I’ve been stopped in my tracks several times over the past couple weeks by individual trees whose vibrant reds and yellows have made an early entrance to the fall landscape. This weekend we are moving into peak foliage, a time many of us consider to be the most beautiful of New England’s seasons. I know I’ll spend as much time outdoors as possible, taking in the magic of this fleeting period.
The colors of autumn serve as a reminder of the relationship between beauty and loss, between transformation and joy. Deciduous trees are going dormant, preparing to weather the winter with naked branches, bereft of foliage. At the heart of this loss is a truth: if trees didn’t shed their leaves, we wouldn’t have the beauty of this season. It is their state of impermanence that brings us so much joy.
This summer, I’ve seen that same lesson, the reminder of the beauty that lies at the root of loss, in the abundance of fungus that has sprung up through the woods. Fungus arises as part of the decomposition process, breaking down decaying matter in an ecosystem and returning nutrients to the soil. Plants and animals must die in order for fungus to thrive. The overabundance of rain this summer left me feeling frustrated at times, and yet the rain is part of what created the conditions for this incredible array of mushrooms. Even conditions which seem unpleasant can give rise to something wonderful.
This is the Buddhist teaching on impermanence (annica). While the concept of impermanence may be straightforward and easy to recognize, the experience of impermanence can be much more difficult. In the midst of loss, it can be difficult to see beyond the moment we are experiencing. We may feel grief, fear, or anger. This emotion can fill our field of awareness, trapping us in a state of dukkha, a state of suffering or stress. We are temporarily blind to everything else that also exists in that moment.
How do we look beyond that moment? How do we make space for the unpleasant and the wonderful at the same time?
The practice here is to loosen our grip on our discomfort. We don’t want to push it away or deny it. We just want to create a little room for other thoughts and emotions to coexist with our pain, our grief, our fear. We expand our attention just a little. We take note of the breath that moves in and out even as we are filled with sadness. We hear the call of a bird, the cry of a child. We watch the spiraling of one red leaf descending toward the ground. Our practice is to hold these two realities at once: the pain that often accompanies a loss along with the moments of beauty that exist because our world is constantly in change. When we can manage to make space in our hearts for all of this is when we find peace.
May each of you find the space this month to pause and witness the magic in this dynamic and fleeting world.