Tuesday, July 1, 2003

How are we defined and shaped by the places we live?

My response to the latest subject being contemplated by the Ecotone blogging community.

When [a bhikku] dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.

-- Buddha, Mahaparinibbana Sutta

I am standing on a beach on the south east corner of Bowen Island in the protected cove of Seymour Bay. It overlooks the Queen Charlotte Channel that separates us from the mainland of continental North America. Out at the mouth of the channel, little Passage Island sits, battered by waves and wind rolling up the Gulf of Georgia from the southeast. To the east of Passage Island, the towers of downtown Vancouver rise in the distance against the darkening evening sky.

What becomes immediately clear is that this whole scene unfolds from the surf line at my feet moving further and further "out there." The limits of the view are defined by the rising peaks of the Cascade Mountains 100 miles away. I can take in the sight, but then I have to turn back to get home. It's clear that I don't live "out there" anymore. I live "in here" now.

This island is a rich psychological metaphor. We turn inward to go home, peering ever outward from our shoreline at the world beyond. Taking trips to the ends of roads that terminate in beaches that sink into the frigid waters of Howe Sound. Living beyond our boundaries is fantasy. Living within our skins is real.

Moving to an island affects us deeply. We cannot escape the idea that our connections to the outside world are severed, and we turn instead to the inner connections for our reliance and sustenance. For me, physically moving here was accompanied by an psychological and spiritual inward turning as well. It invited me to explore my inner resources and creativity. And this whole place is populated by many people who have taken this triple journey inward, so we invite each other to play with the notion continually. We hold storytelling sessions, coffee houses, concerts that marry classical music with Brazilian instruments and African dance. Poetry that accompanies art that depicts the landscapes we inhabit daily.

We are trained to wring meaning out of every experience. Our eyes become accustomed to reading the place as a canvas for the play of our spirits. We drink in observation and churn through ideas, looking for a myriad of ways to express ourselves. Our raw materials are the land, the people, and our connections. Our outputs are our art, our structures and our communities.

Everything about this island invites us to go inward. One cannot help but follow the physical journey with a spiritual one. We retreat into our selves, examine what we see there and find ways to bring it forth into the world. Being an islander does not mean isolation; it means knowing where your edges are and constantly creating connections, following trails and exploring details. You grow aware that the limited landscape in fact draws you deeper in so that it becomes an infinite journey through fractals of detail. The island and the soul become holograms, every part reflecting the whole and encompassing the perfect fullness of its presence. It's impossible to live for long on the surfaces.

Eventually, we take the shape of the island itself: windswept shorelines exposed to the elements, and rich and verdant interiors full of growth and solitude.

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