Beyond The Hell Of Paradise
It’s been five years since a hellish wildfire burned down Paradise in less than a day. The conflagration killed 85 and incinerated more than 15,000 homes and businesses in the nearby mountain town. Though mostly rebuilt and only 20 minutes away, I hadn’t been through there in three years.
The obvious signs of the devastation are gone now. However the pine forest, which gave the town its character, is also gone. Stumps by the thousands line the slopes into and out of Paradise, a desolate testimony of the destruction that was and will be if global warming continues unabated.
The thick stands of conifers have been replaced by bare slopes peppered with innumerable burned trees, presenting haunting views of surrounding ridges in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Beyond a grim and sad reconstructed Paradise, beyond the countless stumps and charred pines left standing in the slim hope of their regeneration, we arrived at the reservoir. It was like parachuting into another planet, the earth as it used to be.
The lake was full from recent run-off, and somewhat miraculously after the disheartening drive, unbroken stands of unmarred conifers stretched up to unseen ridges. Instantly you felt the intense beauty and stillness of the place. Passing through remnants of hell, we had entered a patch of heaven.
Other than three young Asian fellows fishing in front of the parking area, the place was empty. Passing a sign warning of a recent mountain lion sighting, I walked in on the wide trail that traces the reservoir.
Taking a seat on a bench overlooking the widest part of the lake, I was immediately awestruck by the silence of the place. Paradise Lake is still an unintended, Arecibo antenna focusing the immanent sacredness of the universe. That indescribable essence is there to be received by anyone who attentively listens until the noise of the human mind yields to pure awareness.
A single duck slowly paddled about 200 meters away, throwing a long, slender, V-shaped wake. A woodpecker tapped behind me, and a loon trilled in the distance.
The water’s surface, which held small ripples from a light breeze upon arriving, became like glass as the wind died down completely. I found myself holding my breath for some seconds at a time as the stillness and silence deepened and penetrated within.
The stillness and silence became slightly discombobulating, and primeval fears of total emptiness bubbled to surface. Passively watching and remaining with the fear of emptiness brought forth by the stupendous scene and soundscape, thought and self let go. Thought is a necessary thing, but a total impediment to perceiving and receiving essence.
One hour of true meditation is worth more than a month torturing oneself in a “silent retreat.” Meditation is not an escape from the world, but the wellspring of insight into one’s relationship and responsibility in it.
Two women walked by on the path behind me, gabbing away. Fully two hundred meters down the path I could still hear every word of their conversation. A truck with a boat in tow backed into the launch across the lake, fully half a mile away. The driver left the radio going as he launched the small boat, and the noise, like the noise of irrelevant thoughts, felt sacrilegious in the silence.
But the electric powered boat was soon anchored out in the lake, where two people began fishing. (No gas motors are allowed, since the reservoir is Paradise’s drinking water. Nor are dogs fortunately.)
Meditation has no meaning if it’s merely about “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” or some other system for tranquilizing or hypnotizing the mind and brain.
Driving down the hill, a conversation that morning with a neuroscientist, famous for studying the effects of meditation on the brain, came to mind. When I mentioned that I take meditations in nature, he dismissively replied, “Nature is unknowable.”
As a scientist that’s made laborious measurements of monks and others in long, silent retreats, knowledge has the only meaning. What cannot be measured cannot be known, and what cannot be known falls outside the ken of human experience, and is therefore unimportant and dismissible.
However it’s actually exactly the opposite. The ultimate unknowability of nature and the universe allows the self-knowing person who is observing himself or herself in the mirror of nature to leave the prison of the known.