way to the sea. In this movement, this current, I see the Forest Dwellers participating in Autumn. Having released old stories and let go of greedy, angry emotions, something ever ancient and ever new appears.

When I release from identifying with my thoughts, with my ideologies and identities, then what lies at the depth in you and in me has a chance to become manifest. I see the dancer and the dance. I see the inner light, and bliss enters quietly.

We return to what is. And that is perhaps the most challenging of statements. Who are we and what is going on within and around and among us? I think of each person and situation as having a surface and mid-point and a depth. “What is” must be a large enough context to acknowledge the surface difficulties and the mid-level observations and the mysterious depth that has many names and no name.

Let us apply the lessons of Autumn to our relations with our parents. All parents gift and wound their children — our parents gifted and wounded us, and we gifted and wounded our own children. Furthermore, our dialogue with our parents — living or dead, in spoken words or in our heads — is never finished. Throughout our lives, we are comparing and sorting out. As we get older, as we have children, we may return to our parents with a bit more compassion. How young they were when they had us. How much they dreamed of how it would be. Gifts and wounds. As we get older, as we have our own children, we begin to recognize that:

  • some of what we once called” wounds” turned out to have been “gifts in disguise.”

  • some of what we once called “gifts” turned out to be “wounds in disguise.”

So I propose that we seek to forgive our parents. As we forgive our parents, we will find that we are forgiving ourselves at the same time.

  • Forgiving our parents for not being all they wished to be — for being often unskillful or confused.

  • Forgiving our parents for not being all we wished them to be.

  • Forgiving ourselves for asking the impossible of our parents and perhaps also of ourselves.

By forgiving parents I mean to recognize that they, like us, are limited human beings, often unskillful, not always able to bring about what they wished to do or be. When we let go of the impossible dream of perfection, when we drop our shifting — often conflicting — measuring rods, we may notice that in their very particularity, in their very struggle, our parents have a unique glory — one always there yet unnoticed by us except in moments. Perhaps we see anew the sacrifices they made and the persistence they showed.

To forgive in this context is to bow to parents exactly as they are at the surface and at the depth. It is to recognize in them all their surface disturbances, fears and uncertainties, hopes and dreams, weaknesses and avoidances. And it is to recognize their deep nature, their full unique beauty. It has been said that, for each of us, there is —in the other world —a stone with our true name on it. And we do not even know that name. To see our parents as God sees them is to see both their surface disturbances and their unique, unrepeatable beauty and inestimable worth. To see them as sacred and also imperfect.

No matter how often we see or remember our parents, we can always return anew. We can drop the old stories. We can come to them with a larger heart and more compassionate eyes. How do we enlarge our hearts or, to change the metaphor, how do we polish the mirror of the heart so that we may see more of what is there? One master said: “To polish the heart, smile and speak in kindly ways.”7 We can commit ourselves to doing that, right here and right now with regard to our parents — to smile and to speak in kindly ways. If our parents are with us still, we can do that in their presence. If they are no longer with us, we can do that in their absence.

4. Letting Go and Letting Be: Returning to the Source

Perhaps a “releasing moment” is joined with every “acting moment.” First, we practice acknowledging situations and people exactly as they are in surface and depth. The practice of releasing — of letting go —moves us to equanimity, to a state where we are able to be more attentive to our brothers and sisters and less blinded by our personal karmic formations. The Buddhist tradition speaks of the Four Immeasurable Abodes or Minds: love (or loving-kindness), compassion, joy (or sympathetic joy), and equanimity.8 All are interdependent. When we practice one deeply, the rest come along with it. Love deepens when it is sensitive to suffering and joy and finds a serenity in facing whatever comes. Compassion is enriched by love and joy and equanimity. And so for each. Yet in Autumn, I wish to speak especially of equanimity — a loving, compassionate, joyful equanimity.

Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century mystic, instructs us to think of equanimity as a hinge. The door swings back and forth but the hinge9 remains steady and constant and unmoved. Equanimity is both the practice and the fruit of letting go. It is to face whatever comes as containing a way through. Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” points the way:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing
     and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.10

The photographs illustrating this article are taken from the just-released book, The Spiral of the Seasons, which collects these "seasonal essays" by John Sullivan. For further information about the book, click here.

If we meet each with love, with compassion, with joy, then surely equanimity will arise. In equanimity, we shall touch all four abodes in the face of whatever arrives.

Yet there is a further movement — link it with letting be. This is a state wherein we rest at the source of all. Union, communion, unity, community, all are present. Or in a different narrative, God and humankind and all beings are experienced as a oneness and we are that.11 As the old Bedouin said to Lawrence of Arabia: “The love is from God and of God and towards God.”12 And we may enter the stream — where? There! Anywhere! At each moment and in each place. We can enter the stream and allow the deeper waters to bath us through and through.

In a first draft of releasement, we do the releasing and we create that which we release. In a deeper sense, we neither create the obstacles nor do we do the releasing. No “I.” No “Thou.” Nothing to release! Autumn is moving to the depth of Winter waters. And, in the waters, we catch a glimpse of the Sage-in-us.

The Zen Master Seng Ts’an offers a hint as he reminds us, “When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been.”13


1 See Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October” in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: 19341952 (New York: New Directions Books, 1957), p. 113

2 The challenge to those reared in a culture of doing is to stop seeing the tasks of Autumn as more striving — striving to let go! This confuses repression with releasement. The beliefs and roles that bind us are illusory to begin with. They never were the truth of things. Letting them go is waking up to that!

3 See Wendell Berry, Collected Poems: 19571982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), p. 69.

4 For more on Ryokan, see John Stevens, trans., Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan (Boston: Shambhala, 1996).

5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 95.

6 Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist order who recontextualized religion, education, commerce, and government in a cosmological or cosmic context. See his The Great Work (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), p. 16 and elsewhere, for the distinction between viewing the natural world as a collection of objects vs. viewing the natural world as a communion of subjects. See also his The Dream of the Universe (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988) and, with Brian Swimme, The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

7 I believe that this quote is from the Sufi teacher, Sheikh Muzaffer. “Sheikh Muzaffer used to say that every smile and every kind word softens the heart but every hurtful word or action hardens it.” See Robert Frager, Heart, Self & Soul (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1999), p. 62.

8 These Four Immeasurable Abodes (or Minds) — also known as the Brahma Viharas — are love or loving-kindness (maître), compassion (karuna), joy or sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha). I am following the treatment of Thich Nhat Hanh here. See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1992), pp. 169–175, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1998), pp. 1–9. See also Jack Kornfield, A Path with a Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), pp. 190–191, where he notes that the near enemy of love is attachment; the near enemy of compassion is pity; the near enemy of sympathetic joy is comparison; and the near enemy of equanimity is indifference.

9 See the thirteenth-fourteenth-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart’s short treatise On Detachment (Middle High German abegescheidenheit — releasement or letting go) in Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, editors and translators, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Mawah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 285–294. The “hinge” metaphor is on page 291. On Eckhart, see also Reiner Schürmann, Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001).

10 See Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 109.

11 As the Upanishads teach: Tat tvam asi [the One, the Ultimate] — thou art that.

12 See T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin and Jonathan Cape, 1971), p. 364. The quote is a favorite of the Notre Dame theologian and spiritual writer John S. Dunne.

13 Quoted in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1960), p. 271. See also Frederick Franck, Echoes from the Bottomless Well (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1985), p. 91.